Honing your style

The Birthday, Frank Welch
The Birthday, 1964, a shelter on a ranch in Sterling County, Texas, about halfway between Midland and San Angelo. [Photo by Hester + Hardaway/photogypsies.com]

FRANK WELCH, the Texas architect, died last week at 90. He had enormous influence in the Southwest—as much as anyone in his generation. Best known for an early project, The Birthday, a simple camp on a ranch between Midland and San Angelo. Welch worked for O’Neil Ford, another Texas native, and a continuing exponent of the Arts & Crafts movement in the mid-20th century. Ford, like my father J. J. Black both, saw a direct line from the wood-and-stone prairie houses of the late 19th century to modern commercial buildings built in concrete and steel. Buildings should have a natural feeling, showing off their materials and reflecting their environments. Architecture is not about abstract forms and grids, but about a clear, humanist expression purpose, construction, and

Welch distilled the modern side of style, and started working on his own projects while still in his 20s. One of the first was a house in Midland, almost next door on “L” Street and built for oil millionaire Walter R. Davis soon after the completion of dad’s biggest house, which was built for the richest family in town, the Scharbauers.

While the Scharbauer house is a 30,000-square-foot arts-and-crafts “cottage” (as I’ve called it before), Welch’s first house in Midland was like a big shed—masonry walls and a copper standing-seam roof. Joe Black objected strongly to the simple fit of the roof to the walls, to the lack of overhang. He felt that with the blinding sun of West Texas, a little shade over the windows makes a building feel better. Never mind the inhabitants.

A new house in Midland always stood on a bare lot. It’s the desert, and any landscaping has to be brought in. So when it was new, the Davis was a bit stark and forbidding, particularly if you were 10 years old, which I was. People called it Fort Davis, after the frontier army post built 200 miles south of Midland a hundred years before.

Frank Welch moved to Midland in response to demand—both for him and for construction in general. There was a big oil boom, and my dad didn’t have much competition until Welch arrived. While they respected each other, they were more rivals than friends. Joe, a contemporary of O’Neil Ford, was a more eclectic architect, straddling Beaux Arts, Arts & Crafts, and Modernism that had taken some cues from Buckminster Fuller and Félix Candela. His projects each made sense one at a time, and the survivors still look great at least to me, but they didn’t result in a cohesive reputation for Joe outside his client base.

With time, Midland’s “L” Street is lined with big trees, and Welch’s crisp style now looks comfortable. But this is always the case: Influential design looks normal, half a century later. But the industrial materials of the brutalist movement make Paul Rudolph’s buildings look oddly quaint.

The key to Welch’s style is that he combined hand-built arts-and-crafts ethic with modern simplicity. Another of Ford’s (and my father’s) contemporaries, Bruce Goff, took the arts-and-crafts style and ran with it, sticking to the natural materials like wood shingles and rock walls, but with a very expressionist style that made Frank Lloyd Wright seems conservative.

Welch took all this in, and went the other way. He planed off the overhangs to make the form less complex. But he didn’t lose his sense of structure, his instinct for site, or his love of materials. The result is that his buildings may not be timeless, but they look good for decades. (Sadly the Davis house has been altered out of all recognition, confirming my belief, based on personal experience, that remodeling should be against the law.)

He designed a number of houses and office buildings, including his own. After Joe retired and moved to Houston, Welch’s firm prospered, bringing together a number of bright young designers. Two of them, Mark Wellen and Jim Rhotenberry, took over the Midland office when Welch moved to Dallas and the big time. They made their own reputation, following in his footsteps.

I like to think that the project Mark designed for me, Camp Cinco, owes something to Welch’s famous West Texas camp, the Birthday. But, hell, did I get the overhangs!

The mortality of empires

A TRIP to Yangon has set me thinking about what endures in a culture, and what we want to save. I wrote a post for Hi, that starts: . . . This weekend I’m staying at the Strand Hotel in Yangon, Myanmar, a classic British colonial hotel (1901) once connected with Raffles in Singapore. Dark wood, cream walls, stone trim, a gentle staff. Restored but not Dorchestered.

When it was built, this was Rangoon, Burma. Here in the oldest part the British city, right on the river, you get an idea of what it was like 100 years ago when their empire was heading toward its zenith and the port was one of the biggest in Southern Asia.

British Secretariat, Yangon

The hotel is on Strand Road, and the grid of streets around it, superimposed on the ancient city, are lined with colonial buildings, most in a terrible state of repair. A block north on Merchant Road, I saw a big crumbling blue building with corner turrets that I found out had been the tax office. Walking up Bo Ang Kyaw Street (formerly Sparks Street) I came to the giant Secretariat (1902), the colony’s administrative complex, occupying a large city block. It was the site of the first parliament where Aung San, father of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, was assassinated in 1947.

More on Hi.co . . .



The redesign of a printed magazine in 2014

WHAT year is it now? Seems inconceivable that anyone could spend the better part of a year working (hard) on a redesign of a printed magazine. I mean, aren’t magazines over? Passé? Finito? A thing of the 20th century? Don’t we want to spend our time weaving our own magazine content from readers like Flipboard? Or just dial in from a link in a tweet?

And aren’t they all going out of business anyway?

Well, maybe some of them are, and maybe there are lots of ways to browse content using your friends’ suggestions and the curation of bloggers and new social tools. And there are several cool digital magazines (I always cite Verve and Vice, and am taken with Hi.co).

None of these accomplish what a great magazine does: Bring together an an interesting, carefully chosen variety of articles and pictures. The French word magazine means storehouse. Merriam-Webster defines the English, “a part of the gun that holds bullets.” I like both.

But nothing digital has yet matched the experience of reading a magazine. We all love good stories (witness the faithful movie audience), told with a beginning, a middle and an end, and there is something wonderful about the collection of stories brought to life with great photographs, and arranged in a beautiful way. Designed.

A prejudice has crept into our thinking about media, since McLuhan, that if it’s not interactive, it’s no good. Okay, but magazines (and movies) may be one-way, one-to-many media, and not a social scramble like Facebook. But the good ones are evoke all kinds of participation from readers and viewers. You have to follow the story, read it or watch it, and bringing all kinds of knowledge and experience for it to absorb you. It’s like a great meal. The chef “curates” all kinds of ingredients, prepares them in a deft way, and creates and experience that is both satisfying and delightful. You don’t have to have read Proust for the smells and tastes of the dinner to bring out all kinds associations of culture and your personal history. J’avais cessé de me sentir médiocre, contingent, mortel. D’où avait pu venir à moi, cette joie toute-puissante?


When I was 12, I subscribed to Show magazine, designed by the great Henry Wolf (working for the prototypical billionaire Huntington Hartford). It was like taking a warm bath. You just let it wash over you. The combination of images, layout and writing, gave me an insight into the adult world that I never forgot. And the tactile quality of reading Show, I’ll never forget. The glossy paper, and the scratchy layer of color ink. And the smell.

And if you think that’s not interactive, then you’ve missed the joy of reading a great magazine.

Well, in several years of searching for a viable, immersive digital platform that could give a true magazine experience (I’m still working on that, still believe it can be done) I had gotten away from print design. But when I heard that Edipresse was looking for a creative director, I came out to Hong Kong and quickly made a deal to serve as “creative director” (a title I’ve never liked) on an open-ended contract.

This is the the group that publishes the Tatler magazines in Asia. They are oversized and printed beautifully on thick white paper. A typical issue has nearly 400 pages. They’re filled with luxury advertising and picture of high-end parties.

These are the ingredients that make for a robust business plan when the mass-media models in the U.S. and Europe are fading. By concentrating on the top end of the market, the upper end of the 1%, and offering an artisan product, they can attract advertising from the luxury brands, mostly European brands, that have enjoyed enormous growth in Asia over the last decade. Carter, Chanel, Hermes, Rolls Royce, Louis Vuitton, Van Cleef & Arpels, Chopard, and on and on.

But lots of magazines want to appeal to the high-net-worth audience. How do you actually connect? The Asia Tatlers (they’re always modified with a place name, after an agreement with Condé Nast which owns the Tatler in London) have an editorial principle that is like the old saying of newspaper publishers:

Try to print the name (and photo) of every reader at least once a year, not including arrest stories or obituaries.

By being smart, attractive and available, Hong Kong Tatler and the editions in China, Singapore, Taiwan, Macau, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand get invited to all the great parties in town. Each has its own social-season-opener, The Tatler Ball. They run tons of event pictures, many of them exclusive. And then they profile the most interesting and prominent of these wealthy and successful folks, in short articles, in big features, and on the cover.

Since this coverage is good and the pictures are rich and flattering, these one-percenters are happy to get the magazine (it’s just mailed to them, and the Asia Tatler lists are one of their biggest assets). They’re eager to look through each issue and see who they know inside. Or, who they might want to know. It’s fun.

The editors add much coverage of fashion, high jewelry, watches and the luxury lifestyle. The style is clever and light, and it is all readable. They don’t waste a lot of space on serious matters of state, so it’s all upbeat. The result: A big success.

The March Hong Kong Tatler
The first Hong Kong Tatler with the new design. There’s a French gatefold ad that makes it seem like its opening the wrong way, but the printing, with the silver foil logo and headlines, is excellent.

The previous design of the Asia Tatlers was done by two former colleagues, Maryjane Fahey and Mariana Ochs. And they did a great job, taking a somewhat random publication and enforcing a lively hierarchy with big vertical section titles set in a typeface I had never seen before, Corundum.

Indeed, when the marketing folks at Edipresse asked for before-and-after comparisons to promote the redesign, I told them that was the wrong approach. The “after” doesn’t necessarily look better than the “before.” It’s calmer, yes. More elegant, with a greater emphasis on visual content. But times have changed, the magazines have new editorial leadership, and the Tatlers needed to change, too.

Instead of an upheaval, a redesign for a successful magazine should keep it recognizable to readers and advertisers. “The question is, how do you make Tatler, more Tatler?,” I asked in a promotional video.  “How do you intensify Tatler to make it more interesting? And a little easier to read?”

One asset to build upon was the Corundum. This was designed by Josh Darden, first as a text face which you can see on his site. Maryjane and Mariana got him to make a display size, and then a banner size. The font is based on the typefaces of Pierre Simon Fournier in the mid 18th century. Fournier was the inevitable next step in French type design, moving from the classical old styles of Claude Garamond in the 16th century, through the higher contrast of Phillipe Grandjean in the 17th, on the way to the extreme contrast of Didot, who came just 30 years after Fournier.

Modéles des Caracteres, the Fournier specimen book.
The Fournier specimen book of 1742, in the collection of the National Library of France.

Type design always seems to lag art movements, and Corundum is really a Baroque style, coming at the end of that era. The neoclassical style of Didot displaced the pre-Revolutionary type of Fournier.  It was not until the 20th century that it was revived (by Stanley Morrison at Monotype). But Darden’s version is historically sound, and it’s a remarkably readable, but stylish typeface. Beats Bodoni and even Caslon hands down.

To the optical sizes Text, Display and Super, Darden added a high-x-height “News” size for M & M (as the folks in Hong Kong call them). A little more contrasty than the Text, we tested the two side by side, and decided to stay with News (after moving the kerning default from “optics” to “metrics”in Adobe InDesign, of course). Missing was a deck size, something for standfirsts (decks), so we used the Text.

Following the old studio’s practice of specking a serif, a sans serif, and a “fancy” M&M brought in three more Darden faces: Freight, a very purposeful sans; Omnes, a sans with rounded corners; and Julie, a contemporary slab. This seemed like too much to me. Any of the styles were a bit busy to work well with Corundum, and too noisy to sit in background on the fashion pages. But all three?

Cover of a Forma brochure c. 1970
Cover of a brochure from the Nebiolo foundry, promoting Forma, c. 1970

I thought of simplifying things with my regular default, Benton Sans, but then I remembered Forma, the midcentury Roman design by Aldo Novarese, which had disappeared with the end of metal type. Convincing Edipresse to commission a revival, I got David Jonathan Ross at the Font Bureau to design a digital version. The whole story is on the Font Bureau blog, written by Indra Kupferschmid, who not only did the research, but found foundry metal and proofed it for David to work from.

To keep it simple, I commissioned just two weights, light and bold. But as Indra, DJR and I studied the proofs, we realized that there were several sizes of the master drawings for the font. The details that made Forma lively and different, the tapers and rounded corners, were more pronounced as the sizes got smaller. So David made five sizes of the new Forma—Micro, Text, Deck, Display and Banner.

As fonts are the basis of typography, typography is the basis of any redesign, since it is the typefaces, the type specs and typographical structures that can go on, from issue to issue. For the redesign, we followed my usual project plan: brief, design, prototype, implementation . . . and assessment. The brief was pretty much as stated at the beginning of this post.

There was some discussion of art direction as well. A new emphasis on narrative photography was called for in the feature section (and Gillian Nadel was given the title, director of photography). I wanted to see more direct portraiture, with less reliance on sets and props, and more natural hair and makeup.

The key here is that the focus of the Tatler art direction is real people, not movie stars or models.

Right after I arrived in Hong Kong, I met Kim Robinson at a dinner party thrown by Bonnae Goksun, the queen of cakes, and subject of the first cover I worked on for Hong Kong Tatler. Kim has been the most sought-after hair stylist in town for years, and his salon in the Chatar House in Central would make Oribe jealous. His feeling was that if you put a regular woman, however stylish and poised, in a formal gown, covered her face in makeup, and surround her with gilded bibelots and velvet draperies, she would look . . .  old.

In the effort to luxurious, Tatler could look stuffy, older-generation. With Kim Robinson’s help, we could bring in some fresh air, and a bit of youth.

The Edipresse brass, led by CEO Barrie Goodridge and editorial director Sean Fitzpatrick, had been working for a year on a redesign before I got there. They had hired another New York designer who produced a lot of good pages, and had pushed for clear covers with great portraits and simple backgrounds. For one reason or another, that design never got to a round of prototypes, but not to the point of approval, so a task for me was to see what could be saved from all the effort.

I like to create a design space, with a number of pages along a linear axis. We called the poles: Gold and Red. For the “Gold,” I got Hong Kong Tatler art director Nazri Razak, who had been working on the first design, to continue in that direction. And I did the “Red.” As is often the case, the decision was to blend the two, with the knob on the slider bar closer to Gold than Red. (Of course, it behooves a publication designer to know this could happen, and to design the poles from the beginning so they could be interpolated.)

Fashion spread from the
A Red feature using the Corondum type.
The “Red” design allowed proposed a wide range of typographic treatments, from 70s-style modern with Forma, to late Baroque oldstyle, using Corundum and Monotype Fournier Ornaments.
Concierge section opener—the
The “Red” section openers contained content, but it was decided to with “Gold” double-page-spread images.

By the end September 2013 we had a design direction decision, and began to work on a prototype. Paul Kay, a former editor of HKT was brought in wrangle the content, and we had a printed prototype in November, and meet in Singapore with the chairman of Edipresse, Pierre Lamuniere.

Green light for the March issues.

So now we needed templates in a big hurry. There were five other editions that launching at the same time, and I wanted to move the group to a template-based design system so the designers could spend more time on visual content, and less building pages. Robb Rice, who developed the methodology for Ready-Media with Eduardo Danilo, was engaged to show us how to make InDesign templates. And then Nazri plunged in building them. Christmas and Chinese New Years seem to get in the way, but we were well into the first issues by mid-January. The close was the end of the month. Press dates began around the 15th.

Behind the Scenes.
Great Debate.
New departments, all left-hand pages, were added in the front-of-the-book to create ad adjacencies with richer content than the old house ads.
Faces opener.
Concierge opener
The section openers are all spreads, where previously they were single right hand-pages. But advertisers didn’t want left-hand pages, and so most of the time they ran with house ads . . . lowering the content density and confusing the design.
Girl About Town, fashion feature.
About Town, fashion feature.
New fashion features show off the Forma display type.
Features opener.
Cover story about Jaime Ku.
Asia’s Most Stylish opener.
AMS, closed gatefold.
AMS gatefold.
AMS Jaime Ku spread.
The annual Asia’s Most Stylish feature, brings together leading ladies chosen by each of the Asia Tatlers. This year, the session was in Macau, with Kim Robinson providing overall style direction, and Sean Lee Davies the photography. Davies, a former editor of Tatler, is the perfect partner for these assignments, since he is part of the Hong Kong scene, often appearing in front of the camera, in the Faces section. Kirsten Doak was fashion editor. Note, the small horizontal group shot shows a gatefold.
Polo opener.
Sean Lee Davies not only photographed but wrote this travel piece on polo in India, a recalling the high society of the Raj era. The headline design is a nod to the the M&M typogrpahic style, which favored Italics and some added swash characters.
Nelson opener.
Nelson, 2nd spread.
Nelson, 3rd spread.
Nelson, 4th spread.
Nelson, 5th spread.
Tatler excerpted Jimmy Nelson’s book, Before They Pass Away. More of a gallery than a photo story, but great photography and a good balance for all the luxury.
Finer Things opener.
Food department in The Finer Things.
The back-of-the-book is now called “The Finer Things.” Short features in the previous “Life” section are augmented by more service components, tables and maps. There’s now a big wine section, and coverage of real estate, design, travel, art and a new department on philanthropy.
Back-page column.
The back page has a new closing column, with a fine illustration by Jeffrey Smith, who will be contriubting every month.

And there you are. Another magazine redesign. My first big one since the Scientific American in 2010. And from all I hear, it’s working well. You can see a video about the redesign on the Tatler site. A higher-resolution digital replica of each edition is available at Magzter.com. Registration is required, but there’s a low single-copy price. You can find all of the editions there.

Launch covers.

Of course the proof of a redesign is over time—how the logic survives a number of different situations. I have enormous confidence in the abilities of the Hong Kong editor, the brilliant Sheena Liang, who provided great support and enthusiasm throughout the project and who rallied the staff to execute a fine 354-page premiere issue.

The readers of Tatler are saying this is still Tatler, just a little richer, a little cleaner, a little better. And that’s the goal. Let’s see what they’re saying in 2016.