Design Plus: How Wallpaper* beats the crowd

The design magazine is celebrating its 21st birthday with its biggest ever issue and double digit advertising growth. We take a look at what makes it special.

by Mark Tungate , MAYDREAM

I was working for a now-defunct magazine called Media International in 1996 when one of my hipper colleagues showed me a new publication called Wallpaper*. The magazine’s name was strange, but the asterisk led to a line explaining its subject matter: “The stuff that surrounds us.”

Concretely, this meant interiors, design and architecture, with a smattering of fashion and lifestyle. I’d never seen anything like it. Quirky, youthful and borderline intellectual, it was something you wanted to be a part of – especially if you were a twenty-something urbanite with pretensions of creativity.

I was hooked right away. The founder of the magazine was Tyler Brûlé, a Canadian journalist, and quite a lot of its content revolved around his concerns and obsessions: Scandinavian design, Japanese lifestyle, innovative hotels. He sold the magazine to Time Warner in 1997 but stayed on until 2002. A sort of cult of personality grew up around him.

Brûlé is something of a visionary. I met him years later, when he launched Monocle magazine, and he was one of the first people to talk about the blurring of the borders between editorial and branded content –  the birth of “native advertising”.

Meanwhile, the editorship of Wallpaper* had passed on, first to Jeremy Langmead, and then to current brand and content director Tony Chambers, whose extraordinary flair for design took the magazine up several visual notches.

Chambers and his team also transformed Wallpaper* into a global media powerhouse, with a stunning website, digital editions, an online store, a creative consultancy, an awards show and even an annual design exhibition: Wallpaper* Handmade.

Not forgetting the city guides. The spines of these colourful pocket-sized books stand out on my bookshelf, reflecting various travels around the world: San Francisco recently joined the collection.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that the October issue of Wallpaper*, on the occasion of its 21st birthday, is its biggest ever, weighing in at 420 pages and 1.48 kilos. 

Interestingly, at a time when other magazines are struggling, Wallpaper* has announced that both print and digital advertising have seen “double digit year-on-year growth”. This has enabled the magazine to raise the quality of its paper stock and increase its investment in digital.

Presumably the multi-platform strategy has helped, but I couldn’t resist asking why Wallpaper* was performing so well in a moribund sector. The magazine’s publisher, Malcolm Young, replied that Wallpaper* has a unique audience of readers who want “the best of everything in their lives, from fashion and furniture through to watches, cars, jewellery and travel”.

This means, of course, that it attracts a wide range of advertisers. But there’s more. Young continued: “Clients are happy to invest in Wallpaper* because we continue to improve, invest and innovate – and most importantly, we deliver. They’re comfortable taking a more holistic approach with us and are willing to think outside the traditional market sectors.” 

Wallpaper* feels like a prestigious environment for brands. (Its slogan these days, you’ll note, is “The stuff that refines us”.) Over the past decade an elite line-up of guest editors – who all produced a cover and a 20-page section of the magazine – has included Frank Gehry, Rei Kawakubo, Jeff Koons, Zaha Hadid, Karl Lagerfeld, Hedi Slimane, David Lynch, Philippe Starck, Dieter Rams, and Jean Nouvel.

Online versions of their contributions at Wallpaper.com are rich and interactive. Editor Tony Chambers himself said the site took the content to “a whole new level”. He added:  “Wallpaper* has truly come of age – the very model of a modern 21st century media brand. Print, digital and experiential working in perfect harmony.”

By Mark Tungate, editorial director