Flaming Brûlé

Tyler Brûlé’s recipe for publishing success seems ethically suspect. So why the praise?

Marketing Magazine, March 16, 1998   

Tyler Brûlé sold his magazine. Last fall, Time Warner had just lost Martha Stewart Living, which its namesake/founder had bought back as part of a drive to consolidate her empire. The communications giant had to fill a gap in its magazine roster, and settled on Brûlé’s Wallpaper*. (Don’t bother looking for a footnote; that asterisk is part of the title.) Even before its sale to Time Warner, Wallpaper* had been anointed hippest, hottest magazine-of-the-moment by the chattering classes. Calling it a magazine isn’t really accurate, though. It’s not really a catalog, either. It’s got pages and pictures, but it fakes so many different things at once and crosses so many different lines and obliterates so many different standards about how magazines are supposed to work that it achieves a kind of transcendent truth. And all dreamed up by a guy from Winnipeg, not a city known for producing cutting-edge style arbiters. But those roots may have served as a prime motivator, the same way growing up in Pittsburgh sharpened Andy Warhol’s appetite for fabulousness.


Ostensibly, it’s a lifestyle guide for hipster types. Unlike other tomes of this kind (Architectural Digest, for example), no scene in Wallpaper* exists outside its pages. Magazines that focus on interior decorating are kind of catalogs masquerading as magazines. But it’s not their fault, really. What do we expect from AD or Elle Decor? Hard-hitting investigative pieces on unscrupulous antique dealers? Medical exposés on high lead content in that je ne sais quoi shade of paint for the breakfast nook?


Rather than be tormented by the ethical conundrums that go with shifting details and rearranging furniture for photographs of people’s living rooms, Wallpaper* sidesteps the problem. The “interiors” depicted are art-directed, designed and built to showcase advertisers’ products. After they’ve been photographed, they’re pulled apart. The scenes are populated with models cast and chosen with the same care and attention lavished on the furniture.


The fetishistically glorified merchandise is selected using elegantly simple criteria: You don’t advertise, your stuff doesn’t get into the spreads. Brûlé, by his own admission, doesn’t have to really “sell” advertising in the traditional sense of the term. There are more advertisers who want to be in the book than can be accommodated. Ad people at Wallpaper* are less like a sales staff and more like bouncers hoisting the velvet rope on a whim at the door to the club-of-the-nanosecond.


Would it surprise anybody to learn that Brûlé came up with this idea while on drugs? Brûlé caught a bullet on assignment for a British magazine in the Middle East. Recovering, he was pumped full of morphine. He was tripping when the idea for Wallpaper* came to him. As a former journalist, and one who left journalism school to work in the field, Brûlé probably has a sharply focused picture of just how porous and flimsy the church/state separation between editorial and advertising is in the magazine business. Working for fashion/lifestyle books such as The Face, he probably also got a good look at just how selectively those separation standards are applied. So, he might have reasoned, if it’s that much trouble, why bother with it at all, especially when it’s so much easier and more profitable to eliminate it completely?


As a result, you get a publication that purports to be a guide to gracious living. It features fake interiors, furnished with advertisers’ products (supplemented with a “where-to-buy-it” appendix of sources and prices the reader needs to be able to replicate any scene depicted in Wallpaper* at retail, and decorated with pretty, pouting mannequins-for-rent. Don’t bother looking for editorial content—you know, stories, articles, the kind of stuff that usually goes along with the pictures in magazines. There are cutlines and captions, but that’s about it. And they tell you what you’re looking at. To paraphrase Linda Ellerbee, Wallpaper* is a magazine for people who find television too complex.


The Canuck hometown coverage of this situation is amusing; reporters work to maintain two contradictory ideas simultaneously. With one hand, they applaud Brûlé’s pluck and genius while subtly envying him his entrée into the glamorous jet-set stratosphere—local-boy-makes-good, basically. With the other hand, many of the same publications are chastising publications like Harry, the fat slick sent out to the menswear retailers’ most valued customers and sold on newsstands. There’s also a lot of disappointed tongue-clucking over the Loblaws’ President’s Choice Magazine. But the sternest admonitions are being flung at poor old Saturday Night. How dare it get Absolut Vodka to sponsor an excerpt from a novel?


The result seems to be a combination of championing Wallpaper* for its success as the most shameless whore ever to emerge from the country while at the same time dumping scorn on Canadian magazines for trying to maintain some kind of nominal propriety or claim to editorial integrity.


Seen in the context of Wallpaper*, Saturday Night looks like some quaint relic of bygone editorial rectitude. Maybe that’s why it’s being scolded: SN doesn’t go far enough.