“NO ONE IS SUGGESTING YOU CAN CONQUER GAUL BY DEADLIFTING 4 PLATES”

I want everyone to stop underestimating Tyler Brûlé because he’s dashing, supercilious, and rich, or because of the multiple accents in his echt-Canadian bilingual name (final syllable strongly stressed). It is easy for commentators who take themselves seriously, foremost among them straight guys, to shrug off this square-jawed fashion plate because he created a magazine apparently devoted to glossy Modernist surfaces. (Or, if you’re anticorporate, you might dismiss him because he sold the whole thing to a company ultimately controlled by a bastion of bad taste, AOL.) Everybody needs to cut that shit out.

I realize only now that I’ve spent the last 20 years involved in magazines. (Eighteen, actually.) I just went and measured and I have 36 linear feet of magazine back issues. For a decade, I wrote for magazines – about 30 of them, until they all more or less simultaneously began extorting copyrights from freelancers, an action later declared illegal by the Supreme Courts of the U.S. (fully) and Canada (partially). I understand the magazine concept. I don’t make the mistake of assuming that magazines are simply read; I know they have different uses, which explains why something like Details (“for men”) is itself dismissed for all the wrong reasons. (Have you not sat at a large corporation’s lunchroom one day and watched glammed-up admin assistants attack an inch-thick copy of Vogue, chewing gum and speedily flipping pages by folding the upper-right corner with a nail-extended index finger? That is how Details [“for men”] is used.)

Some magazines are read, some have a use, some are looked at (Colors). Some, like newsweeklies that aren’t the Economist, have no apparent readership or use. I do not really have a category for graphic-design magazines, which seem to fit none of those categories and are more like advertorials or, in the case of Eye, graduate theses. (Print is structurally closest to a “magazine.”) Some purported magazines are actually book series, like Granta and McSweeney’s. (Were they honest, they would have ISBNs along with ISSNs.)

And there is one other taxonomy of interest, which I reductively call sui generis. They are magazines that appear out of the blue and have their own topic, style, voice in a combination nobody managed to fit together before or since. Sui-generis magazines don’t come along very often, they die young, and people never stop talking about them. You cannot knowingly create a sui-generis magazine, which explains why the Fast Company of the mid-’90s, with its Yahweh-like incantations of “free agency,” grated, appalled, failed, and withered, then did us all a favour by finally dying. Might just didn’t rate in this context, sorry. Dwell had a few good months (I bought all the back issues to check) but devolved into a glossy magazine about furnishing your alternative home, a parody of its ostensible purpose.

Mid-century Life was an example, though now a too-distant one. In the lifetimes of people who have seen the entire development of the Web, I can point to a few cases you’ll agree with, like Spy and Sassy, of which I have nearly all issues. You may distantly remember Omni, which I am about to start collecting. But I can also nominate an example you may disagree with: Wallpaper, or, as I like to render its official name, Wallpaper<asterisk>. There was nothing like it – and, as with the posthumous body, once its soul was removed there was nothing but a husk left over. (We learned that after the Funny Years of Spy.) Nor could you transfer the soul to sibling bodies (derivatives Spruce and Line simply did not work). That soul was haughty, holier-than-thou Tyler Brûlé.

And with Monocle, he’s about to disprove my theory. He seems to have managed the intentional creation of a magazine that’s sui generis. I have only the first two issues, but the forethought involved is visibly immense. Only Tyler Brûlé, the last man alive who believes air travel is or could ever again be glamorous, could document the following itinerary to court his investors: “It took a trip to Japan, evening drinks in Sydney, and a visit to Barcelona to raise the first round of funds, and… we completed the rest of our fundraising over dinner and more drinks in Stockholm.” His powers of persuasiveness should be the stuff of legend. I wonder what it’s like to have such powers.

Unlike the supermodel cheekiness of Wallpaper (too much maple syrup), Monocle heads the other way and is just serious enough. This will be the single feature that gives it staying power, and, like cheek or whimsy, it is so easy to get it wrong. I can’t tolerate so much as the covers of Harper’s/Atlantic Monthly/Walrus. The Economist works now because of Spiekermann’s typographic redesign. (And I do very much miss writing for them, or more accurately, writing for science editor Oliver Morton. He turned the ordeal of Economistese – an emasculating process of language translation – into a matey challenge to see what we could get away with. Who else would run a piece on titanium softball bats, after insisting I be honest that such was what I really wanted to cover?) Even Monocle’s paper stock (uncoated for much of the book) shows Brûlé knows he does not need to Wink quite so much.

Monocle does not look like a book (English-language books don’t have that trim size), and you can think that and find it offputting if you want, but the contents are magazinelike. The form is meant as a differentiator, and it’s just convenient enough (pages do not pull themselves closed). The body type is the modified Plantin originally seen in latter-day Wallspaper.

I’m not going to commit to monthly issue reviews, as I have walked down that endless dusty road too many times before, but there’s more than enough in the first two issues to elicit remark.

  • I kind of half-enjoy but do not totally understand the bound-in manga, KitaKoga (北甲賀), which illustrates the exploits of Nippon-Nordic ninja Niels Watanabe. This isn’t comix, it’s slash fiction (like an Italian ginger), and only a combined nordo-japanophile like Brûlé could come up with it. (He’s co-listed as writer with Saul Taylor.) And turning a big strapping Nordic part-Japanese efficiently alienates fans of both phenotypes. If such a creature existed and showed his face in Japan, he would be instantly dismissed as “haffu” (ハッフ), that outrageous phrase favoured by tribalist Js, even the ones who live here. (“Canada would be a nice enough place if it weren’t for all the gaijin.”)

    And as a Nord of some kind, well, even if you aren’t starting out with Daniel Alfredsson and dicking around with epicanthic folds (say your feedstock is Peter Forsberg instead), you’re still ruining a good thing either way.

    Brûlé doesn’t quite have the guts (he’d call it “interest”) to situate Watanabe’s lineage in an off-brand Asian country like the Philippines, or in a Nordic country that isn’t Scandinavian, like Iceland or Finland. The typesetting (actually credited – to Monocle art director Ken Leung) is atrocious. And if you place the first and second Monocles side by side, the covers are Nippon–Nordic (Japanese fighter pilot and Norwegian oil-rig workers).

  • As with too many magazines, the contents pages are much too far into the book. They should be on page five at the latest (Cf. the New Yorker). It shows contempt for readers, and all those intervening ads are resentfully ignored. And they did a redesign of contents pages in issue two (now too small and unreadable).

  • Monocle updates Colors (whose masthead listed where everyone was from) by showing global maps, using debatable projections, with callouts showing where the magazine’s far-flung correspondents report from this issue. Canada is an unannotated white mass. Tyler Brûlé is not much of a fan of his homeland. But I’ll come back to him later.

  • Photo cutlines erroneously refer to full spreads as a single page.

  • Sidebars show numerical ranges by extending lines of type around portions of concentric circles. I’m no fan, but in a post-Tufte society you can’t get away with this nonsense anymore.

  • I like the Tubby– (also Drew Friedman in Spy–)style pencil illustrations in the “Style Leaders” column, in which heads of state get a fashion assessment. The one I’ll mention is the prime ministrix of New Zealand. As for the other: Private wardrobes of public enemies?

  • Another feature is an interview with leading government ministers from third-tier countries. So far, it’s 2 for 2 for dashing middle-aged guys. (Globe: “The first issue contains… a profile of Andrés Velasco, Chile’s finance minister. Brûlé stops in front of Velasco’s moodily-shot portrait and drawls, ‘The incredibly handsome Chilean finance minister.’ ”)

    The second of these, with an actual Catalonian, surprised me by asking the question I would have asked: “But if Catalan isn’t taught in schools, won’t it die as a language?” (“It’s only right that it should be taught. What’s wrong is that 91% of all classes are given in Catalan” – he suggests 35% second-language in both Catalan- and Spanish-speaking schools.) A Catalonian who might suppress memories of Juan Antonio Samaranch.

  • We’ve got advertorial spreads for Panasonic that somehow hurt less than Wallpaper’s ad placements art directed to match the facing page. (I’ve read a denunciation of the practice [PDF] that didn’t persuade me in the least.) And, in yet another Wallpaper custom, the issues are replete with stories on up-and-coming business airlines and snazzy places to buy tiny baskets of fine épicerie (certainly not a Honda trunkful of bulk goods).

  • Squib by Robert Bound on a new Mexican newspaper: “The key to success for any new media launch is accessible editorial.” It is? (So they hired Roger Black’s partner, the smooth-talking Mario Garcia. He could sell you anything. He could probably sell Tyler Brûlé anything.)

  • A dazzlingly audacious spread acts as a design bible for a fictional Nordic News Network. It’s superb, even if the blue-on-black is a shade too dark and the whole thing smacks of Brûlé’s now-forgotten interview show, The Desk, with its real-wood set. Indira Naidoo(-Harris) of Omni TV is named as a desirable anchoress.

    This is kind of a brûléist leitmotif, but why shouldn’t conceptually-related small countries, like the Nords, band together? The Australian high commissioner to Canada, Bill Fisher, thinks similarly (Bill Taylor, “Oz’s new man finds parallel universe,” Toronto Star, 2005.03.26: “You have the United States, a bloc of its own; a European bloc who don’t talk much to anyone really outside of themselves. Very often our representative will stand up and say, ‘I speak on behalf of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.’ That’s a serious group.”)

  • Brûlé dedicates himself to craft, or so the story goes. It explains the features on an ancient wool factory in England and – much, much more thrillingly – the Canadian-run factory that builds each and every Geländewagen. (The piece doesn’t mention the Canadian part. You could write a book about Magna Steyr production lines, which intermingle makes and models almost randomly. If you drive a Chrysler minivan anywhere in Europe or Oz, it was made on a line in Austria, perhaps just before a Jeep or just after a 300C.)

  • There’s a whole section, “Edits,” that is pretty much a Wallpaper manqué of desirable objets – some risible, like a £2,000 CD player, some refreshingly honest, like the Clif Bar, a mainstay of my diet. I enjoy one most mornings after my Illy coffee. And there, in the second issue, sits a feature on Riccardo Illy.

I don’t even really look at the Web site. I live on the Web, but my magazines don’t. It’s almost church-and-state. However, developer Dan Hill, whose blog I have read approximately forever, does get to jet off to Osaka and Tokyo with his new boss. (On Nippon Nordic Airways?) Grand. I just want the whole thing accessible, including any “broadcast content.” As I explained to him, cripples may not be on a first-name basis with the well-coiffed clerks in the SAS business-class lounge, but accessibility is now part of the environment of the Web and prissiness is no excuse. (“The key to success for any new media launch is accessible editorial.”) I am, of course, available, though I have no Porter- or Monocle-branded attachés whatsoever.

Now, a bit more Brûlé analysis. He’d be a Tubby poster boy for the Canadian brain drain if he weren’t queer. He is the acceptable face of Douglas Coupland: A post-Trudeau Canadian who, by defining oneself as not American, implicitly negates borders entirely. Canadians of his (actually our) generation are natively transnational, coevolving with foreign travel, living abroad, international media. Where else was he going to end up? Toronto? (In a “shabby-chic” neighbourhood?) That’s not gonna work.

He gripes about the infrastructure of London in Ish 2, all but admitting he would move to Sydney if he could swing it. But he is elsewhere much too uncharitable about Toronto, “the capital of bland”:

Not long ago you could land in Toronto and get a half-smile from an indifferent immigration officer in a blue shirt. On Monday evening I was questioned by what looked like a pork chop squeezed into body armour and blue latex gloves about the purpose of my visit. For some reason the Canadian government has decided that the best way to leave a lasting first impression is to make its front-line welcoming committee look like a slightly lumpy brigade of commandos.

This didn’t stop him from working on the Porter Air “identity” – like his Swiss and original Wink “identities,” an ill-letterspaced Helvetica retread – but it does stop him from using his powers for good. Canadians abroad are as Canadian as possible under the circumstances, and a lot of us inject Canadian content by subterfuge whenever we can. A single squib in each issue of Monocle isn’t gonna cut it. One mustn’t abandon a homeland like a pro football player abandoning a son.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2007.04.27 18:44. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:
https://blog.fawny.org/2007/04/27/monocular/

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