When it comes to making a mark on media, few Canadians have been as brazen as Tyler Brûlé. While at the helm of Wallpaper* magazine—a publication he was the editor-in-chief of from 1996 to 2002—his sense of taste helped guide generation xers and yers through the ins and outs of an era that produced metrosexuality, hipster realness and the rebirth of the global luxury market. In contrast, Monocle—the magazine that the 47-year-old Winnipeg-born talent currently edits—tackles world events, business trends and, like Wallpaper*, blends a healthy mix of culture and design into its pages. Brûlé recently made his way to Toronto as an honouree of D/X Intersection, the Design Exchange’s annual fundraiser. The theme of the DX’s bash this year was DISPATCH—a title which plays with work coming from the 49th parallel’s cross-section of art, culture and design scenes. True to its name, the event featured work by RAW design, Sarah Keenlyside and Joseph Clement, among many other dissimilar Canuck creators coming from a variety of provinces and disciplines. Hours before Brûlé’s big night, he shared his thoughts on taste, trends and his own artistic triumphs.
A profile on you in The Guardian describes you as someone who is “art directing your life” and claims that your “style is your business model.” Do you agree with that?
You’d have to probably say that can almost be applied to many people who are running their own business. I had the good fortune to craft a business model and figure out a balance between what’s work and what that blurry bit is in between. I think we’re able to exploit that a little more. It’s not the same if you’re making garbage bins or something. That’s the great thing about being an entrepreneur—there’s that degree of freedom. In the world of media or in a creative field, you have a bit more license.
Does it get exhausting making sure every detail is accounted for if you’re constantly art directing your surroundings?
I would say that in company environments or even my home environments, the art is exacting. You become so close to it. We as a company have a good fortune to be surrounded by colleagues who come here for a reason. You’re taking on a job in terms of a set of responsibilities to recognize that your work environment—it doesn’t matter whether it’s at a magazine, whether we’re working on an airline, or developing a magazine for a certain party—your work environment is your calling card. I hope that if people come to an interview to work here, they already like the measure of the place. [I hope] they’ve come to an environment that they respect and want to grow within it. As a consequence, people appreciate that we create an environment and run a tight ship. We keep such a close eye on things.
Has it become second nature for you to have things set up in such a way that your environment reflects your aesthetic preferences?
In my work and private life, it’s [about] buying it right the first time. The office furniture we’ve gone with is hardy and durable. We bought it for the long haul thinking it had a beautiful design but it’s bloody well made as well. We don’t mind if it gets a bit dinged or dented because it starts to develop a personality. It’s probably the same thing that’s happened in my home. It’s not an exercise in precision by any stretch. I wish it was. I like things that don’t get too saggy at the edges and don’t require too much maintenance. They’re designed for how I want to live day in and day out.
What have you read today that you would consider inspiring?
I have a grab bag today. I’ve got the new Spanish Architectural Digest. I’ve got the International New York Times. I’ve got the Financial Times with me and last week’s New Yorker. Those are the main ones that are going to go home with me tonight.
Is good or bad taste something you’re born with or does your environment change your taste level?
I think it’s about conditioning. If people are exposed to environments long enough, suddenly when you plug them into a not very desirable or comfortable environment, they know pretty damn quickly. I think you’re able to acquire those cues. You can be a good writer with a lot of practice and reading and through repetition you can develop your own style. Will that get you a Pulitzer Prize? No. there’s certainly something that’s just there. You have that rare gift. I would say that of the Royal Architects and interior architects. It’s probably an extra 15% that just can’t be learned.
How would you define bad taste?
It’s just not making an effort. To me, so much of what you see that’s not great—bad lighting, an airline lounge that isn’t well thought through, walking out onto the office floor of a bank—a lot of it just happened to be given to someone in procurement to do the floor plan. They’re just not caring. I think that describes a lot of problems in public and private environments right now. So much of it is because the CEO doesn’t believe or the person in charge of the budget thinks, “I’ll just give that to finance.” The people in finance ultimately don’t really care about the environment or what the effect is going to be on the company’s output.
Björk recently did a talk in Montreal where she opened up on a theory called “it’s great to hate”. She feels certain negative feelings toward certain aesthetics lead you toward ones you love. Is that something that rings true for you?
It’s an interesting theory, perhaps one that’s cooked up when you have a lot of time in a dark place like Iceland…I think it’s overthinking the point. In short, no.
In an interview with the New York Times, you talked about how a good brand is built through repetition. What do you think of magazine teams that feel they need to keep rebranding or redesigning themselves in an effort to get a younger reader?
I’m not necessarily sure they should be chasing a younger reader. That’s not where the money is. Smart magazines, especially Western magazines, should probably be looking to markets like Japan which have a very high uptake when it comes to premium brands. There’s a higher margin of brands. They also have an aging population which is dignified and wants to purchase luxury goods. They don’t want to migrate into elastic waistband territory. I’m surprised by this relentless and short sighted—even though they think they’re playing the long game—view by chasing the fountain of youth. You only have to look at the spending power that we have in Canada. It’s not increasing. That goes for most Western developed economies. There is elasticity in the pocket book, but it tends to be with people who are 55+. That’s going to be with us for a while. That’s where the wealth is at the moment. It’s a short-sighted view on the part of publishers. You have to focus on delivering good editorial and people come. The other side is we’re in the midst of the most self-aware and self-unaware generation that perhaps humanity has ever known.
How so? Why is this generation so self-aware?
I’m not sure how we’ve arrived at a place where people start to speak of themselves as a generation. I don’t think we had this in the 60’s or 70’s. We speak in generations more often than not with the luxury of hindsight. You can define what that generation was. It’s fully formed. Now you have people say, “I expect this because I’m part of…” I don’t want to even mention the M-word on this phone call. “I’m part of this generation, therefore this is what my expectations are.” Wait a second; we should be serving you a good story or a good garment that you want to wear. Hopefully that appeals to people who are 19 but it also appeals to a consumer who has spending power and a sense of youth at 69. It’s this constant moving of the target when you’re trying to design covers and magazines by committees and focus groups. We have a hell of a lot of that going on. We’d never get anywhere…we don’t do it in this building, that’s for sure. If we invited people in to say, “What cover appeals to you?”, that’s the end of editorial as far as I’m concerned. That’s why you need strong editors with a point of view and experience. You start putting people in positions of power because they have an Instagram following…I was talking to the president of a very big luxury goods company who was saying that companies think that good content is because of Instagram followers.
What would you say is the most aesthetically pleasing Canadian invention in design so far?
I could say that it could be my Blackberry circa 2006. I’m fighting a battle to see if someone can still make a device with a proper keyboard on it. I like to be able to write proper sentences and fully formed paragraphs on a small screen. I’d like to maybe point to the glory days of the Blackberry.
In terms of fashion design, what would you say has been the most overdone Canadian motif you’ve seen?
I think the guys at Reigning Champ in Vancouver are perfecting a good sweatshirt. Having it made in Canada with Canadian workers, and as a Canadian-financed operation…also, the way it’s established internationally in Japan and the UK. People want a really good grey sweatshirt with no bells and whistles, no overt branding on it. I think those guys have done a great job. I’m always proud when I’m in Japan and you see someone wearing his products. It’s a relatively young company out of Vancouver. They have an appropriate name.
In terms of seeing our country’s motifs—things like paddles or beavers—when you’re watching something like the opening ceremonies to the Olympics…do you feel there are certain Canadian images that are played out?
An American colleague I was traveling with was watching CTV with me. There was some flourish of a maple leaf in the back of the opening title sequence of the news. Her point of view was, “Why the maple leaf? It’s a Canadian network. We know where we are.” Even if you’re on the other side of the border, you don’t need to slap me in the face with a maple leaf. Of course, it’s part of our defining iconography of the nation. I think we have a habit of overusing it. I don’t see our commonwealth cousins in the UK or the Aussies or Kiwis slapping a Union Jack on everything. I would say that they’ve come up with a broader language of devices to use. Even though Canada’s turning 150, it’s a sign of infancy and insecurity that there’s still this desire to apply…it’s also not particularly creative. I do get a bit depressed.
Does your family still inform your taste? Does that still happen? Do they give you certain cues and tips?
Absolutely. My mom’s very involved in everything from what happens in the Toronto office and how it looks as much as getting involved in the New York office. In terms of projects, they’re renovating a house in Italy—near Bolzano—so she’s been very involved in that..
Is there an artist that’s recently floored you?
I’ve got quite a few pieces from Geoff McFetridge but nothing beyond that.
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