Architectural Digest Undergoes Renovations for the Social Media Age


For the cover of her September issue, Ms. Astley presented another Instagram star, the designer Marc Jacobs’s bull terrier Neville, who has nearly 200,000 followers (twice as many as Ms. Astley). Her March issue offered the Malibu, Calif., beach house of the former Beastie Boy Mike D., otherwise known as Mike Diamond, and his skateboarding family — one of his sons, Ms. Astley said, once went to school with one of her daughters — with text written by Mr. Diamond.

There was heft, too, in an extravagantly minimalist apartment designed by the extravagantly minimalist designer John Pawson for Jill Dienst, a dealer of extravagantly priced, mostly 18th-century Swedish furniture in Manhattan. And in an encomium to I. M. Pei, who will turn 100 in April, written by the architecture critic Paul Goldberger, who is a contributor to Vanity Fair.

The new AD owes some of its DNA to the 10-month period in 1987 when a 38-year-old British fashion editor named Anna Wintour took over House & Garden, shortened its title to HG and upended its arm’s length coverage of stately interiors by showing models romping in chintz, children — children! — skateboarding, unmade beds and other revolutions. The similarities are not surprising, given Ms. Astley’s reputation as Ms. Wintour’s protégée and proxy.

Ms. Astley is a company woman, through and through. She likes to say that she was trained by Diana Vreeland’s assistant. It was 1989, and Ms. Astley, now 49, was the second assistant to Nancy Novogrod, then the editor in chief of HG. (The first assistant had worked for Mrs. Vreeland, the legendary Vogue editor, at the Costume Institute.) Ms. Astley is proud of these shelter magazine bona fides, which even magaholics may have forgotten after her nine years as the beauty editor and then beauty director of Vogue, and another 13 as editor in chief of Teen Vogue, which she founded.

In 1993, when S. I. Newhouse, now the chairman emeritus of Condé Nast Publications, bought Architectural Digest, the stiff-looking but enormously successful catalog of the good life, he closed the underperforming HG and Ms. Astley lost her job.

“I learned early on the vagaries of the business,” she said.

Hers is the second makeover of Architectural Digest since its longtime editor, Paige Rense, retired in 2010. Then, the job went to Margaret Russell, who had spent 21 years at Elle Decor, 10 of those as editor in chief. Known for her own steely work ethic, Ms. Russell, a design industry veteran who counted Michael Smith, former President Barack Obama’s decorator, among her inner circle, lightened up the joint without throwing out too much of the furniture.

For decades, the magazine had presented the work of designers and architects who were gussying up the nests of the powerful, attracting an affluent audience that was almost 50 percent male, which delighted advertisers. Ms. Russell’s version was lighter, cleaner and just a bit younger, but it hewed to the formula. Ms. Astley’s stirs in the intimacy of social media.

Photo

Ms. Astley’s makeover is the second for Architectural Digest since its longtime editor, Paige Rense, retired in 2010.

Credit
Collin Hughes for The New York Times

“A magazine has to be served hot, like a meal,” said Wendy Goodman, the design editor of New York magazine and another of Ms. Astley’s former bosses from HG. “You have to serve it right away. That’s the fun of it. It’s entertainment, but it’s also grounded in what’s going on in the culture, and if you miss out on that, it doesn’t work.

“I think Amy is doing everything exactly right. She brings a fresh spirit and a vitality.”

From Paris, Ms. Wintour wrote by email, “Our fascination with other people’s houses isn’t just down to seeing how they express their individual tastes, but how those places reflect the world around us today. Amy’s redesign brings out this much more personal vision of how we decorate and how we live.”

Ms. Astley grew up in East Lansing, Mich., where her father, Irving Taran, was a chairman of the art department at Michigan State University and her mother, Judith Taran, was an arts educator. Ms. Astley trained to be a ballet dancer, but jettisoned that career at 18 when it was clear, she said, “that I wasn’t going to make it.”

“Ballet is harsh; there’s no wiggle room,” she continued. “I was devastated.”

When she was a teenager, her father took a sabbatical year to paint, and the family moved to a raw commercial loft on Greenwich Street in Manhattan, on the same block where Ms. Astley lives with her husband, Christopher Astley, an artist, and their teenage daughters. The couple met during college; Ms. Astley majored in English at Michigan State. You can glimpse their loft on her Instagram account: their daughters’ Porthault sheets; a pink velvet banquette-sofa; lots of trippy Josef Frank fabric; and a miniature dachshund named Bear.

Ms. Novogrod said that Ms. Astley “has a kind of authenticity.”

“Despite everything, her head hasn’t been turned around,” she continued. “I think coming from the Midwest and knowing there’s a world beyond New York is a good thing.”

What’s curious is that Architectural Digest, a relic of an era when decorators were stars and we gawked at the excesses of corporate raiders and other machers, is the title that has hung on, rather than elegant HG or the original Domino. It is a brand “that seems to be able to survive any regime change,” said Lee Mindel, an architect who has been featured in the magazine since the 1980s.

In fact, for the last two years, AD’s circulation has been fairly steady, hovering around 818,000, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. But in the last year, its audience across all platforms rose 47 percent, a number found in the Brand Audience Report for the upscale shelter category prepared by MPA (the Association of Magazine Media). The research noted a 131 percent rise in its mobile audience.

Despite these numbers, Ms. Russell was abruptly let go last May.

It’s not just AD that has been catnip to readers. The entire shelter category grew 28.3 percent, in contrast to all measured magazine media, which saw its audiences grow just over 5 percent. “The upscale shelter category far exceeds the average growth and vitality of the magazine industry in total,” said Susan Fraysse Russ, the senior vice president for communication at MPA. “It’s thriving on all platforms.”

It may be that the current sociopolitical climate has so rattled people that they are reaching for the escapism found in the colorful fantasy worlds that Ms. Astley’s AD provides. Or they have gone to ground, and are trying to feather their own nests as a prophylactic against the chaos.

“People want to be cozy,” Ms. Astley said. “They want to spend money on their homes, perhaps now more than ever.”

In response to the heightened appetite, Ms. Astley’s staff will soon introduce an online magazine called AD APT — as in, apartment — and a newsletter called AD PRO, like a Women’s Wear Daily for the design industry.

Condé Nast, like nearly every publishing company, has been contracting, using fewer staff members to do more. Like its rival Hearst, it has consolidated editorial departments, like copy, research and design, to produce multiple titles. On the business side, too, publishers, now rebranded as chief business officers, work on more than one magazine. AD’s longtime publisher, Giulio Capua, will soon also handle Condé Nast Traveler. Ms. Astley’s new creative director, David Sebbah, is also Vogue’s.

“We do what it takes, no complaining,” Ms. Astley said. “I say to the team, we are so lucky that there is still a market for what we do. People want beauty, and we’re lucky we get to do it. You have to find your way forward in the new reality of magazines if you want to make it in this business.

“The ones who love it will figure it out. It’s just modern. There’s no use wringing our hands over the past.”

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