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The Eye by Barbara King

Pioneer vision goes glossy

A Western design magazine launches into risky new territory.

May 01, 2003|Barbara King

THE CROWD AT GRACE RESTAURANT

last Thursday night was shoulder to shoulder, finally spilling out onto the sidewalk of Beverly Boulevard, and it stayed that way long past the hour when the party was supposed to be over. But that's how big celebrations usually go, and this was a big celebration.

A new L.A-based upstart of a magazine, Western Interiors and Design, had officially launched itself in the competitive arena of shelter magazines, and upward of 200 people from the design world came to wish it well. Writers, editors, photographers, architects, interior designers, furniture designers, accessories designers, gallery owners and even an intrigued party crasher or two gathered in the coolly sophisticated, Michael Berman-designed dining room and bar, a setting that couldn't have been more right for this coolly sophisticated publication, which hits the stands this week.

The editor in chief, Michael Wollaeger, was locked in place in the center of the noisy, Merlot-fueled merriment, showing all the thrill and exhaustion and disbelief of a new parent. Finally, two years after he signed on, his vision has come alive, and hopes are running high, along with nervous energy. Wollaeger brought considerable experience -- for 15 years he was executive editor of Architectural Digest (where I, too, served a brief tenure as senior articles editor after he had left). In fact, 50% of his staff are alumni of A.D., but that's not quite as startling as it sounds, given that the full-time staff numbers a mere six. What is startling, however, is that not only can a magazine with the projected scope of this one be produced by a handful of people -- mostly young 30ish ones -- but that it is being produced at all.

As Wollaeger writes in his first editor's letter: "A new magazine, like any creative act, is a gesture of supreme optimism," and truer words have never been spoken. It's a tough old marketplace out there. His mission, as he writes, is straightforward: "to bring you, our readers, brilliant examples of residential design and architecture from throughout the West, shot by the worlds' best photographers and presented in a graphic format that's as clear and uncluttered as the western horizon itself." Tall order.

Wollaeger hired the respected graphic designer Lorraine Wild, known for her book and exhibition catalog designs, to translate his vision. What she came up with appears, at first, to be subtle, but on second viewing, seems major. "Unlike all the other shelter magazines, we wanted to go after a feeling of space and light characteristic of houses in western interiors," she explained. "Most shelter photographs look like a stage setting, all that flat interior lighting, and no sense of the relationship of the house to the environment."

Western Interiors and Design shows clear evidence of trying to right that wrong, with abundant use of natural lighting and exterior shots. If it seems a bit quiet and tidy in its presentation, a bit purist and formal, well, all the better for letting the images speak for themselves without all the fuss and bother of so many other magazines, which are beginning to look as crammed as computer screens.

The $5.95 glossy, which publishes six times a year, is actually the brainchild of the magazine's founder and chief executive, Carol Decker, former publisher of Lear's and veteran of McGraw-Hill, BusinessWeek and Reader's Digest. It took her three intense years of persuasion to pull it off. Against enormous odds in a precarious economic climate, Decker persuaded a small group of very, very rich private investors to gamble millions on a concept that seemed, when she explained it, so obvious no one could believe it hadn't been thought of until now.

No magazine existed that addressed the hugely affluent market of homeowners in the West. "The demographics is just absolutely the most exciting in the country," said Decker, whose enthusiasm informs every syllable of her rapid-fire speech. "It ranks first in building in high income housing, and that's a lot of rooms to decorate and gardens to create. It was a no-brainer to me."

So Decker, who lives in Wyoming, made a plan. Following the business model of Southern Accents and its spinoff Veranda, two solidly successful magazines that targeted a specific regional audience, she zeroed in, using the Census Bureau's definition of the West, with Texas included. "Magazines like House and Garden and Elle Decor have a world to cover," explained Decker, "and we've just carved out 14 states." But she wants you to know that's 14 very significant states, citing a recent report from the syndicated research company MRI. Her little hotshot start-up, she is proud to boast, is No. 1 in household income of all the shelter magazines, higher, even, than the grande dame of shelters, Architectural Digest, though by only a hair: $88,000 for Western Interiors, $86,000 plus change for A.D.

If that's the case, the future ought to be more than OK for this magazine with the rather clunky name that never seems to fall trippingly from the tongue or stay firmly fixed in the brain. Despite referring to it as Western Design and Interiors as often as Western Interiors and Design, I find that it sneaks up on you and makes a good second impression. The colors are rich, the typeface is lean and elegant, the houses and designers are, for the most part, freshly contemporary and cutting edge.

As Decker put it, "It's great for the West to stand up proudly to the East and say, 'Look what we've got in our own backyard -- these unbelievable spaces, this unbelievable talent.' We are not looking to New York for direction."

Barbara King, Home section editor, can be reached at barbara.king @latimes.com.

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