The Designer As Editor

Wallpaper* creative director Tony Chambers has just been made the magazine’s editor-in-chief. Jeremy Leslie asks him about this unprecedented switch of roles and his future plans for the titl­e

 

Every few years, a magazine launches that so perfectly reflects its time that it becomes an icon, a mirror of that time. The last couple of decades have seen several examples: The Face, i-D, Loaded, Glamour and most recently Grazia spring to mind. They have all come to mean more than just a magazine, their names being used in adjective form to describe related trends by their fans and critics alike.

Slotted between Loaded and Glamour in that list would be Wallpaper*, a magazine that has received more than its fair share of criticism. Launched in September 1996 by founder/editor Tyler Brûlé, it quickly established a reputation as the ultra-cool style bible of the design-conscious, wealthy, urban singleton. Brûlé was their role model, living the jet-set continent-hopping lifestyle so often attributed to the magazine’s readers. If the look of Wallpaper* was unlike anything else at the time, combining the then lost art of editorial illustration with highly stylised fashion photography, the content, too, was strikingly different and perfectly timed. The Scandinavian-influenced modernist design ethos featured in its pages appeared at the perfect time for the 90s warehouse-apartment dwellers, while the internet and cheap EasyJet flights made travel to see the real thing a less exotic possibility.

Wallpaper*, however, suffered the fate of so many independently-launched, ground-breaking titles. The strength and timeliness of the vision behind the project made it hugely influential on other magazines and newspapers, who were quick to dilute the Wallpaper* agenda to suit their own readers. Meanwhile, the magazine itself failed to develop. Having set a radical new direction for its market it found itself unable to set off in further new directions. The once admiring phrase “Very Wallpaper*” came to be used disparagingly as its visual style became clichéd: the covers repeatedly featured frowning Germanic couples wearing Gucci while perching on furniture sourced from newly discovered New York-based designers; and headlines were stuck in the “Urban Modernists” and “Winter of Cool Content” mould.

Within a year, Brûlé sold the magazine to IPC Media, part of TimeWarner, and remained as editor until the probably inevitable (but unspecified) disagreement that led him to depart in 2002. The creative team went through a brief period of turmoil as IPC sought to mix new faces with the Brûlé team – there are several “name” creatives out there who endured brief involvement at this time – before new editor Jeremy Langmead and creative director Tony Chambers were appointed. They set about reinventing the magazine, carrying out a quiet revolution that passed most people by. Certainly, the original Wallpaper* concept was so enduring that it took me (and many others, I suspect) a while to notice the changes that were made.

But changes happened, and over the past 18 months Wallpaper* really has begun to alter people’s perceptions of what it is, building a new reputation that owes much to the creative direction of Tony Chambers. And in a surprise move, Chambers has just moved from designing to editing the magazine. The current issue is his first as editor-in-chief.

Such a change of role is unprecedented. While the two lead creative roles can often crossover, even blur, it remains incredibly rare for one job to lead to the other. The only other high-profile example was the late Mark Boxer, art director of early 1960s titles Go! and Queen, who was subsequently editor of the Sunday Times Magazine. But that was a simpler time in magazine publishing, a time with less commercial pressures.

Chambers’ experience before Wallpaper* helps explain how he has come to make this unique move. Coincidentally, it was on the 1980s version of the Sunday Times Magazine that Chambers first encountered editorial design. “When I graduated I had no real interest in magazines at all, I was more into pure graphic design and typography, but I got a junior’s job at The Sunday Times and after a few months I was bitten by the bug,” he explains.

Art director Michael Rand provided a link with the original 1960s magazine, having been there since the beginning. “Rand was a journalistic art director, and though it didn’t really make sense to me at the time, it was obviously seeping in a little bit. You’d watch him create stories visually, and fashion individual elements that as a graphic designer with very little experience you didn’t really think about.”

Chambers spent ten years at the magazine, learning to combine his love of design with the journalistic rigour passed on by Rand. This was a very important part in the development of his editorial voice: “There wasn’t a career-chasing ambition there, you just knew you were amongst good people and that was job satisfaction in itself. You were part of this big team and everyone pulled together.” Other editorial designers in the team over the years included David Hillman, Clive Crook and John Tennant. The magazine is now a sad shadow of its former self but from 1963 through to the mid 90s it was a breeding ground for excellent editorial talent.

In 1996 Chambers moved to run his first project, as art director of British GQ. Here he set out to apply what he had learned at the Sunday Times, “I had two missions: firstly to apply my photojournalistic experience and secondly to bring the kind of typographic detailing that, going back to my college days, I was really into. I always felt that glossies like GQ paid lots of attention to the features well but that the front of book sections really weren’t loved at all.” This attention to detail is a trait very present in the current Wallpaper*.

At GQ he also got to work alongside some of the strongest editorial figures of recent years, including editors James Brown and Dylan Jones. Both were strong influences on Chambers; Brown in particular seems to have made an impression, “He was brought in to help GQ stand up to successful newcomers FHM and Loaded (which had been conceived by Brown). He was given a brief to go to town with content, really push the boundaries, while visually letting me get on with what I do. And he totally did that. From the advertisers’ standpoint, even if some of the content was on the edge, the magazine was looking gorgeous. The whole thing was a magician’s act, presenting one thing to the readers and something completely different to the advertisers.” Hearing Chambers talk you realise he is constantly mixing references to photography and design with strategic ideas and editorial thinking. The change of role becomes less surprising.

Chambers recalls the first time he saw a copy of Wallpaper*, “It made me go ‘wow’. It was an incredible invention of publishing, to take what had normally been seen as quite po-faced and serious and give it a lifestyle gloss that made it accessible and sexy. I loved it.” He accepts that the magazine then got stuck in a rut; a rut it’s taken him, and Langmead, four years to drag the magazine out of. But they’ve managed it – last year was Wallpaper*’s best year yet for sales and advertising, and the series of special covers celebrating the magazine’s tenth anniversary, culminating in the multi-award winning cover by Alan Fletcher, has attracted renewed attention to the title. Clearly his appointment as editor is in part recognition of these successes.

So what does Chambers plan now he’s in charge? “There’s no revolution needed. It’s liked, people are confident with it. We’re here to stay, it’s not a novelty anymore, but we can’t stand still.” One immediate goal is to get the various editorial departments (interiors, fashion, architecture) to work together more closely. To kick start that, a new fashion director, Kim Andreolli has been hired. “That’s my big thing. It’s so obvious, it’s the strength of Wallpaper* that we have all these experts,” Chambers says.

A redesign is planned for September, the first time since his introduction of the swash font specially-designed for the magazine by Matthew Carter. That redesign was part of Chambers’ ploy to get readers saying “that’s not very Wallpaper*” when they looked at the magazine; previously the design had been centred on a heavy Teutonic sans serif typeface. Meanwhile the logo is being adapted slightly (see sidebar) to emphasise the importance of the internet. The web, he says, “will be the making of Wallpaper*”.

So far, he is enjoying his enlarged role, but is wary that “as an art director you can be more mischievous. As editor you’re in the line of fire and you have to be responsible on many other levels.” He likes the business side of the job, a part the art director is usually separated from. “It’s fascinating how delicate the balance is between success and failure. I’ve never been an advocate of the magazines that make a big splash while haemorrhaging millions. I believe in championing people who are experimenting and taking risks but to waste a lot of money is just vanity, there are many better things to spend those millions on.”

Chambers is an exception in the magazine world, a designer who has the ability and enthusiasm to apply his passion for editorial creativity to both sides of the creative partnership. He understands the power of strong editorial direction having seen it executed at close hand by some of the UK’s leading practitioners, and it’s not surprising to see a magazine like Wallpaper* taking advantage of his talent. Will others follow him into an editorial role? “I don’t see why not, but it depends how this goes. If it’s a disaster it might never happen again!”

I don’t think he’ll fail. Watch out for more crossovers in the future.

Jeremy Leslie is group creative director at John Brown

 

 

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