The thriving (online) shelter magazine industry
Digital start-ups like Lonny and Rue try to fill the void left by their vanished print predecessors.
The New York Times
Since Domino, the beloved shelter magazine, folded in early 2009, its staff members have gone on to lucrative consulting jobs, top editing posts, even television gigs, but none have advanced as swiftly as Michelle Adams. At Domino, Adams was a 24-year-old assistant answering phones and running around Manhattan in search of blankets in exactly the right shade of purple. Two years later, she's the editor in chief of Lonny (www.lonnymag.com/home), a shelter magazine she co-founded. Already it has a cultlike following and has given rise to a mini-boomlet in online design publications.
Her newfound influence was confirmed recently when the publisher of Traditional Home magazine (www.traditionalhome.com), Beth Brenner, another ex-Domino staff member, proposed a collaboration with Lonny.
"I was an assistant, and she was the publisher," Adams said, referring to their roles when they last worked together. And then, she said, "All of a sudden. ..."
Lonny appears online, but it is oddly identical to a traditional print publication in format, with a table of contents, recurring features and a software platform that recreates the experience of flipping a magazine's pages. Its latest issue — the 11th — features lush photographs of homes in Los Angeles and New Orleans, advice from the celebrity caterer Lulu Powers and a makeover of Lonny's Midtown offices that show how to create "your own chic and functional workspace," all with a spunky tone and service-y approach lifted straight from Domino.
Adams' editorial venture has attracted big-name advertisers (Kravet, Room & Board and Bloomingdale's all ran ads in the latest issue), as well as competitors. Since Lonny started, in October 2009 — at a time when many traditional shelter magazines, including House & Garden, Metropolitan Home and Blueprint, had gone out of business — three more online shelter magazines have popped up. There's Rue (www.ruemag.com), a San Francisco-based publication that reads like Lonny's hipper downtown sister; High Gloss (www.highglossmagazine.com), which made its debut in February; and Matchbook (http://matchbookmag.com), which appeared a month earlier and takes a broader, lifestyle-oriented approach, as personified by a character the founders, Katie Armour and Jane Lilly Warren, call "the Matchbook girl." (As in, "The Matchbook girl pens handwritten notes to her grandmother.")
The real estate blog Curbed (http://curbed.com) has jokingly labeled this publishing phenomenon the "Design-Pubs-Powered-by-PDF-Flipbook-Technology-Issuu category" (a reference to the Issuu software that most of the magazines use), and calls Lonny its "Grande Doyenne."
Anecdotal information provided by the magazines — based on surveys and profiles of their Facebook and Twitter followers — suggests that most of the readers are young, fashion-conscious women drawn by the approachable tone. Jenn Newman, a 34-year-old singer who lives in Brooklyn, is an example.
"Lonny says, 'Here's incredible style,' but they're showing readers how to translate it into their own aesthetic," she said. "It takes the snobbery out of design." Newman also reads Rue, which she ranks second behind Lonny, and said she likes the way stories in online magazines are free to stretch out, offering more "eye candy."
But she does wish Lonny were available on the newsstand.
"I would pick it up in a heartbeat," she said.
All of the publications are edited by women in their 20s who first built a following by blogging. It may seem strange for young creative types to be starting online publications that so closely mimic traditional magazines, particularly when that means adopting the conventions of print in such a literal — some might even say unthinking — way. But in the blogosphere, it turns out, many see print as conferring a sense of legitimacy and distinction.
As Crystal Gentilello, the 28-year-old co-founder and editor of Rue, put it, "Everyone and their mother has a blog."
Gentilello was sitting in a restaurant in Manhattan the day after being flown in from San Francisco by Lowe's, for an event where guests colored giant canvases to promote a line of paint. ("Nate said it felt like nursery school for adults," she said, referring to the event's host, the designer Nate Berkus.)
"Unless you're one of the top five blogs out of millions, you're not able to make a living," Gentilello said. "I saw this as a way to take it to the next level and be ahead of the curve."
None of the new magazines' founders can claim much experience in either design or publishing. Adams has a background in interior design (she minored in the subject at Michigan State University), and the year and a half she spent as an assistant at Domino means she also outranks her peers in editorial experience.
Armour, a founder of Matchbook, worked for three years for interior design firms.
Paloma Contreras, the 29-year-old co-founder of High Gloss, went from teaching high school Spanish in Houston, where she lives, and blogging about design, to being an editor in chief.
"I think not having the formal background has been a good thing in some sense," Contreras said. "Of course, it would have been beneficial in other ways. There was a huge learning curve."
While the magazines are sometimes surprisingly professional, they can feel undercooked in ways one might expect when someone who has never seen a page proof has to create 200 pages of editorial content every few weeks. High Gloss seems willing to introduce almost anyone as a "style maven," and Matchbook's recent "Portrait of a Lady" article on Diana, Princess of Wales, read like a Wikipedia entry. And the freedom from printing costs can result in excess, as when Lonny devoted 38 pages to a home in Chiswick, England.
But if there's a guiding rule among the magazines, it seems to be "Do as Lonny Does." Rue and High Gloss both publish every two months, like Lonny (Matchbook is a monthly). And all of them use flipbook-style software like Issuu (http://issuu.com); combined with the requisite editors' picks and gift guides, that can make for a numbing visual sameness. Even the articles can feel oddly familiar: after Lonny featured the Manhattan decorator Vicente Wolf, he turned up in Rue's first issue last fall.
Gentilello of Rue said that there is a collegial relationship between the editors of Rue, High Gloss and Matchbook, because of their shared roots in the blogosphere. She recently had dinner with Contreras of High Gloss during a blogger conference in Los Angeles.
What about Lonny?
"We didn't have a pre-existing relationship with them and haven't been able to develop one," Gentilello said. But "they were obviously a huge inspiration for Rue," she added.
In assembling the first issue of Lonny, Adams called on Domino's editor in chief, Deborah Needleman, who agreed to be photographed at her upstate New York home, as well as her former boss, Kate Simpson, Domino's senior market editor, who appeared on the cover. Adams' connection to Domino was mentioned in articles about the magazine, and grieving Domino readers embraced Lonny as a replacement. Not since Pete Best has someone gotten so much mileage out of a fleeting association with a beloved brand.
Simpson said she thinks Lonny has been successful, in part, because it "fills a void" left by Domino. But she added, "I think it also offers other things that Domino couldn't, with the online click-through capability." That means readers can click on a chair or a lamp, for example, and go directly to the site where the item is available for purchase.
Patrick Cline, a British photographer who is Adams' partner at Lonny, discovered the hyperlink option one day while experimenting with Issuu.
"All of a sudden, I thought, 'Does that mean we can link up any product on any page?' " he recalled, the wonder still audible in his voice.
The click-through feature, which is used by all four magazines, is common online. But while most shelter magazines have online versions, they aren't comparable to an actual magazine the way these four are, and this feature basically allows readers to shop the magazine. It also enables companies to directly track the effectiveness of their ads.
"We don't expect people to click-through and buy a sofa — that's a decision that takes time," said Jill Linville, communications director for the home furnishings company Room & Board, which advertises in both Lonny and Rue. "But we do see people clicking through."
The magazines experiment with the format in other ways, as well. Instead of writing an editor's letter, Adams recently began recording a video. In Rue, feature stories often have behind-the-scenes videos, bringing readers into each issue's creation.
"So much of Rue is influenced by our blogging background," said Gentilello, who worked in the Illinois marketing offices of the publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and blogged about design before founding the magazine with a blogger friend, Anne Sage.
She added: "I have a best friend who interned at Vogue, and she tells me how things are done there, and it's helpful. But we don't have set ways of how Condé Nast has done something for 50 years tying us down."
Another print legacy they aren't encumbered with: big operating expenses. Printing isn't the only thing they save money on. The Issuu software costs around $20 a month, and Rue, High Gloss and Matchbook are each created by a tiny staff and dozens of unpaid contributors (judging by the number of contributor pages, they appear to be compensated in photos of themselves). Matchbook doesn't even have an office: Instead, Armour, who lives in San Francisco, calls Warren, who lives outside Philadelphia, or they communicate by email. And much of their time is spent sending updates to the magazine's 8,900 Twitter followers.
"Even though we're a monthly," Warren said, "we have this hourly interaction with our readers."
But none of the magazines would provide specific information on revenue and operating expenses, and while they all claim profitability, just how profitable they are — and how likely they are to develop into anything bigger — is anyone's guess.
Even so, it's no surprise that established companies are taking notice, with the social media buzz and the magazines' readership numbers. (Lonny reported 243,229 unique visitors to its most recent issue, High Gloss said its last issue had about 130,000, and Matchbook cited a figure of about 75,000; Rue wouldn't give specifics, but said its readership was in the "hundreds of thousands.")
As Brenner, the Traditional Home publisher, said of Lonny, "I saw them as a gateway to a whole new generation of readers that we weren't currently reaching — and that possibly weren't reading print magazines at all."
In April, Lonny's partnership with Traditional Home, a Meredith Corp. title, resulted in a 347-page, ad-laden online magazine called Trad Home (www.lonnymag.com/issues/19-trad-home/pages/1). According to Brenner, in the five weeks the issue has been up, it has received 16 million page views and 116,000 unique visitors — a testament, she said, to the blog community's reach. It will be published again in October.
Design-world notables have also embraced Lonny and its competitors, even though they don't have access to the same caliber of photographers, stylists and writers that glossy print magazines do. John Derian and Celerie Kemble have been featured in Lonny, and Wolf said he didn't think twice about appearing in Lonny and Rue when he was approached.
"A regular magazine has limited space," Wolf said. "With an online magazine, as much as you can give them, they will show."
And aside from the 22 pages that Rue devoted to him, there was the added bonus of being referred to as a "design god" whose wrinkles "only increase his masculine beauty."
"It's always nice to be recognized for your talent," Wolf said. B
He's hoping to appear next in High Gloss.
At 7 a.m. on a recent Friday, Adams met Cline at a parking garage near 20th Street and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive. An attractive brunette with the high-strung manner common to the ambitious and overscheduled, Adams wore cream-colored slacks and held a plastic bottle full of greenish liquid.
"Doing a cleanse," she said.
She and Cline were driving to the Hamptons to photograph a house for their next issue and needed to retrieve the Lonny company car, her parents' Ford Explorer.
The pair met on a Domino shoot; Cline, now 35, was assisting a photographer. When Adams quit the magazine, in 2008, to start an eco-themed textile company, she hired Cline to shoot promotional images.
During a postwork dinner after Domino folded, they were ruminating about the hole left in the shelter category by the recent loss of so many titles.
"That conversation turned into, 'Why don't we just do a magazine?"' Cline recalled as he drove out of the city. "All of a sudden, Michelle's pen came out."
Because Cline had previously lived in London, they named the magazine Lonny, for London and New York.
Adams likes to play up Lonny's humble beginnings, and it's true that, like its online competitors, it was initially self-funded (the first issue, she said, cost around $1,000 to produce). But compared to the others, it is a media fat cat. The magazine now employs six full-time staff members and an ad sales team. And its 22-year-old chief executive officer, Max McDonnell, recently used money from investors to pay for the development of customized software with what they feel is better readability than Issuu, to distinguish Lonny from its competitors.
Adams rarely mentions her competitors, and when she does it's with barely contained annoyance.
"All of our competition is using it right now, and no one knew it existed before," she said of Issuu. "It's sort of like, 'Oh, really, guys?' "
She also questions the way the editors at Rue and the other magazines sprinkle "Meet the Team" photos of themselves through every issue.
"A lot of our competitors seem interested in fame," Adams said. "We're interested in decorating." (Gentilello said the staff photos are intended to create a bond with readers.)
At the Long Island house, a classic East Hampton cedar shake with beachy furnishings, Adams and Cline were led through the rooms by two women who worked for the designer, Jarlath Mellett. While the editors of Rue might run an article called "Darko Weirdo Dinner Party," as they did in their March/April issue, Adams' taste is more traditional, and old-line society decorators like Albert Hadley have appeared in the magazine.
Cline, who photographs virtually all of Lonny's interiors, set up his camera in the living room as Adams bent to smooth a wrinkle in the cowhide rug. On Domino shoots, she recalled, "They would call in sometimes truckloads of furniture, accessories, lighting, and we would create the 'Domino look' in somebody's home and afterwards take it all back." But Adams and Cline arrived with just a camera, and over the next two hours they worked their way efficiently through the rooms.
Later, standing outside by the pool, Adams talked about wanting to create an inventory of articles so each issue wasn't a last-minute scramble. When the conversation turned to upcoming shoots in Austria and Germany, one of the women employed by the decorator asked if Lonny's European office would handle them. Adams looked puzzled.
"Isn't it London and New York?" the woman asked.
"Yeah," Adams said, pointing to Cline. "He's London, and I'm New York."B
Adams often displays a curious mix of big-city sophistication and "aw-shucks roots," to quote her former boss at Domino.
"I think she still has to learn a lot," Simpson said. "She went from an assistant to running her own magazine. She skipped a lot of steps along the way."
Adams seems well aware of that. "It took me six issues not to laugh at my editor in chief title because it seemed so absurd," she said.
Still, she also knows that in less than two years she has built a successful brand with huge potential. At some point, she said: "We would love to have multiple publications attached to Lonny. For instance, we could have a cooking magazine or a parenting magazine."
So, Adams wants to be not just an editor in chief but also a media tycoon?
She laughed. "Pretty much."
Information in this article, originally published June 4, 2011 was corrected June 10, 2011. A previous version of this story misstated the professional background of Katie Armour, a founder of one such magazine, Matchbook. She worked for three years for interior design firms; Michelle Adams, who started another of the magazines, Lonny, is not the only founder of an online shelter magazine with experience in interior design. The article also misstated the publication schedule of the online magazine Trad Home. It will be published again in October; it was not a one-time project.
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