British magazine The World Of Interiors going strong in digital world

LONDON (NYTIMES) – To be a magazine reader these days is to lament – unless you are reading The World Of Interiors, published since 1982 by Conde Nast Britain but widely available on American newsstands, where it sells for US$9.99 (S$13.60) per issue.

The World Of Interiors is essentially a decorating magazine, but this is like saying Vogue concerns itself with sewing. It showcases seemingly every facet of the decorative arts and crafts over centuries, from pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s Manhattan studio to an antique dealer’s 16th-century Shropshire pile to a shepherd’s hut, while reviewing books like The People’s Galleries: Art Museums And Exhibitions In Britain 1800-1914.

It is intelligent, witty and wide-ranging in its curiosity. And a rarity.

Two decades after the Internet changed everything, magazines mostly have yet to figure out how to thrive in a digital world. Details and Domino folded. Glamour, Seventeen, Vibe, Self and Playboy have either retreated from print altogether or appear on newsstands infrequently. Titles once so culturally influential they created mythologies around them – Time, Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone – have been supplanted by social media and blogs, and are sometimes so thin with advertising and editorial pages as to look like brochures.

Mr Nicholas Coleridge, the outgoing chairman of Conde Nast Britain, recently published a memoir about the 30-year golden period for magazines, beginning in the 1980s, when ad revenue and circulation climbed year after year and editors brimmed with creative gusto. He titled it The Glossy Years.

In 2017, the American arm of Conde Nast lost more than US$120 million and, to stem the bleeding, the publisher has closed or sold off several titles and subleased floors in its Lower Manhattan headquarters. New York magazine asked, What’s left of Conde Nast, even as it faces an uncertain future under Vox Media, its new owner. Rivals Hearst and Meredith face similar challenges.

If one could even sell a magazine memoir of today, it might be called The Getting-By Years: slashed budgets, reduced staff, a noticeable diminishing of not just financial resources but ambition and copy-editing.

Except at The World Of Interiors, which has lost none of its gloss and seems utterly unaffected by modern media trends. Other than a cursory if reasonably popular Instagram presence and website of inspirational indices, it is not really on the Internet, or trying limply to be “of” the Internet as so many other legacy titles are.

“It enjoys a semi-indie status among our titles,” said Mr Albert Read, the managing director of Conde Nast Britain. The people who produce it, he said, “are all artistic bohemian types. It’s the antithesis to the data-driven digital attitude that we have to embrace in other parts of our business.”

Sitting in his wood-panelled office inside Vogue House, the publisher’s London headquarters, Mr Read held up the October issue of The World Of Interiors. It was thick as a phone book with ads and printed on heavy 100g wood-free coated paper, the most luscious, most expensive paper of any Conde title. The cover was a simple, enticing photo of the shaded veranda of a house in the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago off the coast of north-west Africa, with barely any typeface to muck it up.

“It’s just such a beautiful thing,” Mr Read said, biased but not wrong.

The magazine’s readership is small, with a circulation of 55,000, but influential. It is beloved by those in the creative and visual arts especially. Clare Waight Keller, artistic director of Givenchy; Nicolas Ghesquiere, Louis Vuitton’s creative director, whose Paris apartment was featured in the December 2012 issue; Alessandro Michele, fashion director for Gucci, who uses The World Of Interiors as inspiration for his collections – all long-time readers. So are actors Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and photographer Tim Walker.

Mr Christopher Bailey, president and former chief creative officer of Burberry, said that while The World Of Interiors appeals to the fashion crowd, it is not fashionable.

“I’ve read magazines all my relatively grown-up life. And World Of Interiors is the only magazine that I’ve kept and trooped around the world wherever I’ve lived,” he said. “There’s something about it that does not feel throwaway. It’s not trend-driven. It’s not of the moment.”

Those who work in magazines read The World Of Interiors with a mix of appreciation and envy. In an age when editors of monthlies must compete, seemingly impossibly, with the daily dopamine hits of ‘grams and memes and TikToks, The World Of Interiors appears to occupy an earlier, more dignified era.

Founded in 1981, The World Of Interiors now breaks every dumb rule of modern magazines. There are no celebrities on the cover (and rarely any inside). You do not feel the hand of advertisers, publicists or digital panic on every page. The design is low-key, almost academic, without gimmicky typeface or colours pushed so that everything looks Disney fake. In fact, the photography is rather moody and in chiaroscuro tones, giving the empty furnished rooms a compelling, dreamlike quality.

The World Of Interiors is not concerned with showing readers how to achieve such-and-such a look or selling an aspirational dream. Who expects to one day live in the Queen Mother’s former residence?

Still, the magazine has never come across as snobby, because three pages after British royal residence Clarence House can come, say, the house-turned-museum that an African-American couple, a poet and her postal-worker husband, built in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1903 and decorated with recycled materials and great flair. Or an ice hotel in Sweden. Or a mobile home.

The magazine’s point-of-view is distinct, even wacky. And inventive: Though product pages typically consist of clip art on a white background, The World Of Interiors will collect the latest fabrics and drape them across a farm field in the Cotswolds.

Print is dead. Only it is not. How does The World Of Interiors still exist?

‘From palaces to pigsties’

The World Of Interiors is produced in a corner of the second floor of Vogue House, the publisher’s drably charming brown-brick building in central London. The office is one largish room with deeply scuffed wood floors, a drop ceiling and windows overlooking green Hanover Square.

On a recent morning, the magazine’s editor, Mr Rupert Thomas, was meeting the art director, Mr Mark Lazenby, to finalise feature layouts for an upcoming issue.

The men stood in the centre of the office over a white tabletop that, on closer inspection, revealed itself to be a dormant light box for viewing photographic transparencies. No other magazine in the building, or practically anywhere else, used a light box anymore, having switched to digital photography.

“We still commission on film,” said Mr Thomas, a note of pride in his voice.

The light box, along with the shelves and desk cubbies stuffed with books and the paperwork lying everywhere, gave the impression of a publishing office from an earlier time – if not the days of clacking typewriters then the 1990s at least, when producing a magazine was more tactile and everyone’s main concern was what would go into next month’s issue, not whether there would be one.

A thin, bespectacled man of 53, Mr Thomas had on wool trousers paired with a green corduroy blazer and blue cloth tie, and exuded an air of bookish intelligence and modest British eccentricity. If he was not a magazine editor, you could imagine him teaching the Bloomsbury Group to students at a gently rundown art school.

The archives containing master slides of the The World Of Interiors, at the magazine’s office in London. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Mr Thomas grew up in public housing in north London (his mother was a costumer) and joined the staff of The World Of Interiors as a junior editor in 1992, after working for the art-book publishers Thames & Hudson and Dorling Kindersley. He became editor in 2000, only the second in the magazine’s 38-year history.

His predecessor and founding editor, Ms Min Hogg, was a formidable figure whose father was the ear, nose and throat physician to the Queen Mother, and who ran with a bohemian London “in” crowd, including actor Rupert Everett and social gadfly and decorator Nicky Haslam.

When Ms Hogg died at age 80 this past June, the staff decorated the church where her memorial was held with 3m lavender gingham bows running to the altar. The World Of Interiors also republished her Canary Islands home on the cover and carried a two-page dedication to her life by Mr Thomas, who credited Ms Hogg with defining the magazine’s approach (“‘Everything from palaces to pigsties'”) and with keeping it free from business-side meddling (“The much-quoted anecdote of Min throwing an ashtray at a hapless publisher is true…”). It was Ms Hogg who essentially invented, through the magazine’s exquisitely crumbled aesthetic, the decorating style shabby chic.

Mr Thomas showed off what would be his office, had he chosen to sit apart from his staff and not at a cluttered desk alongside them following the example set by his predecessor. The adjacent room held a worktable strewn with fabric swatches, a sewing machine, back issues of the magazine, clothes on hangars, rolls of wallpaper stuffed into a closet.

“This is our Jackson Pollock workroom,” Mr Thomas said, a reference to the dried paint splatters on the threadbare carpet.

Although Vogue House is shopworn on the whole, with old elevators and an in-house canteen employees call “the Hatch”, the World Of Interiors office has a different degree of make-do, in keeping with its history. It was not started by Conde Nast, but rather bought by the company back when it was published independently as Interiors and headquartered above a florist’s shop on Fulham Road.

For years after, The World Of Interiors shared office space with the Conde Nast circulation department in another building across town, leaving it physically and metaphorically apart. If the magazine was not given great infusions of cash like its siblings, it was left largely alone by the executives, a trade-off that continues to this day and one Mr Thomas, like Ms Hogg before him, seems happy with.

‘Throwing Thought’

Mr Thomas drank a cup of tea at the messy worktable and reflected on the industry’s “golden, halcyon days”, as he put it, when 25 models and 15 hair-and-make-up stylists would be flown to a glamorous and remote location for a shoot.

“But we were never like that,” he said. “We’ve always been done on a shoestring.”

The World Of Interiors has a tiny staff of 13, many of whom have worked there for years, ageing happily in place, after arriving in roundabout ways. Ms Jessica Hayns, a 26-year veteran who as creative director oversees the fabric and furniture shoots, was formerly a textile designer. Ms Carol Prisant, the New York editor, was an antique dealer who had never written for magazines before she penned a query letter to Ms Hogg and was hired, in 1989. All are skilful at multitasking and undaunted by travelling economy.

If Mr Simon Upton, one of the magazine’s star freelance photographers, is dispatched to the United States, he will be assigned two or three projects to make the trip cost-effective. And Mr Upton travels light, which can flummox subjects accustomed to how other shelter magazines operate.

Ms Michelle R. Smith, an interior designer whose Brooklyn town house was featured in the February 2018 issue, recalled getting a last-minute e-mail from the magazine saying Mr Upton was in New York and could he come the next day?

“I’m freaking out. Clearly, there’s no stylist, no flowers,” Ms Smith recalled, referring to the practice of primping a home before it is photographed. The World Of Interiors, by contrast, considers its mission to capture a truthful record of how people live, usually under natural light. As a bonus, the magazine saves thousands on equipment rentals and florists’ bills.

Ms Smith went on: “He just showed up by himself with a tiny bag. He said, ‘Don’t move anything.’ ‘Do you want me to remove the remote control?’ ‘No.’ My sneakers are where I left them. The only styling I did was hide wires.”

It is common for magazines to commission stories only to kill them for one reason or another. Vogue and Vanity Fair are famous for the practice. The World Of Interiors cannot afford such waste, so Mr Thomas and his staff have developed a way of art-directing stories in advance, to work confidently and efficiently.

Ms Prisant described the process: “Rupert asks me to provide pictures of the four walls of a room that I might find interesting. Stand in the middle, turn in a circle and get the four walls. He lays out the whole shoot from England from that series of photographs. We can do a major shoot in a day.”

Mr Thomas said: “There’s something better than throwing money at a situation. And that’s throwing thought at it. You have to keep an eye on everything. Every crop of every picture. Every penny spent. You’re totally involved in the product. It’s never been enough for me to cruise through it and say, ‘They won’t notice.’ World Of Interiors readers notice everything. And they write and tell you.”

Like his staff, Mr Thomas is frugal and workmanlike. He is not a celebrity editor in the Anna Wintour mould. He rarely gives interviews, and The World Of Interiors, unlike most magazines, does not carry an editor’s letter or entreaties to follow him on social media.

“Rupert’s not in it for the flash of Conde Nast or the Mercedes purring outside waiting to take him somewhere,” said Mr Read, his boss. “He gets on the tube with his backpack. He conforms to this purist, almost monastic approach to the magazine.”

When the digital-advertising apocalypse came for print in the last decade, gutting budgets along with staffs, The World Of Interiors scarcely had to adjust. Budgets were neither reduced nor increased. And as always, the money scrimped from places where it did not show was spent in areas where it did, like continuing to shoot on film, printing on sumptuous paper and twice a year shipping a huge amount of furniture to Italy to be photographed inside a rented villa or castle.

As other magazines were forced to cut corners, or cannibalise their print editions to feed the Web, The World Of Interiors grew lusher and more thoughtful by comparison.

“The attention that goes into the photo captions – it’s a dying art,” said Mr Fritz Karch, an antique dealer in New Jersey who used to work at Martha Stewart Living magazine and has read The World Of Interiors since the mid-1980s. “I have a friend who will quote his favourites. Because where today are you going to read, ‘Dried whippet over dusty silverware?'”

The Instagram account was introduced well after the social media platform became popular, and only upon careful consideration of how to approach the medium, said Ms Emma Redmayne, the magazine’s publisher. Very few stories are available on its website. To experience The World Of Interiors, you still have to buy the print magazine.

Ms Emma Redmayne, the publisher of The World Of Interiors, at the magazine’s office in London. PHOTO: NYTIMES

In October, the magazine unveiled The World Of Interiors Index, an online directory of antique dealers, gallerists, upholsters and the like that will generate no great fortunes for Conde Nast. But readers and advertisers enjoy The World Of Interiors as a print object. And it makes money as a print object, especially in Britain where there is still a robust newsstand culture and an appreciation for print.

Ms Redmayne said ad revenue for The World Of Interiors outperformed the market in 2019. And with 43 per cent of total circulation coming from subscriptions, it boasts the most loyal subscribers of any Conde title.

So why start churning out click-bait-like “5 Ways to Get the Downton Abbey Look?” The World Of Interiors is meant for a niche audience and the people who run it are fine with that.

“It’s so successful as a business, and so solid, that I’m very wary of pushing them in directions they feel uncomfortable going in,” said Mr Read. “I mean, if the World Of Interiors’ circulation suddenly jumped to 150,000, I’d almost be worried.”

All of which leaves Mr Thomas in the unique position of editing a print magazine with a rosy future.

“Our specialness is that we rather buck the trend,” he said. “In a very weird way, by being wilfully non-commercial, we’ve made ourselves more commercial. If that makes sense.”

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