On Snottiness: A Virtual Tour of Cool New Design Magazines, Part 2

Here’s where we ended up last week in our tour of new design magazines: Wallpaper * is bad, because snotty; Nest, Dwell, and One are good, in ways not yet explained (but, you would have been safe in presuming, because they are less snotty). However, as one perceptive reader inquired over the weekend, why be put off by a little snottiness when Wallpaper* does such a good job of capturing the look of our time? Isn’t Culturebox’s adverse reaction little more than her fear of not living up to the magazine’s style mandate–a defensive snottiness in reverse?

Well, look at it like this. Universally speaking, there are two approaches to style. One is classical, the other romantic. In the classical approach, you embrace unreservedly the spirit of the moment. You master the vernacular of the cutting edge. You’re cool, and that’s all there is to it. In the romantic approach, you’re freer to flout the dictates of fashion–or abide by them if you feel like it. You step back and ask larger questions about style–what it is and how it’s formed and why it matters. The price you pay is that you may be cool, but you may also outfox yourself and not be cool at all. You’re more dependent on context. In one setting, you may come off as supercool; in another, you’ll be taken for a total weirdo.

Classically stylish people endorse a single common standard, and what subversions of it they perform are so subtle as hardly to matter. These people may not take huge risks, but they can go anywhere and look great. They can invite anyone into their homes and be sure of impressing. They are fully socialized. They tend to think a lot about power, and to look with pity upon those seemingly less surefooted than themselves. This is the attitude Wallpaper* embodies. The problem with it–even if you’re not the sort who immediately wants to chuck last year’s Prada boots at it–is that the range of things pre-sanctioned as cool is limited, and so the magazine of cool invariably produces a certain ennui. From page to page and spread to spread, Wallpaper* looks the same. The buildings are stark and rectilinear, unless they’re 1950s Googie and pop. The clothes are colorful and retro, unless they’re black and hip.

Nest, on the other hand, is by and for romantics–people who form and abide by their own criteria. They see design as an interesting problem, not a game with winners and losers. Naturally, these individuals are likely to produce magazines that are more uneven. Nest is an unpredictable mix of high- and low- and even, occasionally, middlebrow style. In the current issue, for instance, there’s a clear-eyed and relatively uncampy essaylet by novelist Joy Williams on the architecture of ice-fishing shacks (photos by Scott Peterman): “To me these shanty cities have always seemed more Bosch than Breughel, particularly hellish of course from the fish’s point of view, hauled up from the mild level of water it has found in the dead of winter. … Then it’s the usual, death and gutting.” In another photo essay on a secret bunker built in the 1950s underneath the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia to house congressmen in case of nuclear attack, Baffler writer Tom Vanderbilt observes: “In military architecture, form follows ammunition. Thus walls–a staple from medieval times to the Maginot line–had been rendered obsolete by aerial bombing.” Writer Guy Martin writes about the jarring experience of growing up in a small town in Alabama in a house designed by the severe modernist Paul Rudolph. There’s a nice spread on John Waters’ house–it looks quite homey and book-lined and leathery and bourgeois, and only belatedly do you notice the electric chair (it provides some nice wood accents) and the witty works of conceptual art.

Nest has one big flaw–a tendency to be sophomoric and twee. The editor seems overly charmed by himself, particularly as pictured with a champagne glass in a photo spread of an unannounced visit to Ralph Lauren’s Polo store on New York City’s Madison Avenue. (There’s also an unbearable letter from the editor in which he pleads for Lauren to advertise in Nest.) There are other false notes: Victoria and Albert Museum furniture curator Christopher Wilk’s condescending essay on Lauren’s faux-Edwardian interiors; an incomprehensibly jargony manifesto on so-called “soft” architecture, whatever it’s supposed to be. But Culturebox is much more willing to forgive excesses of attitude like these than to tolerate the streamlined conformism of the snotty.

(Tomorrow: Dwell and One)