Tuesday, January 10, 2012
ON a rainy Thursday last month, Tyler Brûlé huddled over a cappuccino at Le Pain Quotidien in Greenwich Village, offering a peek at the future: a Heritage G2 tabletop radio designed for Monocle 24, a new radio station he is starting.
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There is something Teutonic and midcentury about the G2, which is made in Scotland from brushed aluminum and American walnut. Despite an iPhone dock and organic LED screen, it looks like a machine built for breaking bulletins on the Berlin crisis of 1961.
“It’s an object with provenance,” said Mr. Brûlé, 43, who looked immaculate in a custom blue flannel blazer, rolled Edwin jeans and Pierre Hardy desert boots that seemed box-fresh, despite dodging puddles all day. “There’s clearly a design language there which hearkens back to the work of the German industrial designer Dieter Rams.”
The idea that a century-old electronic device, which few people under 40 seem to own, holds the key to his media empire’s next phase might strike some as far-fetched, if not downright delusional. But then again, Mr. Brûlé has made a career of defying conventional wisdom.
For the last 15 years, Mr. Brûlé, an Estonian-Canadian who keeps his perma-stubble artfully cropped like Tom Ford’s, has gone outside the publishing establishment and started two culture magazines regarded as bibles in certain design-savvy circles: Wallpaper and Monocle.
And he did so while upending notions of what a media company does.
While everyone hailed the iPad as the savior of print, Mr. Brûlé put out a limited-edition newspaper for the slopes of Gstaad and the beaches of Cannes. While retailers rushed online, Mr. Brûlé opened a chain of Monocle boutiques, a micro-extension of the magazine’s shopper-as-curator ethos. And while music migrates to the cloud, Mr. Brûlé started a radio station, with “an international playlist” that samples sounds “from Seoul to Stockholm.”
The common thread behind these disparate ventures is Mr. Brûlé himself, who embodies the border-agnostic sophisticate whom the Monocle brand is built around. His globe-trotting persona (cocktails-with-Danish-diplomats intellectualism, sleeper-seat jaunts to Taipei) has inspired legions of followers, who hang on his oracular pronouncements on what’s next.
“There is definitely a cult of Tyler,” said Jenna Lyons, the president and creative director of J. Crew. “I traveled with him to Japan, and every place we’d walk in, they’d say, ‘Oh, Mr. Brûlé, so nice to meet you!’ And it was all kinds of stores: tech stores, clothing stores, furniture stores.”
When was the last time a magazine editor inspired such adulation?
IN the world according to Monocle, Mr. Brûlé is the walking cynosure of the good life. In addition to his global media company, for which he won Advertising Age’s “editor of the year” award in October, he writes a column, Fast Lane, in The Financial Times, in which he chronicles his adventures as a globe-trotting connoisseur, bent on unearthing the rarefied and idiosyncratic. (He was also a columnist for T: The New York Times style magazine.) In a recent Fast Lane column, he regaled readers about a dinner at a ryokan, a traditional country inn, near Karuizawa, Japan. One of the “small luxuries of ryokan life is the total lack of choice when it comes to dining,” Mr. Brûlé wrote. “While I’m not always up for an elaborate 17-course kaiseki dinner, I’m nevertheless thrilled that someone’s done the thinking for me.”
His discriminating palate has earned him the admiration of fellow tastemakers. “Tyler is able to suck you into his world because he lives the life,” said André Balazs, the hotelier. “I’ve rarely met anyone who is more of an embodiment of the lifestyle that they espouse.”
That lifestyle also invites ridicule. Christopher Fowler, a British writer, recently mocked the elitist tone in his blog. “Is style guru Tyler Brûlé the world’s most annoying man?” Mr. Fowler asked, in a post entitled, “Things You Could Wish Upon Tyler Brûlé.” It is impossible, he added, “to get through one of his newspaper columns without being made to feel physically ill at the level of name-dropping he manages.”
But Mr. Brûlé has managed to inspire cultish devotion partly from the perception that he gets the tiniest details right. Employees at the Midori House — the Japanese-inflected name he conferred on the modernist brick building in the Marylebone neighborhood of London that is the headquarters of Monocle — understand that Mr. Brûlé likes things done a certain way.
Staff members do not drape coats haphazardly from the backs of chairs, but hang them in orderly fashion in a nearby closet. They do not eat at their desks, sprinkling keyboards with crumbs, but dine in groups in the office’s sleek canteen. They do not fling business cards across tables during meetings, but present them standing, with an air of Asian deference. The rules are unspoken, but understood.
“It makes us sound a little cultish,” said Aisha Speirs, the magazine’s New York editor, only half-joking.
Mr. Brûlé acquired his internationalist tastes early, even though he was born in landlocked Winnipeg, Canada, the only child of Paul Brûlé, a defensive back and fullback in the Canadian Football League. His mother, Virge Brûlé, an artist, emigrated from Estonia.
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The Heritage radio by Revo that was designed for Monocle 24, a radio station that Tyler Brûlé is starting.
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The Monocle Shop in London, just a few parts of his empire.
Around the dinner table, they talked about life behind the Iron Curtain. That global sensibility seeped into the décor, too. “I was surrounded by Danish furniture, because that’s what Estonians felt safe buying when they came to Canada after the war,” he said.
Mr. Brûlé aspired to be a network anchorman like his idol, Peter Jennings, and in his early 20s, he was a reporter in London for the BBC and other networks. He landed in war-torn Afghanistan in 1994, reporting for a German newsmagazine, where he nearly died after being shot twice in a sniper attack.
Back in London to recuperate, he ruminated on a saner way to live. His epiphany: Wallpaper, a design and culture magazine he started in 1996. Instead of a voyeuristic peek into the homes of the gentry, Wallpaper created fantasy interiors with borrowed furniture and Gucci-suited models.
The aesthetic, like Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, was a triumph of retro-futurism, of Borge Mogensen chairs and shaggy Kasthall rugs. It quickly attracted a cult following among Generation X entrepreneurs riding the 1990s boom.
“I call them global nomads,” Mr. Brûlé, then 29, explained in a 1998 New York Times article, “Generation Wallpaper.” “Whether they’re a West Coast snowboarder, a copy writer for a hot advertising firm in Stockholm or a grunge kid working in an indie record shop that suddenly got a film deal, there’s a degree of affluence all of a sudden.”
“They need advice on how to live a sophisticated lifestyle,” he added.
The magazine earned him a lifetime achievement award from the British Society of Magazine Editors at 33, making him the youngest recipient ever. Time Inc. snatched up Wallpaper in less than a year, keeping Mr. Brûlé on as editorial director. He finally left in 2002.
Bound by a noncompete clause, he focused largely on Wink Media (now Winkreative), a branding and advertising agency that he still runs from Midori House. This time, it was the corporate world that sought out the Tyler Brûlé touch. Among the early big-name clients: he was hired to rebrand Swissair as Swiss International Air Lines with a sleek new look that extended to the cabins’ lighting and crew uniforms.
Still, journalism was where his heart lay. So in 2007, as the industry spiraled into an identity crisis over its digital future, he pushed forward with Monocle, a publication that was a celebration of print in all its sensual pleasures.
His inspiration came from (where else?) the airport terminal. While waiting for his flight, he would see people grab a copy of the Economist, along with something less cerebral, like GQ. “I thought, ‘Well why can’t we do that?’ Mix it up and add a few things,” he said.
If Wallpaper targeted snowboarders who had made their first killing, Monocle targets the same reader after a decade of running a multinational corporation. A worldliness is assumed. Each issue is the size of a Sotheby’s catalog, printed on upward of nine different paper stocks, crammed with extremely niche articles about carbon-neutral airlines in Costa Rica and sleek Afghan restaurants in Dubai.
Celebrity profiles? Only if you count Abubaker Karmos, Libya’s chargé d’affaires in Canada, as a star.
For loyal subjects, Monocle was an exclusive club as much as a beach read. That may explain its unorthodox business model. To increase circulation, most magazines sell heavily discounted subscriptions. Monocle, on the other hand, charges more: it costs $10 at newsstands but $130 for a yearly subscription of 10 issues.
The idea of targeting elites willing to pay that much for a premium product allowed the magazine to become profitable two years ago, despite a global distribution of about 150,000.
That also attracted luxury advertisers like Rolex and BMW that not only buy full-page color ads in Monocle, but also in Monocle Mediterraneo and Monocle Alpino, the company’s new seasonable newspapers found in tony resorts.
Some of Tyler Brûlé’s favorite things. EYEGLASSES Oliver Goldsmith.
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More than a throwaway periodical, Monocle is a status symbol, a prop poking out of a Jack Spade carry-on, announcing to the saps in the back of the plane that you’re a member of the international aesthete class. Trendy stores like J. Crew Liquor Store and Freemans Sporting Club display it as a chic accessory.
Indeed, new inductees sometimes order the whole back catalog to show off on bookshelves, Mr. Brûlé said, like the Encyclopaedia Britannica for cool kids. (Never mind that few people ever seem to read an issue cover to cover.)
This is one reason Mr. Brûlé has no plans for a Monocle magazine app yet: on an iPad, no one can see you reading Monocle.
“So many media companies these days forget the power of the brand, of people actually displaying, and wearing, the media brand,” he said. “In public circumstances where you have to choose a seat, you can look at a person’s shoes, you can look at their luggage, and oftentimes, it’s interesting to see what they’re reading as well. ‘Do I want to be near that person or not?’ ”
ON his most recent visit to New York, Mr. Brûlé found himself near a couple of dozen people who made the cut. They were staff members and friends sipping Champagne at Aria Wine Bar in the West Village at an intimate party celebrating Monocle’s year-end issue.
The party looked like a tableau vivant of Monocle’s tiny but influential band of followers. Japanese consular officials nibbled Gorgonzola-stuffed dates alongside hoteliers, clothing designers and dapper workers from the Wallpaper days who, a decade later, still profess undying loyalty to Mr. Brûlé’s vision.
Mr. Brûlé looked as put-together as always, breezily chatting with a Danish diplomat about how Brazilians give the best parties. But, even though Mr. Brûlé counts jet lag as something of a moral failing, he seemed a bit worn out. This was not surprising, given that he travels more than 250 days a year, and maintains an apartment in London, a winter flat in St. Moritz and a summer house on a tiny island he owns in the Stockholm Archipelago with his longtime partner, Mats Klingberg.
It didn’t matter. This was a place he could relax. He was surrounded by friends. The room, with its warm lighting and unfinished birch tables, oozed hygge, a Danish concept of convivial coziness that Mr. Brûlé holds dear. Even the clothes were right.
At every corner of the party, young men stood in virtual uniform. They wore blazers, rolled jeans and their stubble just so. Just like Tyler.
Patricia Wall/The New York Times