Tony Chambers: Bringing Texture to Wallpaper*

Tony Chambers, brand and content director of design magazine Wallpaper*, is the president of the 2018 Epica Awards jury. Here he talks about the pursuit of excellence and the timeless power of human ideas.

Picture © Chris Floyd 

If there’s only one reason to listen to Tony Chambers – and  actually there are many of them – it’s that he runs a profitable magazine in an era when print’s fortunes have been rocky, to say the least.

In fact, the unapologetically glossy Wallpaper* is the centrepiece of an entire platform of design-oriented media, including a site, apps, city guides, an online store, an awards show and a conference. Tony oversees the entire brand, but it’s clear that the magazine has a special place in his heart.

“It’s still the backbone, and I think people are more aware of the value of print as the flag-bearer for a media brand than they were, say, five years ago. Everyone was saying print was dead, but it’s certainly not. When you do it right, it’s extremely valuable.”

Tony practically has print in his veins. He studied graphic design and typography at Central Saint Martin’s in London before landing an internship – and then a job – at the Sunday Times Magazine in the late 1980s. As anybody who remembers the magazine from its heyday can attest, this meant he learned from the best.

“These were people who were incredibly well-versed in the nuances of quality journalism, so as a kid I just sucked it all in.” He worked under legendary art director Michael Rand, who had already been at The Times for more than 20 years at that point and would remain until 1994. “The penny dropped that the art department was the engine room of the magazine. The images were coming from one direction and the words from the other, and it was your job to put them together to make the product whole. I saw that what I’d learned in graphics, when combined with journalism, was an incredibly powerful tool. Prior to that I’d imagined I’d end up as a graphic designer, but I got bitten by the journalism bug. It was the best education imaginable.”

After ten years at The Times, and now thoroughly versed in magazine lore, he became art director of men’s style magazine GQ,where he spent seven years steering its look. No easy task, as men’s mags in the UK were going resolutely downmarket, while GQ wanted to maintain a veneer of elegance. “They needed to shake up the contents, which became far more racy and controversial, but it still had to look sophisticated and luxurious, because that was where the advertisers were coming from. In a way it was a bit of a magic act.”

 

HOW TO SAVE A MAGAZINE

 

When he was approached by Wallpaper* he was a little uncertain. Launched by Tyler Brûlé in 1997, the magazine had broken new ground by treating design and architecture with the same verve that other publications covered fashion. Five years on, Brûlé was gone and the title had lost some of its lustre. Together with new editor Jeremy Langmead, Tony’s mission was to give it a second wind.

“With a lot of guile and experience we steadied the ship and then turned it round.” And then some. When he joined, the magazine was losing money. For the past three years, both the magazine and its digital components have enjoyed double-digit advertising growth. “It came out of extremely hard work and not a few risks. Now we’re in a good spot because the advertisers understand our audience: sophisticated, educated and willing to spend.”

After Langmead’s departure, when Tony was interviewed for the editor’s role, he reiterated his vision of Wallpaper* as multi-platform brand. “I was always aware it had that potential.” One of his earlier decisions had been to plough time and resources into creating a truly excellent website – a decision fully supported, he says, by then publishing director Fiona Dent, who was “passionate” about digital. 

“We didn’t want to replicate the magazine or just reprint press releases. We wanted valuable content, created by a dedicated team. My opinion has always been that if you’re going to do something, you must do it properly. If you do something half-heartedly, that’s where the trouble lies. And we were right. Our advertisers trusted us and it went into profit almost right away.”

He insisted, however, that brand diversity should never be pursued at the expense of the core product – the magazine. “Digital and print can and will exist side by side. Especially, I think, in the luxury sector, where print is a pleasure: a magazine is a beautiful object, something you really want to hold.” 

For that reason, Tony decided to celebrate and enhance the print product, raising the quality of the paper stock and emphasising the magazine’s commitment to top-drawer looks and content. “One of the things that marks us out is that all the editorial team are creative people. Designers write about design, the architecture reporter is a trained architect. So they care as much about the look of the magazine as they do the words.” 

The magazine’s slogan – appended to its signature asterisk – used to be “the stuff that surrounds us”. Now it’s “the stuff that refines us”, which neatly sums up its constant search for the finer things of life. The same philosophy extends to its series of tightly-edited city guides, as well its various apps.

 

A FOCUS ON THE HUMAN

 

And then there’s the Brainstorm Design Conference, run in association with Time and Fortune magazines and backed by the Singaporean government. “This has taken the brand to a completely different platform, which is live events. It really brings the page to life – all the great contacts we have, all the designers and architects and manufacturers, it’s about getting them on stage. I’ve found that people love a live experience, which I think is also due to digital saturation. Live is the future of engagement.”

While happy to exploit the potential of digital, he sees it as a servant of human interaction and creativity. In fact, one of the things that makes him an ideal Epica jury president is his solid belief in the importance of creative ideas. 

“Ideas are always ahead of technology – and thank God, that will forever be the case,” he says, recalling that the original vision of Wallpaper*’s website far exceeded the technology that was available at the time. “We need to remember that technology is just a tool. Everything is driven by human beings with good ideas.”

Mark Tungate is the editorial director of The Epica Awards, which will take place in Amsterdam on November 15.


TOPIC: design