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Elle Décor’s Editor In Chief, Whitney Robinson To Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni: “It Isn’t About Showcasing Just The Pretty Or The Chic, But Showcasing Also The Cutting Edge And The Sublime.” The Mr. Magazine™ Interview…

November 16, 2017

“I want to thank you for reading the magazine. It means a lot, because what I say to people is this, especially in a world of 15-second sound-bites; a world where everything refreshes literally in seconds, on your phones, on your screens, in front of you; for people to actually know what’s happening in the magazine, they have to read it cover to cover. And they have to go on the journey with us and with me to see how we are iterating this magazine and how we’re changing it for the 21st century.” Whitney Robinson…

“I’m doing this out of the deep passion and love and commitment that I have for this industry, but it’s also because I really do believe passionately that design is all around us; everywhere we are.” Whitney Robinson…

For nearly 30 years Elle Décor has been on the cutting edge of design, of where fashion and the home meet. The magazine has showcased international trends, with its 30 worldwide editions, and has also kept the American Dream of a sanctuary at home alive and well, while opening its pages to a unique mix of culture, cuisine, art and travel, at the same time.

This past summer Whitney Robinson was named editor in chief after his most recent position as style director at Town & Country, where he wrote, assigned and collaborated on a wide variety of stories and topics. Whitney comes to Elle Décor with a diverse blend of knowledge and vision for the brand.

I spoke with Whitney recently and we talked about that knowledgeable vision he has. His thought processes are very straightforward: audience first, readers first. Put the beautiful out there alongside the unusual and the unique, and then let the readers decide. But always show them everything, respecting their ability to discern what they prefer. Audience first; Mr. Magazine™ definitely agrees with that course of action.

So, before you begin reading this most intriguing interview with a man who definitely has a panache and style of his own, let us all take a moment to wish Whitney a very Happy Birthday, as he celebrates on November 16. Happy Birthday, Whitney! And here’s wishing you many, many more! And now the interview with Elle Décor’s editor in chief.

But first the sound-bites:

On what a print magazine should look like in 2017: That’s a very good question; I call it a 3-D Venn Diagram, because I don’t think it can look like one thing and I don’t think it’s the same thing day-to-day and I don’t think it’s the same thing from medium to medium. What that means is, especially for a magazine like Elle Décor; we have many different facets of the magazine.

On whether the reengineering of the magazine, beginning with the October issue, presents a more intentionally humanized element within the pages: We’re iterating in real time. And this is something that I think few magazine editors have done before, probably for good reason (laughs), because we’re a little crazy here, which I think you have to be. And that means, rather than showcase a magazine the way it was, and then just spend six months figuring it out, or eight months, or a year, whatever it is for a typical redesign, and then introduce that to your audience…which by the way, historically has always failed. There are very few instances of a full redesign of any magazine in the last 30 years that has worked, both for subscribers – the loyalists, and also on the newsstand. So, what we decided to do was take a much more contemporary approach to that by experimenting.

On whether he feels the American edition of Elle Décor sets the precedent for the international editions: Historically, you’re talking about a numbers game here. We had the most subscribers and newsstand sales and therefore as a de facto, we became the global leader in showcasing what the magazine could be. And I think taking a more holistic view of this brand; it’s a very American concept, as opposed to dividing it into total, and so, sure; I love for our European counterparts; our Asian counterparts; and our South American counterparts to take a look at what we’re doing here and dovetail into it.

On whether he’s on top of the mountain now or he feels there’s more climbing for him and the magazine: Oh, we haven’t even started. We’re just beginning, and I say that to our readers as well. They’re along on this journey with us, and I thank them for that, because it is a journey. And again, rather than dumb it down or placate them or showcase this monolithic vision of something, I’ve really invited everybody to the party.

On the human feel of the magazine: And there’s a lot of reasons for that. And I’ve said this before, it’s about bringing in the whole world of design and that includes our sections on interiors, fashion and food. And it’s really not the specific topics, because I didn’t invent that coverage in this magazine. I didn’t invent celebrity coverage in this magazine, they’ve been covering it for 30 years. I didn’t invent food in this magazine, Daniel Boulud has been our resident chef for 25 years. What we’ve done is made the topics that we’re covering with those people more relevant, so they don’t feel evergreen or out of time. But actually, and this is where fashion comes in, similar to fashion or pop culture magazines, and more plugged into what’s actually happening in the world around us.

On the back page of the magazine, which has been dubbed the “Not for Sale” page: The genesis of that came from a studio visit with Lindsey Adelman, who is a very well-respected designer in Manhattan. She’s been working in the business for about 25 years, but when she created this brass chandelier, she became super-well-known and super-lauded, and now has a robust global practice. I was in Lindsey’s studio and she showed me ceramic vessels that her son had made for her and I told her they were fantastic. I said that we have to put them in the magazine, and she told me that they weren’t for sale. And I thought that was a sentiment for our time, and because there is so much product in the magazine and so many things for sale, I felt that we needed something that was a bit different.

On his biggest challenge: My biggest challenge is to convince everybody, that’s everyone’s biggest challenge. I’m doing this out of the deep passion and love and commitment that I have for this industry, but it’s also because I really do believe passionately that design is all around us; everywhere we are. From the look of our coffee cups to the cars that we drive to the design of our iPhones it’s absolutely everywhere. And so, talking about it in such a way where it’s more than just pretty; although “just pretty” sometimes matters just as much. But we’re talking about it in a deeper way.

On what’s coming up in 2018 for the brand: It’s a journey. So, we’re ever-evolving; I’m also a Scorpio so it’s my nature. You should do the zodiac signs of editor in chiefs, because I think there’s quite a few of us in this building who have birthdays this week. It’s ever-evolving, but it isn’t that we break news, just to get down to brass tacks and practicality, but it’s that we look like that moment in time that we’re making this magazine.

On anything else he’d like to add: I’m very glad that Elle Décor is a part of the conversation. Again, historically, design magazines have been put to the side, where people say they love design and décor magazines, and they’re so easy to read. But actually, design magazines are functioning in the space that everyone else is too, and we’re asking challenging questions; we’re showcasing magnificent homes around the world, but we’re also relevant.

On what he would have tattooed upon his brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about him: That I thought differently and we were able to change people’s perceptions. I think that’s the ultimate goal. It’s the hardest one. Someone once told me that if you think you’re going to a “clap, clap” emoji for changing people’s opinions, think again. (Laughs)

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at his home: What day is it? Some days you’ll find me at CVS on a Sunday morning, reading all of the papers. Or I’ll be reading articles, ripping things out, getting mad at my editors because we didn’t get something first, calling our contributors to do it, and then watching 60 Minutes. That’s my Sunday. Yesterday, I was playing with a Nintendo Switch all day, and it’s a fantastic piece of technology, by the way. It changes day-to-day, I guess.

On what keeps him up at night: Zero. I sleep like a baby. I’m a deep sleeper. People ask me this question, and it’s so funny; we do this for passion. It’s a passion project. People have a lot of different goals; if your goal is cash, go work for Goldman Sachs. If your goal is politics, go work in the White House or you can work for the Peace Corps. The passion for what we do in magazines is such a specific thing; it’s a band of outsiders, a gangly group, who really believe passionately in this industry.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Whitney Robinson, editor in chief, Elle Décor.

Samir Husni: In your editor’s letter for the October issue, you write – Apologies to those who have heard this spiel before, but here it goes: What should a print magazine look like in 2017? So, what should it look like?

Whitney Robinson: That’s a very good question; I call it a 3-D Venn Diagram, because I don’t think it can look like one thing and I don’t think it’s the same thing day-to-day and I don’t think it’s the same thing from medium to medium. What that means is, especially for a magazine like Elle Décor; we have many different facets of the magazine.

So, we have our print magazine, which is the core of what we do; it’s what brings in the majority of our revenue, and it’s where most people familiarize themselves with the brand historically. At the same time, we have 2.2 million Instagram followers, a huge social following for any brand at Hearst, but also the most socially-engaged brand at Hearst, which means we get the most comments per post than any other brand here, and that’s extraordinary.

We have a robust online platform, elledecor.com. And we have 31 editions total of Elle Décor around the globe. And on top of that, we have the halo of Elle too. And if you were sitting in front of me now, you’d see me drawing circles with a coffee cup and a candlestick to demonstrate the fact that this is a moving Venn Diagram. And depending on where we are in a cycle, and what stories we’re trying to tell, the importance of each medium changes and ebbs and flows.

But what a magazine should look like in 2017, a print magazine specifically, is something that you want to have pride-of-place on your coffee table or your bookshelves, but it should also be reflective of the time and place that it’s being made. That is to say, if you’re working on a December issue, and our December issue recently hit newsstands; that issue should look like December 2017. It should be reflective of both the topics and the subjects that are inside of it, and also what’s on the cover, and of any given moment of that particular time. Not six months before; not six months after.

Samir Husni: Since you began the reengineering of Elle Décor, from the October, November and December issues; are you trying to humanize the brand? As I read those three issues, I felt there was a strong element of humanization within the brand; is that intentional, or am I now seeing more of Whitney on the pages of Elle Décor?

Whitney Robinson: I want to answer your question, but first I want to thank you for reading the magazine. It means a lot, because what I say to people is this, especially in a world of 15-second sound-bites; a world where everything refreshes literally in seconds, on your phones, on your screens, in front of you; for people to actually know what’s happening in the magazine, they have to read it cover to cover. And they have to go on the journey with us and with me to see how we are iterating this magazine and how we’re changing it for the 21st century.

And what I would say is that we’re doing just that; we’re iterating in real time. And this is something that I think few magazine editors have done before, probably for good reason (laughs), because we’re a little crazy here, which I think you have to be. And that means, rather than showcase a magazine the way it was, and then just spend six months figuring it out, or eight months, or a year, whatever it is for a typical redesign, and then introduce that to your audience…which by the way, historically has always failed. There are very few instances of a full redesign of any magazine in the last 30 years that has worked, both for subscribers – the loyalists, and also on the newsstand.

So, what we decided to do was take a much more contemporary approach to that by experimenting. We’re saying, here’s what the world of Elle Décor looks like, which simply is wherever design happens, and that’s everywhere design happens. So, we’re taking a look at global design, and as a journalist of global design, if you read my editor’s letter, it isn’t about showcasing just the pretty or the chic, but showcasing also the cutting edge and the sublime. And making sure that we show you everything that’s out there, and then letting the reader decide what they like or don’t like.

And I think, perhaps controversially, it’s not about someone saying that they love everything in the magazine or they even like it, it’s about them seeing what’s out there and then letting them choose their own adventure. Iterating in real time means that you show the breadth of what the magazine could be. It does not mean that every section we do or that we have in the magazine that you see in any given issue will continue. And the idea that a magazine can be a living thing doesn’t mean we don’t want a consistency or a thread of a vision that runs through all of it, but that’s a more subtle concept or conceit, than the fact that we can change columns as we see fit. We can reflect, again, the time and the place that it’s being made, to make sure that we’re staying as current as possible.

It doesn’t mean breaking news, by the way. If you want to break news, then you should work on the digital platform. If you want to reflect the news and if you want to create a specific point of view…which is, by the way, what these magazines were able to do and why they were so popular in the beginning, because they provided a specific point of view. You knew what you were going to get when you picked up the magazine. And I hope people pick up this magazine and realize that they’re going to get the best global design. And they’re going to get the most informed, smartest, the most beautiful visceral vision of that global design.

Samir Husni: In your editor’s letter, you’re engaging your readers with all of the evolution that’s taking place at Elle Décor, and as an editor of a brand that exists in over 30 markets worldwide, do you feel an intense responsibility to the other markets? As though whatever you do here is going to be reflected worldwide? How do you interact with the responsibility of the American edition of Elle Décor? Is it setting the stage for everybody else?

Whitney Robinson: Historically, you’re talking about a numbers game here. We had the most subscribers and newsstand sales and therefore as a de facto, we became the global leader in showcasing what the magazine could be. And I think taking a more holistic view of this brand; it’s a very American concept, as opposed to dividing it into total, and so, sure; I love for our European counterparts; our Asian counterparts; and our South American counterparts to take a look at what we’re doing here and dovetail into it.

And I tell you, we’ve already gotten great feedback from our counterparts in Europe, particularly from the U.K. and Ben Spriggs, an editor who just took over the helm of that magazine, and he’s thrilled with what we’re doing and we’re talking about how we can collaborate better together already. And that’s unprecedented.

Samir Husni: Are you now on top of the mountain or is there still more climbing you and Elle Décor need to do?

Whitney Robinson: Oh, we haven’t even started. We’re just beginning, and I say that to our readers as well. They’re along on this journey with us, and I thank them for that, because it is a journey. And again, rather than dumb it down or placate them or showcase this monolithic vision of something, I’ve really invited everybody to the party.

Are there more people in this magazine; sure; lifestyle has been a dirty word, but not for me. If people want to call it lifestyle, then so be it. It is about the best of design, but it really shows how people live today. And if anyone thinks that’s radical, then they’re not actually living in the world here. It’s about how people interact with everything; the ME generation, so we’re talking about how we can reflect out, but imitate in a beautiful way. And it’s not about selfies and writing LOL in my copy, which I’ve been quoted as saying before. But it is about taking a more conversational approach to our text; it’s about taking a looser look at our photography, so it doesn’t feel so tight.

Samir Husni: And I felt that humanization; it was very evident to me.

Whitney Robinson: And there’s a lot of reasons for that. And I’ve said this before, it’s about bringing in the whole world of design and that includes our sections on interiors, fashion and food. And it’s really not the specific topics, because I didn’t invent that coverage in this magazine. I didn’t invent celebrity coverage in this magazine, they’ve been covering it for 30 years. I didn’t invent food in this magazine, Daniel Boulud has been our resident chef for 25 years. What we’ve done is made the topics that we’re covering with those people more relevant, so they don’t feel evergreen or out of time. But actually, and this is where fashion comes in, similar to fashion or pop culture magazines, and more plugged into what’s actually happening in the world around us.

Samir Husni: One of the things that really stands out to me is your back page; the “Not for Sale” page. Would you tell me a little more about the idea of showcasing and having something in the magazine that’s not for sale?

Whitney Robinson: The genesis of that came from a studio visit with Lindsey Adelman, who is a very well-respected designer in Manhattan. She’s been working in the business for about 25 years, but when she created this brass chandelier, she became super-well-known and super-lauded, and now has a robust global practice.

I was in Lindsey’s studio and she showed me ceramic vessels that her son had made for her and I told her they were fantastic. I said that we have to put them in the magazine, and she told me that they weren’t for sale. And I asked, what do you mean they’re not for sale? And she explained how meaningful they were to her, because they were made by her son. And she didn’t feel that everything had to have a commercial value placed on it in order to be valuable.

And I thought that was a sentiment for our time, and because there is so much product in the magazine and so many things for sale, I felt that we needed something that was a bit different. And back pages are often; I won’t say they’re a throwaway, but they’re often the last thing that you get to. Often, they’re easy to produce and don’t require a ton of thought, and again that goes across the board from fashion to home. And this is really an antidote to the rest of the commerciality of the magazine. The idea that it has a social conscience as well was built into the fact that we wanted people to be able to donate to charities of their choice by showcasing these items. So, it’s something that does well for the magazine, but also does good. And that’s a model that I’m always using in the creation of Elle Décor.

Samir Husni: What’s your biggest challenge now?

Whitney Robinson: My biggest challenge is to convince everybody, that’s everyone’s biggest challenge. I’m doing this out of the deep passion and love and commitment that I have for this industry, but it’s also because I really do believe passionately that design is all around us; everywhere we are. From the look of our coffee cups to the cars that we drive to the design of our iPhones it’s absolutely everywhere. And so, talking about it in such a way where it’s more than just pretty; although “just pretty” sometimes matters just as much. But we’re talking about it in a deeper way.

Samir Husni: What is coming up for Whitney and Elle Décor in 2018?

Whitney Robinson: It’s a journey. So, we’re ever-evolving; I’m also a Scorpio so it’s my nature. You should do the zodiac signs of editor in chiefs, because I think there’s quite a few of us in this building who have birthdays this week. It’s ever-evolving, but it isn’t that we break news, just to get down to brass tacks and practicality, but it’s that we look like that moment in time that we’re making this magazine.

And our schedule is really just about four weeks out now, which has made everyone on the staff get on their toes, and that’s exciting. And rather than know what’s going to happen a year from now, which is historically how a lot of shelter magazines are produced, they produce about a year in advance and that’s how they photograph; ours is produced to the cuff. So, we produce as a news magazine would, like a New York Times Magazine. We produce really close up until we ship.

Samir Husni: Is there anything you’d like to add?

Whitney Robinson: I’m very glad that Elle Décor is a part of the conversation. Again, historically, design magazines have been put to the side, where people say they love design and décor magazines, and they’re so easy to read. But actually, design magazines are functioning in the space that everyone else is too, and we’re asking challenging questions; we’re showcasing magnificent homes around the world, but we’re also relevant.

Samir Husni: If you could have one thing tattooed upon your brain that no one would ever forget about you, what would it be?

Whitney Robinson: That I thought differently and we were able to change people’s perceptions. I think that’s the ultimate goal. It’s the hardest one. Someone once told me that if you think you’re going to a “clap, clap” emoji for changing people’s opinions, think again. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly at your home one evening after work, what would I find you doing? Having a glass of wine; reading a magazine; cooking; watching TV; or something else?

Whitney Robinson: What day is it? Some days you’ll find me at CVS on a Sunday morning, reading all of the papers. Or I’ll be reading articles, ripping things out, getting mad at my editors because we didn’t get something first, calling our contributors to do it, and then watching 60 Minutes. That’s my Sunday. Yesterday, I was playing with a Nintendo Switch all day, and it’s a fantastic piece of technology, by the way. It changes day-to-day, I guess.

What day are we at? For example, today, I’m off on the Red-Eye; I have to ship the magazine today. We’re shipping a cover, and I do not have a dinner tonight, so I will be home with my partner, and we’ll probably cook a Persian meal, because Mark is half Persian, half German, so we’ll cook a Persian stew up, and I’ll put on a rerun of Charlie Rose or Masterpiece. We’re real housewives; we flip through it all. We like a little bit of everything. You know, you can say that you watch Real Housewives or you can lie about watching Real Housewives, but the truth is, you know what we’re talking about. So, we watch a little bit of everything.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Whitney Robinson: Zero. I sleep like a baby. I’m a deep sleeper. People ask me this question, and it’s so funny; we do this for passion. It’s a passion project. People have a lot of different goals; if your goal is cash, go work for Goldman Sachs. If your goal is politics, go work in the White House or you can work for the Peace Corps. The passion for what we do in magazines is such a specific thing; it’s a band of outsiders, a gangly group, who really believe passionately in this industry. So, I wake up excited to do this every day. I get to talk about and write about and tell stories about incredible people, places and things. What more could you ask for?

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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