"Pretentious, vacuous and flash in the pan" was how one coven of unnamed editors described Wallpaper* when it was launched in September 1996. And, at the time, the latter prediction looked accurate. Just after launch, the interiors style magazine was abandoned by its Austrian backers, production costs slashed and circulation hit just 34,000.
So it is with some amount of glee that Wallpaper* editor-in-chief Jeremy Langmead is set to mark the 10th anniversary of the now monthly title in the international jet-setting style it has become synonymous with: by holding two big bashes in as yet unconfirmed global cities. Will it be New York, Milan or London? Langmead muses, in typical Wallpaper* planet-as-playground style.
It's this kind of effortlessly globalised lifestyle that marked Wallpaper* out from the outset as it clocked up airmiles, creating a new niche on the newsstand: a unisex luxury coffee table magazine. Wallpaper* was two things: advertising gold dust and the definitive magazine of the late '90s, ushering in the citybreak, Ikea-designed lifestyle of the period.
Wallpaper* itself was defined by its founder Tyler Brûlé. In Brûlé, Wallpaper* found its greatest advert: a man whose perfectionism demanded that no expense was spared. Photographers were sent back to snap cities if he felt they hadn't quite captured their spirit. Legend has it that he booked two seats on first class transatlantic flights — one for him and one for his luggage.
Wallpaper* was sold to Time Warner in 1997 and Brûlé reportedly quit, having failed to buy the title outright.
Amid speculation that Wallpaper* would lose its edge, Jeremy Langmead, then editor of the Life & Style section of the Evening Standard, took the reins. Langmead's niche was style: after graduating in fashion journalism from Central Saint Martin's College of Art and Design, he wangled his way into Murdoch-owned fashion magazine Mirabella, a subbing job at The Sunday Times and eventually to the editorship of its Style section in 1995.
A stint at Nova followed, as IPC exhumed the corpse of the '60s women's publishing legend, only to bury it again in 2001. Langmead returned to The Sunday Times as its magazine's editor-at-large, before being poached by the Evening Standard in 2001 and then Wallpaper* in 2002. He was offered the job following a secret interview in New York with Norman Pearlstine, editor-in-chief of Time Inc. As you do.
At the time, Wallpaper* was "in a mess", says Langmead. At its peak in 2000, the title sold 134,402 copies internationally — that figure has levelled off at 110,246 since 2002.
Langmead reels off impressive advertising and revenue stats, with ad and magazine revenues up over 30 per cent year on year, making it "the most successful year in Wallpaper*'s history".
But the word "sensible" also crops up often. The sense is that Langmead is the practical editor reining in the magazine. It's still willing to salivate over a £3,000 living room light fitting from Japan, but may not expect its readers to charge over to Tokyo on BA first class just to purchase it.
Langmead is jovial and chatty and appears exactly the sort of person you'd like to down cocktails with in a Wallpaper*-approved five-star hotel in Kuala Lumpur. Particularly as I suspect he's a great gossip.
He found himself at the centre of some broadsheet gossip when his ex-wife, columnist and novelist India Knight, took to dissecting their relationship in her Observer column. This year, Langmead's been to Milan, Paris and New York for the fashion shows, Istanbul, Damascus, Syria and Shanghai schmoozing clients and, presumably, checking out hotspots for the big 10th birthday. "I love the beauty and ponciness of Wallpaper*", sighs Langmead. Who would dare knock that now?
“I said: ‘Well yes, I can recommend someone, actually. There’s a guy off the fashion journalism course called Jeremy Langmead. He’s very good, I’ll send him along tomorrow.’”
It was my last day in final year at St Martin’s [College of Art and Design] and I hadn’t decided what I wanted to do The phone rang in the fashion department secretary’s office and she wasn’t in, so I picked it up for her, and it was someone calling from The Sunday Times saying they were about to join a new magazine called Mirabella and were looking for a sub-editor — could I recommend anyone? I didn’t tell anyone else about it and obviously I got the job.
“I didn’t want to be one of those people where people were saying: ‘Oh, you can tell he’s been here a while, can’t you?’”
At The Sunday Times, I ended up editing the style section, which I turned into Style magazine and stayed there for six years. It wasn’t purely a women’s magazine like it is now — it had been a newspaper features section. I left reluctantly, I loved it.
“I would have closed Nova then too but I wouldn’t have hired everyone before closing it. That was a bore.”
[IPC] had launched Nova, but it wasn’t the magazine they had wanted it to be, so they asked me to change it. Before I’d changed it, they closed it because they couldn’t afford to do it, which was kind of a waste of time. It was bringing back more or less the name and the spirit rather than what Nova was trying to do back then — they wanted an intelligent fashion magazine, but they just didn’t have enough money to invest in it, and it was around 9/11 and so a disaster for advertising.
“Veronica was much more Daily Mail-esque.”
It was quite tough at the Evening Standard, because when Veronica [Wadley] took over [from Max Hastings] it completely changed. It was quite hard for a lot of people there, because they’d worked with Max a long time and he had one way of working which, particularly for the features, was quite a laid back and eccentric way. Then Veronica came in and it was a much more a bang, bang, bang, Daily Mailesque,
“I want this feature and I want the person who was in the train crash yesterday, but she’s got to be middle class and she’s got to be pretty and wearing a skirt.”
It was tough, and I think for a lot of staff it was really hard, which was why, in the beginning, there was a lot of hiring and firing. But luckily Veronica really liked me, so I was fine. She’s tough, but we got on really well.
“For a while the Standard was too depressing.”
The front page was always woe, woe, woe, house prices are falling, your investments are a disaster, trains aren’t working, it’s a disaster, and for a while you were really depressed reading the Standard. And while you don’t want to live life through rose-tinted spectacles, you want to see the good side of things. Most of us really love the city and there’s lots of really good things about it. The Standard’s come back from that, and it will be interesting to see how thelondonpaper will try to catch the mood of the Londoner.
“We’re quite a tough market, us Londoners.”
It can be quite hard to suss who we are. Because actually we’re quite cynical, we’re not like the rest of the country — we’ve got quite a sick sense of humour. We’re interested in serious issues, but we have quite a frivolous side and it’s quite hard to pinpoint. We’re a quirky population in this crazy city, and the paper has to reflect that.
“There was so much to do at the beginning, because frankly it was a mess.”
Wallpaper* was slightly unloved — it wasn’t being taken in any particular direction. The editor had left [Tyler Brûlé]. Every brand needs to constantly update, renovate and modernise, and Wallpaper* hadn’t done that. It had become a little bit samey.
We redesigned it when I joined, made changes to the team and changed the emphasis of the magazine and very much made it a designer lifestyle magazine.
“Wallpaper* is a badge magazine.”
The magazine will remain central to the brand in 10 years time and I’ll tell you why. We’re lucky Wallpaper*’s a niche magazine — the mainstream magazines are struggling harder. A niche magazine is always going to offer something you can’t get elsewhere. The point of Wallpaper* is that its got beautiful photography and inspiring pictures, but also people do want to feel the paper — it’s an important part of the whole offering. Wallpaper*’s a beautiful object to have on your coffee table. It says something about you.
“It’s that chink of light through the door, rather than the nose pressed against the door, that’s made it less pretentious.”
It’s a lot less pretentious than it was. Another thing I wanted to do was to keep it sophisticated and high end, but for it to be accessible at the same time without being condescending. Before you were looking at the party through the window with your nose pressed against it, whereas now you’re not necessarily looking at a lifestyle you lead, but the door’s open if you want to go in.
Well, I like to think you can mix style and substance, and of course there’s a superficiality to aspects of the magazine, but, you know, I think that’s really important. Superficiality can be much underestimated. Look at the news at the minute — you can’t get a flight to go on holiday, Lebanon’s a disaster. It’s so depressing, and to be able to pick up something that’s just this perfect beautiful inspiring glossy world, its actually providing something really important. We need that sort of cradling, that escapism. The fact that you enter this really beautiful world in Wallpaper* is an important task and I don’t feel embarrassed by that at all.
“I didn’t know Tyler Brûlé,I didn’t mix professionally or socially with him, so I didn’t have that shadow hanging over me.”
He’d left six or 10 months before I’d joined. I think if I had known him, it would have been trickier. In the beginning, I used to get asked about him all the time, which I always thought was weird, because in another job, people don’t always say what you think of the last [person]. Who edited Vogue before Alex Shulman or who even founded Vogue? I don’t even know that.
“I want it to be Wallpaper*, not the editor’s Wallpaper*”
There’s always been this fascination with Tyler Brûlé. He was very much associated with the magazine and very much put his own print on it. What I’ve tried to do is make the magazine speak for itself, so it’s more about the magazine rather than the person behind it, so, when I leave, the next person won’t have that.
“All the rules you learn everywhere else just go out the window.”
We did some reader research last year and it was extraordinary. We presented them with a whole number of different wallpaper covers, some very abstract and one very commercial one, with loads of coverlines just to be naughty. We showed them that and they said if it came through their door they would burn it. They just didn’t want it.
If you took the non-commercial ones to a magazine expert, they’d laugh you out of it.
It’s terrifying, because they’re the ones that sell really well. It took me a while to be brave enough to do that.
“I can’t believe just how rude Nuts is.”
It’s not really my place to tell anyone else what to do, because Wallpaper* is such a unique magazine, and it took me a while to figure that out. But what’s working is: either you go really mass — like Nuts and Zoo — tits on the covers and you go for the lowest common denominator. Nuts makes me laugh, but I also can’t believe just how rude it is.
The other thing you do can is make yourself special. Rather than trying to compete with everyone, you just have to have the confidence to say: “This is right for this magazine, fuck what everyone else is doing.” It’s scary. For us it’s paid off, but it doesn’t mean it will for everyone.
Someone said to me, never think about what the advertisers are telling you, don’t think about what the readers do, just go with your gut instinct — that’s quite important.
“Wallpaper* is such an enigma to IPC that they’re very hands-off.”
To be fair to IPC, their main market is a very different one from the one we deal with. In a way, that’s an advantage, because financially they keep an eye on what we’re doing. But no one at IPC looks at editorial content with me or looks at what’s going into an issue.
“It would be too obvious and too snobby if everything was expensive just for the sake of it.”
What we do is the best and sometimes the best is something from Muji or this fantastic white chair from Ikea that we said was going to be a design classic at £29.
“We don’t feature what is bad — it’s sort of irrelevant to us.”
We feature only good stuff — we edit out the bad stuff. If somewhere is bad, it just doesn’t go in. But we still have opinions. We [can] go to hotels and say the rooms are fantastic but the service’s a disaster.
“I’m afraid we’re not going to stop people travelling.”
I know that planes are the biggest source of ozone missiles, but a lot of our readers travel for business.
I still think the world’s a fascinating place, and while you can still get Ryanair and Easyjet to fascinating places for very little money, we’re going to be there.
“What’s hard about a unisex magazine is the visuals.”
Design is a very unisex thing — but if you’ve got a woman on the cover it’s saying it’s a woman’s magazine, if you have a man on the cover it’s saying it’s a men’s magazine.
When we do our fashion shoots you always have to do them with a man and a woman in them together or we’ll do a male shoot and a female shoot straight after. That can be annoying, but it’s important.
“The newsstand looks quite a scary place.”
That’s a reason why we want to concentrate on subscriptions. The companies like Tesco have now got so much power that if you rely solely on newsstand sales you have to tread really carefully.
Also, there’s so many magazines and more and more being launched all the time, fighting for this space, that the space will obviously go to the big mainstream sellers. If you’re a niche title, you’ve got to keep your eye on that.
“When I first came to Wallpaper*, I thought: ‘I’m not going to travel as much as Tyler used to.’”
The travel is extraordinary, which has been great. It plays havoc with your social life. I don’t travel as much as he used to because he wasn’t here very much and I’m quite hands on. He was at the beginning, but branched into other things.
“We travel well; we stay in nice hotels because we have to, really.”
The advertisers and the clients we deal with are living those lives, and you’ve got to be able to talk to them about the lives they’re leading. So if you go to Milan and are talking to a guy who owns eight furniture companies, is a multimillionaire and might be the next prime minister of Italy, you can’t say: “I’m staying at the Posthouse Hotel.” He just wouldn’t understand. But we do it sensibly.
“Why an asterisk within an asterisk?”
It’s just a little design thing — just a subtlety — it’s unbelievable what the readers pick up on.
I knew I made it as a journalist when…
I felt I’d passed muster when I got my first commission for The Sunday Times. I had to go
to a Take That concert — at the height of the band’s success — and write a piece about
being the only adult in a sea of hormone-drenched, screaming pre-pubescent girls. I was in
the office when Andrew Neil walked into the Style department carrying a proof of my
piece. I sat there, frozen, waiting for him to rip it up, but he’d actually came down to tell
the Style editor how funny he thought it was. I was so relieved.
My greatest influences are…
My ex-wife, India Knight, was so encouraging when I began and taught me how to write
in my own voice, rather than try to put on someone else’s. Liz Jones, who was my first boss
(the one who wanted Diet Cokes all the time) taught me the importance of never relying
on anyone else to provide the correct facts. And John Witherow, who generously gave me
the job of style editor at The Sunday Times when I was still wet behind the ears, taught me
to be tough, ruthless (in a charming way) and to never give up when you’re after a story.