Wallpaper* turns 20: an interview with Creative Director Sarah Douglas

Wallpaper* magazine celebrates its 20th anniversary this month with a 500-page issue and a kinetic cover designed by Thomas Heatherwick. We talk to creative director Sarah Douglas about how it was made – and how design and photography have been key to keeping Wallpaper*’s readers engaged over the years

Wallpaper's 20th anniversary issue features two covers - the first, designed by Thomas Heatherwick, can be cut into strips and reassembled to create a kinetic design. The second features an image from a Gucci shoot which appeared on the cover of the magazine's first ever issue in 1996
Wallpaper*’s 20th anniversary issue features two covers – the first, designed by Thomas Heatherwick, can be cut into strips and reassembled to create a kinetic design. The second features an image from a Gucci shoot which appeared on the cover of the magazine’s first ever issue in 1996

Wallpaper*’s 20th anniversary issue is its biggest ever. At 508 pages, it’s double the size of a standard issue and is packed with great content and beautiful imagery. There are interviews with 20 of the world’s leading creatives – from Hussein Chalayan and Ai Wei Wei to Jonathan Ive – as well as a look back at 20 years of interior design and food trends plus features on food, fashion, art and architecture.

The cover was created by Thomas Heatherwick and features a kinetic design which slides out to reveal a number 20. It can be assembled by readers using a kit of parts – instructions are printed on its reverse – but Wallpaper* also made up of thousands of covers by hand before putting issues on newsstands. “We’re still making them up now,” says creative director Sarah Douglas, who joined the magazine in 2007 as art editor and was made creative director in 2012.

The cover image is a contemporary take on a Gucci shoot for the magazine’s first ever issue. The original cover image is printed underneath Heatherwick’s and revealed when readers slide back the kinetic design:

Wallpaper*'s anniversary issue. The cover was designed by Thomas Heatherwick
Wallpaper*'s cover features a kinetic design which slides out to reveal a number 20
Wallpaper*’s cover features a kinetic design which slides out to reveal a number 20

“We’ve been working on the anniversary issue for months,” says Douglas. “Tony Chambers [Wallpaper*’s editor-in-chief] and I had a studio visit with Thomas Heatherwick, where he showed us a prototype of a kinetic table [which expands using a similar mechanism] and we asked him if he could create a cover. We weren’t specific about whether it needed to be kinetic but he was quite inspired by that process.”

“We recreated the Gucci look as Gucci are having another moment 20 years later with their creative director [Alessandro Michele], so we showed Thomas these two images and he came up with this solution of making the cover kinetic to reveal the first cover behind.”

Wallpaper* has commissioned a number of great covers over the years – working with the likes of Jeff Koons, Karl Lagerfeld, Zaha Hadid and Dieter Rams – but Douglas says the anniversary design has been one of the most complex to produce.

Thomas Heatherwick holding Wallpaper magazine anniversary issue
Thomas Heatherwick holding Wallpaper*’s anniversary issue

“With the trellis system that goes on the back [of Heatherwick’s cover] and enables it to be this friction design, everything had to be sourced for that – so the pins that act as the rivets – and everything had to be handmade,” she explains. “We had to do lots of testing and make lots of different prototypes … and we worked very closely with our printer Steve Middleton, who’s never said never!”

Wallpaper* also commissioned Spin’s Tony Brook to create a foldout poster for the magazine charting two decades of design. 220,000 posters were printed and each one is unique, featuring a different colour and pattern variation and a serial number. Posters were printed on HP Indigo presses using HP’s variable printing feature, Smartstream Mosaic – Brooks designed the typography and a series of assets which were fed into printers to produce the unique designs.

“The machines were printing for 10 days solid, day and night,” says Douglas. “The colours are really surprising – we were really happy we could get those on a digital press.”

Wallpaper* has undergone three redesigns since Douglas joined. The most recent, in 2013, saw the introduction of two new typefaces from Commercial Type. Douglas says the magazine is updated regularly to keep it feeling fresh and contemporary and credits Chambers – who was previously Wallpaper*’s creative director – with encouraging the team to constantly refine and develop its design.

“Having an editor that is experienced in visuals has really enabled us to push things,” she says. “We’re always looking at what’s next…. I don’t think any of the redesigns have been a giant step away from Wallpaper – I think there’s a DNA that Wallpaper will always have – but the redesigns just enhance the magazine and keep readers interested through things like different paper stocks, new photography and type.”

Spread from a feature on architect Peter Zumthor - one of 20 'game-changers' featured in Wallpaper*'s anniversary issue
Spread from a feature on architect Peter Zumthor – one of 20 ‘game-changers’ featured in Wallpaper*’s anniversary issue. Photography: Helene Binet
Spread from a feature on 20 years of interiors trends. Photography: Leonardo Scotti
Spread from a feature on 20 years of interiors trends. Photography: Leonardo Scotti

In many ways, the magazine’s aesthetic has changed significantly in its 20 year history. Its covers, for a start, have become more experimental: early issues often featured images of glamorous couples posing amongst luxurious furniture, while more recent ones have included typographic, illustrated and DIY designs as well as striking still life photography.

But it has maintained a focus on providing an authoritative voice on high-end design with a luxurious look and feel. “Our readers are a very sophisticated audience, so I think you always have to be making sure that high-end luxury feel exists and is maintained,” says Douglas.

Photography has been integral to maintaining a distinctive and exciting aesthetic: with features, Douglas says every image is commissioned or never before published.

Spread from a feature on 20 years of interiors trends. Photography: Leonardo Scotti
Spread from a feature on 20 years of interiors trends. Photography: Leonardo Scotti

We have regular contributors but we also strive to look for the next new talent internationally, so we’ll look at design fairs, photography fairs, anything that’s out there. We’re always looking for the next new thing and someone whose work might add something different to wallpaper and complement the regular contributors.”

This is particularly important when it comes to showcasing products which appear in the magazine again and again – for example, luxury watches. “We photograph watches a lot, so if I see someone who has a completely different way of looking at a watch, that’s really exciting.” Douglas also looks to find people who can find a new way of representing craft.

“A lot of what we support and document [at Wallpaper] is the making of – process is very important – and often when you can photograph that, it has a particular look, so it’s a challenge to find a new way every time of recording that. I think its also about staying true to what we do best: breathtaking photography, strong portraits and writers and editors who find the best content,” she adds.

The magazine’s creative department is now between eight and ten people working on print. “We have a lot of different elements to the brand now, which is a huge shift over the last ten years since I’ve been there,” says Douglas. “We have the print magazine, the website and Wallaper Bespoke, which is basically our in-house design agency and that does all of our commercial projects.”

An interview with Victoria Beckham, featured in Wallpaper*'s 20th anniversary issue. Photography: Hyea W Kang
An interview with Victoria Beckham, featured in Wallpaper*’s 20th anniversary issue. Photography: Hyea W Kang

Wallpaper* Bespoke often works on supplements for advertisers – it recently created one for Airbnb which featured Wallpaper*’s pick of properties listed on the lettings site. It also worked with worktop company Caesarstone to create a supplement focused on Israeli design and architecture.

The list of brands the Bespoke team has worked with is diverse but Douglas says clients must have “design integrity”.

“Creatively, we should be aligned, but they don’t have to be a brand that has found their creative voice – that’s what they come to us for,” she adds.

Designing content in-house enables Wallpaper* to maintain a high standard across its advertising, making supplements that people actually want to read. “I don’t want our readers to feel like they’re being forced into [reading something] – I want reading it to be enjoyable,” says Douglas.

Working on projects like the Caesarstone supplement can also help the editorial and creative teams uncover new creative talent in other countries – from photographers to illustrators and architects.

subscriber5WPR16OCT238

In its anniversary issue, Wallpaper has introduced a new feature, Subscribers since…, which showcases the personal collections of some of Wallpaper’s most loyal readers. There are photographs of collections owned by Carsten Höller, Rick Owens, Jonathan Ive and Georgio Armani.

A different collection will be photographed for each issue and Wallpaper is also encouraging people to share their own collections on Instagram using the hashtag #subscribersince.

A copy of Wallpaper magazine on Jony Ive's desk and in Carsten Holler's birdcage at his Stockholm home, photographed by Elizabeth Toll for the magazine's new Subscriber Since... feature
A copy of Wallpaper* magazine on Jony Ive’s desk and in Carsten Holler’s birdcage at his Stockholm home, photographed by Elizabeth Toll for the magazine’s new Subscriber Since… feature

“A lot of people have come to us and said they’ve been collecting wallpaper since the beginning so one day, we just thought, why don’t we photograph people’s collections? We’ve been compiling this list for years … and hopefully now more people will come to us and say ‘why don’t you visit my home?'” says Douglas.

It’s a fascinating insight into how people store their collection -Höller uses issues to line his bird’s cage while photographer Massimo Listri’s are carefully bound and neatly arranged on shelves – but it’s also a great way to showcase Wallpaper*’s continued relevance 20 years on.

The 20th anniversary issue of Wallpaper* is out now. See wallpaper.com for details.

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