Celebrating design for 20 years

Wallpaper*'s editor- in-chief Tony Chambers has elevated the magazine to a brand

Tony Chambers, editor-in-chief of Wallpaper* ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Print is supposed to be dead and paper magazines are folding in this digital age, but that is not the memo that Wallpaper* got.

In October, the influential design and lifestyle magazine turned 20 - a milestone these days in a struggling print landscape.

Its anniversary issue was its biggest ever, with 508 pages - twice the size of a standard issue.

It featured interviews with "game changers" such as pop star-turned- fashion designer Victoria Beckham and maverick hotelier Ian Schrager, who is widely credited with starting the boutique hotel trend with his Morgans Hotel.

Its cover was by English designer Thomas Heatherwick, known for his redesign of London's iconic red double-decker bus, and had panels that slid out to reveal the number 20.

But the magazine, which explores interiors, architecture, fashion and art, has evolved into something much more than just a monthly.

Wallpaper* owes much of its current clout to Englishman Tony Chambers, 53, who has been editor-in- chief since 2007. He was previously art director for GQ Magazine, a leading publication for men's fashion.

After he took on the top post, it went from being just a magazine to a brand.

He introduced more than 100 pocket City Guides and created a successful website and an iPad edition, in time to feed the digital thirst. It also has an in-house creative agency and interior design service.

Every year at Milan Design Week, design aficionados throng Wallpaper*Handmade, an annual exhibition Chambers created, where designers, artists and craftsmen are commissioned to create bespoke items such as furniture for the themed event.

The diversified offerings are a long way from Wallpaper*s print-only origins. The magazine was launched in 1996 by Canadian journalist Tyler Brule, who is also the founder and current editor-in-chief of the international magazine Monocle. He sold Wallpaper* to media company Time Warner in 1997.

In retrospect, Chambers says the magazine was a trailblazer. "Now everyone else wants to be a brand because he knows it's the way forward, but Wallpaper* always had that. It's always of the moment."

Chambers, who was in Singapore last month, was not always this confident about Wallpaper*.

Back in 2003 when he joined as creative director, he felt the seven- year-old magazine had "passed its best (time)".

He was also not keen on jumping ship from GQ Magazine. But he changed his mind after being convinced by its then-editor Jeremy Langmead.

He says: "When Wallpaper* was launched, no one had done anything like that. There was a conflation of different worlds between design and architecture, and also with fashion, travel and lifestyle. But often when a publication has buzz like that, it can't last forever.

"The brightest stars always dim the quickest."

While Wallpaper* eventually regained its footing, today it faces competition from hipster, niche reads such as "slow lifestyle" magazine Kinfolk and travel-and-style publication Cereal.

Chambers, who majored in graphic design at the Central School of Art and Design in London, says: "They are very pretty magazines, but it's slightly smoke and mirrors. The thing that no one can hold to Wallpaper* is the depth, richness and the quantity of real content and visual journalism."

He also welcomes more titles in the industry. "It can never be too crowded. I wouldn't say the rest are imitators, but competition means that what you are doing is resonating."

He travels regularly around the world to be in the know and to get inspiration for new ideas. Wallpaper* regularly sets design trends and highlights works of up-and-coming designers.

Singapore has often been featured on its pages and online. In an editorial earlier this year, he named Singapore as one of six "design powerhouses" for its Global Interiors special.

Chambers, who came here to meet the Economic Development Board for an upcoming project and checked out brands such as stationery label Bynd Artisan, says the city is at its "most exciting and interesting time".

"There's a liberation of the younger generation that no longer needs to be conservative or concerned about financial stability. People are experimenting being artists and designers.

"While Singapore engages with international designers and architects, it now has its own voice and a confidence in its own creativity."

For many designers, making it to the pages of Wallpaper* is an achievement. Chambers' advice to get noticed by Wallpaper* is to keep working hard and stay passionate. "Talent always rises to the top. If you're good, we'll find you."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2016, with the headline Celebrating design for 20 years. Subscribe