Elle Decor’s EIC: Design Editors Have No Place on Television

The roster of media mavens, moguls and boldface names spotted today at Michael's.

lunch at michaelsIt must have been the combination of the brutal cold (I guess we’re going to have a winter after all), ongoing network presentations at TCA and the long lines to get Powerball tickets, but it was pretty quiet at Michael’s today. That’s not to say there weren’t some big doings going down between bites of Cobb salad. There were plenty of head honchos (Mel Karmazin, Mike Perlis, Michael Kassan), politicos (Robert Zimmerman) and assorted mavens in the dining room undoubtedly hatching their next big move.

Michael Boodro, Diane Clehane and Barbara Friedmann
Michael Boodro, Diane Clehane and Barbara Friedmann

I was joined today by Michael Boodro, editor in chief of Elle Decor and Barbara Friedmann, the magazine’s vice president/publisher and chief revenue officer. Allie Haake, a member of Hearst’s intrepid PR team, who came bearing several recent issues as well as Michael’s recent book, Elle Decor: The Height of Style, arranged our little gathering.

As someone who used to pore over design and shelter books dreaming of owning a sprawling home only to find out the hard way that I’m much better suited to apartment living, I couldn’t wait to pepper Michael with questions about how one goes about creating a beautiful home with the minimum of angst. “You’ve got to love a house to have it love you back,” he told me within minutes of our meeting. Uh-oh.

Michael joined the magazine in 2010 and celebrated his milestone fifth anniversary last year. 2015 was a banner year for Elle Decor, which was capped off by the unveiling of the magazine’s fourth Modern Life Concept House during Art Basel and Design Miami in December. The 6,000 square foot, one-of-a-kind condominium home was located in one of the county’s most renowned creative neighborhoods, the Wynwood Arts District, and featured curated art by Miami artist Anthony Spinello. “Art has become more and more important in design,” said Michael, who was able to present the city’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center with a donation of $10,000 from ticket sales and sponsor contributions. Next month, Elle Decor will be the national media sponsor of Modernism Week (Feb. 11-21) in Palm Springs, Calif.

Michael’s tenure at Elle Decor marks his longest stint as EIC in a career that has included top of the masthead positions at Martha Stewart Living, Garden Design and Culture & Travel. He also was an editor in the style department of The New York Times and the features editor at Vogue for 11 years.

With that kind of expertise and refined taste level at the helm, it’s little surprise the magazine is coming off a stellar year. Barbara told me the November issue was the largest issue in Elle Decor’s history in terms of ad revenue and this year’s March issue, which just closed, is up 10 percent versus last year. “It was hard during the recession. We had no margin coming in for June 2011,” she said. “It’s really good when the business is growing.”

It was clear during our conversation that Michael and Barbara have successfully leveraged a team approach in enticing advertisers to the title at a time when some magazines resemble pamphets. We had a spirited conversation about the merits of an editor becoming a television personality by appearing on the ever-expanding crop of design shows. Michael is not a fan. “Anyone serious about creating a beautiful home is not going to look to them for inspiration. We serve a different purpose.”

Barbara was the vice president of marketing at Elle when she worked with the producers of Project Runway, the show that transformed erstwhile fashion director Nina Garcia into a television personality — something Michael would never do. “It’s different for fashion and women’s service magazines, but in design, it’s the magazine and the talent that should be the focus,” he told me between bites of his bay scallops, dismissing the idea that he would ever do any television to create a personal brand. “And there’s a danger of what happens when the editor leaves like [Elle’s former creative director]Joe Zee. I can’t do that and I’m lucky I don’t have to as long as we keep on making money, so I’m grateful to Barbara.”

Their latest joint project is certainly an inspired marriage of art and commerce. A longtime fan of Elle Decor, actress Emmy Rossum (who appears on Showtime’s Shameless) approached Michael on her own about helping her design her “first adult apartment” — a one bedroom on Sutton Place she recently purchased. Dubbed ‘Pied-a-Teardown,’ Michael introduced the actress to designer Antonino Buzzetta, who is working with Elle Decor’s editors on the design side of the project. Barbara is pitching the project to advertisers and “selling sponsors into it” in many categories including furniture, accessories, lighting, fabric as well as appliances and paint brands to fill rooms throughout the space.  “To be able to tell them they will get editorial credit is like gold. It’s wonderful to be able to offer [advertisers] that kind of opportunity. Readers experience advertising as content in the magazine.”

Michael insists the choice of what’s selected to be used in the apartment is up to Emmy. “It’s her apartment and it’s got to be personal. She told us that she cooks and she wants a kitchen and a real dining room table for dinners and lunches and she’s going to get it. It’s going to be glamorous and sexy.” The process is going to be featured online and the reveal will be unveiled in a future issue. “It’s construction so it’s done when it’s done,” said Michael.

Making a house feel like a home is paramount to Michael when he selects from various submissions that come to the magazine. “A few years ago a lot of people would say, ‘I want my house to look like a luxury hotel.’ I’m all for a nice hotel room but who wants to come home to a hotel?” (I can think of one person, but that’s another story.) Another trend he sees fading away is the “all beige” house which hardly inspires guests to kick off their shoes. “Now that designers are doing wonderful outdoor fabrics–even velvets!–that people are using inside, there are so many more beautiful options for room that you can really live in.”

And there’s no question that Elle Decor’s readers like to live well. Besides the growing roster of advertisers in interior design, Barbara told me that luxury lifestyle brands like Tiffany & Co. are among the magazine’s top advertisers due largely in part to the unique content Michael develops for the magazine. “What’s important to me is to show readers something they haven’t seen before,” he said. And that means saying no more often than saying yes. “It’s an editor’s job to say no. I tell my editors: ‘Don’t show me 30 sofas, show me three that you love.” Readers have certainly found a lot to love in Elle Decor’s pages and in the tablet edition (both sell for the same price — $19.99 for a yearly subscription). The magazine has “well over 600,000″ followers on Instagram,” noted Barbara. “Elle Decor leads in our category.”

Michael and Barbara agree all this talk about the demise of print is nonsense. “Print is not dead,” declared Barbara. The high honchos at Hearst even brought in HBO’s CEO Richard Plepler to rally the troops. Michael told me that at a gathering of the company’s EICs, when asked for his thoughts on the future of print, Richard talked up the emerging trend of more young people reading print and savoring the experiential aspect. “He talked about ‘Saturday mornings when you want to sit down with your favorite magazine.'”

Even with all this good news, perhaps the greatest indication that Elle Decor has a firm foothold in the zeitgeist came earlier this week, when Michael learned through a friend that the magazine earned a spot on The New York Times crossword puzzle. “The clue was ‘Elle Decor reader’ and the answer was ‘interior designer,” said Michael, clearly delighted. “I had no idea!”

Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:

1. A full table of revelers presided over by Holly Goldberg Sloan. We spotted actor Richard Kind (George Clooney’s BFF in case you didn’t know) among the guests but didn’t recognize the rest of the well-heeled crowd. Anyone?

2. Marketing/PR guru Robert Zimmerman (whose work as a political commentator is keeping him very busy these days) and Peter Brown

3. Sharon Bush, producer Beverly Camhe and a gentleman we didn’t get to meet.

4. Louise Camuto and G-III’s Morris Goldfarb

5. Allen & Co.’s Stan Shuman

6. MediaLink CEO Michael Kassan

7. Andrew Gundlach

8. New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia

9. Agent Lynn Nesbit

11. Estee Lauder’s Alexandra Trower and style scribe Kate Betts

12. Judy Price

14. Sirius CEO Mel Karmazin

15. Former NBC president Herb Schlosser

16. United Stations Radio’s Nick Verbitsky

17. Jay Kriegel

18. Mark Rosenthal

21. Daniel Del

22. Linda Macaulay

23. Marshall Cohen who was nice enough to introduce me to Colleen Fahey Rush, Viacom’s EVP & Chief Research Officer/Strategic Insights & Research. How’s that for a title?

24. Forbes Media’s CEO Mike Perlis

25. PR maestro Tom Goodman and Howard Schwartz, president and CEO of Grandstand Sports

27. Michael Boodro, Barbara Friedmann, Hearst’s Allie Haake and yours truly

81. Al Jazeera America’s Dawn Bridges

Diane Clehane is a FishbowlNY contributor. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.