Paper Lives! (A Tour of the Cool New Design Magazines) Part I

Ignore, please, what they–we–in the press, even the electronic press, tell you about the impending obsolescence of the print magazine. This classic item of the old media is lightweight and portable, flippable, bendable, and rippable, and best of all, bathtub-safe. It may be the most shining example of appropriate technology in all of journalism history. From that stapled newsprint thingie that The Nation publishes to your perfect-bound, four-color glossy, it’s the article-and-picture delivery system of choice for most end-users, including this journalist for a Web zine. So forget about the beeping, text-downloading gadgets Microsoft and others want to sell you. All those gizmos do is run out of power just when you get to the good stuff.

It’s easy to become inured to the elegance of the print magazine, but there’s a good way to refresh your palate. Do what I did when I discovered I was about to have to furnish a house: Buy some interior design magazines. At that point, you will learn a surprising fact. Just when the futurists were predicting the death of paper publishing, this magazine industry perennial was experiencing a vigorous revival. The new generation of interior design magazines, or “shelter books,” are not meant for stuffy folks who aren’t sufficiently with-it to surf the Web, nor are they intended for impoverished intellectuals. I’m talking about glossies that, though they do tend to be brainy, are stuffed with ads and aimed at the rich young hipsters who people the New Economy and the downtown trendsetters whose apotheosis is actress Chloe Sevigny. These magazines have names like Nest, Wallpaper,* and *Surface (the asterisk having become the typographic symbol of the moment), all of which started up in the past few years, and Dwell and One, which launched this fall.

There are three reasons to look at these shelter books, even if you’re not planning to redecorate. One, they’re fun, with sweeping graphics and light-saturated architectural photography. Two, they grant you a voyeur’s glimpse of an unattainable universe, the closest you can come in commercial culture to a Platonic ideal. The world of trendy design is a place of purer forms, lesser clutter, and, since it happens to be superfashionable at the moment, lots of brightly colored midcentury modernist furniture.

And reason three, which is related to reason two, it’s the job of a good design magazine to make you stop in your tracks and appreciate stuff you never thought of appreciating before, including the big flattish object you happen to be gripping between your fingers and thumbs. What distinguishes these publications from more conventional–though certainly just as seductive–shelter books such as Elle Décor or House & Garden is a willingness to wax both pedagogical and theological. A serious design magazine does not shrink from preaching. Like every other religious authority with a platform, it wants you to view your surroundings as made, not merely, you know, there. It wants you to understand the process of intelligent design underlying everyday life. It wants you to be a more thoughtful, more organized, more responsible person–the kind of person who understands the beauty of the print magazine.

And so, herewith, a guided tour of the hot new shelter books. We will start with the hottest of the hot as well as the coolest. It’s the one everybody’s talking about, the thickest (more than 400 pages an issue), the slickest, and the meanest. It is Wallpaper,* and I must confess, it is caught up in a rather less noble agenda than the one outlined above. The British Wallpaper* is a sneering bully of a publication edited by an exquisitely dressed Canadian named Tyler Brule. Brule is known as the most fashionable man in England. Enlightened living, in the philosophical sense, is not what he’s about. He aims to separate his reader from the rest of mankind, not to unite him or her in a bond of higher understanding. The magazine radiates the chill of a Prada saleswoman trying to communicate to her customers both a sense of their innate inferiority and the unreasonable hope that they might someday improve. There’s endless suburbia-bashing and much making fun of one’s elders. The world being posited here is a meritocracy, but strictly of the most expensively dressed. How to explain its popularity? It probably demonstrates a basic fact of life in glossy media: People like being put down by their aspirational reading. It makes them feel understood.

Let me quickly dispatch with *Surface by saying it seems much the same as Wallpaper,* only American and neither as snooty nor as drop-dead stylish. But don’t despair. There are some memorable publications among the new shelter books. I will talk about them in Part 2 of this piece, next week.