Special Report: Designs on Richard Ferretti

Fate, it seems, brought Richard Ferretti to Gourmet.

Ferretti was so determined to become the creative director at the Condé Nast epicurean title that, when a friend told him the position might be opening up, he decided to get a jump on the competition. So, he made an appointment with Gourmet editor in chief Ruth Reichl before the job was even posted.

The day of his scheduled meeting with the editor, Reichl happened to be having lunch with her longtime friend Donna Warner, editor in chief of Hachette Filipacchi Media’s Metropolitan Home, for which Reichl was once a contributor. Reichl asked Warner to recommend a good creative director.

“Richard Ferretti,” Warner shot back, immediately thinking of the friend and colleague whose work she so admired.

When Reichl returned to her office from lunch, there, outside the elevator, she found the gentleman who would become her new creative director.

“I came to this magazine as a reader and a cook,” says Ferretti. “I came knowing it from personal experience. Gourmet just didn’t look like it sounded. Visually, it was not as compelling as it was editorially. What I felt I could offer the magazine was a parallel experience, making the visual equal the editorial.”

Ferretti joined Gourmet in 2003, and the following year, the 66-year-old magazine won its first-ever National Magazine Award, for General Excellence, from the American Society of Magazine Editors. The next year, it won the “Ellie” for Photography. In 2006, it was nominated again for Photography.

A choice example of Ferretti’s push to make Gourmet more visually relevant is last year’s June issue, for which the magazine commissioned Magnum photographer Gueorgui Pinkhassov to document a family reunion in real time—no food, no stylist, no retakes. “We set up a table,” Ferretti recalls. “We made the food. They brought it out, had a picnic and had fun. We didn’t art direct it. It was just happening. It was a risk, but we’re willing to try things.”

Taking risks with a venerable magazine brand is one thing—taking risks with a beloved holiday tradition is quite another. Take last December’s issue, which, like every other Christmas issue of Gourmet, featured a cookie pictorial. But this time around, what the design team did with the holiday treats was distinctly untraditional. Staff photographer Romulo Yanes, a 24-year veteran of Gourmet, shot the cookies in graphic, geometric arrangements so that they looked as much like scientific specimens as culinary confections.

“We try to be unpredictable,” says Ferretti. “Getting the magazine and being surprised is kind of nice. People want to be surprised, and we owe it to ourselves to surprise ourselves.”

Another surprise is how well the magazine is doing on the newsstand, given the struggle so many magazines are encountering there. Single-copy sales for the second half of 2006 were up 11.1 percent over the previous year, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. And overall circulation— including subscriptions, which account for most of the magazine’s sales—is at an all-time high, with 994,951 copies. Ad pages were up 7.3 percent in 2006, according to Publishers Information Bureau.

“I think the reason things are going as well as they are is that we are making a magazine for the diversity of people we are,” Ferretti muses. “We’re making a magazine for who we represent. We don’t obsess over demographics.”

Gourmet’s design team includes Ferretti, art director Erika Oliveira and photo editor Amy Koblenzer. All three joined Gourmet within the last four years, and each brings a wealth of design disciplines to bear on the look of the magazine.

Ferretti worked primarily in fashion prior to Gourmet, serving as creative director for retailer Banana Republic from 1998 to 2001. He also worked on campaigns for Coach, Josie Natori, Revlon and Jane Cosmetics. He began his publishing career as an associate art director at Metropolitan Home. Last October, The New York Times Magazine celebrated his talents as an interior designer by documenting the succession of New York apartments in which he has lived and which he has redecorated.

Prior to Gourmet, art director Erika Oliveira worked at Saturday Night magazine in Toronto and helped launch the Canadian food title President’s Choice. When she moved to New York in 2000, she looked for an opening at Gourmet, didn’t find one, then spent the next four years at Hearst/Harpo’s O, The Oprah Magazine before Ferretti’s predecessor brought her to Gourmet in 2003.

Born in Bombay and of Portuguese ancestry, Oliveira studied textile design in India, where her grandparents ran a Chinese restaurant, her mother works in the travel industry and her father is an interior designer and landscape architect. “All these experiences help you in what you do,” Oliveira says of her diverse design background.

Before becoming a photo editor, Amy Koblenzer worked in the theater, as a seamstress, costume designer and lighting technician. The metamorphosis from seamstress to photo editor happened gradually, beginning with a job as a fashion assistant at Condé Nast’s GQ, for which she traveled the world on photo shoots. Those skills would become the basis for her next job as an associate picture editor at Connoisseur, where she spent four years learning to assign and produce stories on fashion, travel, fine art and food. Later came stints at American Express Publishing’s Departures, the short-lived Expedia Travels and The New York Times Magazine. In 2004, she joined the Gourmet team, where she oversees travel features.

Having been a team for three years now, Ferretti, Oliveira and Koblenzer share a goal of making Gourmet more lively—”more people, more real, more diverse,” in Ferretti’s words. One thing all three designers have in common is a love of art, particularly film. While their own medium is print, it is to cinema that they most often turn for inspiration. “We storyboard everything except travel,” Ferretti says. “It’s great to be prepared before you go into a photo shoot. You know what you want to get out of it.”

“I script a little story, like making a movie,” adds Oliveira. “When you make a movie, it’s not about your taste. It’s about what’s required to tell the story.”

The filmmaking approach to magazine design was evident in the article “Gathering Home,” last September. For that piece, Oliveira dreamt up a scenario in which an imaginary, retired music-industry executive gathered his family for an al fresco harvest meal. The script is not articulated in the story but merely animated the casting of the photo shoot. The gathering included the exec’s twin granddaughters, daughter-in-law and sons-in-law. In an offbeat set-up, the old man’s son and daughters are never seen; perhaps one of them is snapping the photos? (The photographer was, in fact, Martyn Thompson, better known for fashion than food photography. Under Reichl, Gourmet has put a fresh spin on the edit by enlisting photographers, illustrators and writers from outside the clubby world of food journalism.)

One reason Gourmet is a standout graphically, Koblenzer says, is that it’s “basically driven by photography, and the typography tells the story in a clear and simple way. We do not like a lot of clutter. We have a great respect for photography.” At least 90 percent of its photos resulted from assigned shoots as opposed to stock photos.

In singling out Gourmet for General Excellence, the ASME jury said, “Whether covering the streets of Rome or an apple tart, it enriches the reader’s appreciation of food, drink and travel, and the gorgeous photography brings you right into the picture.”

While Gourmet does employ some traditional food shots, the magazine has distinguished itself with its unconventional approach to shooting food stories. Says Ferretti, “Other food magazines tell a story about food. We tell a story about the experience of food.” It is all a part of Gourmet’s formula, under Reichl, of speaking about and photographing food in the context of our culture, history and relationships.

All Gourmet’s travel and entertainment features are shot by freelancers. Ferretti, Oliveira and Koblenzer put their heads together to pick just the right photographer for a story and will go against type to achieve the surprises they are after. For the February issue, they tapped the London-based documentary team of Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin to shoot littoral landscapes for a travel article on Massachusetts’ North Shore.

Often, though, the team selects photographers whose work recommends itself to the food world. Chicago photographer Laura Letinsky, known for her tabletop still lifes of the remains of meals, shot the cover of last August’s Literary Supplement, which featured the writings of Calvin Trillin and Pat Conroy. The supplement, sponsored exclusively by Philips Electronics, suggests what Gourmet might look like uncluttered by ads.

As it strives to keep the magazine fresh and beautiful visually, one of the design team’s biggest challenges remains that its subjects are, most typically, edible, seasonal and perishable. “We tend to work very far in advance,” Koblenzer reports. “We want to have the ingredients fresh. We don’t want a January tomato pictured as an August tomato.”

Making things even more challenging is that Gourmet does not employ the tricks of standard food photography, like using mashed potatoes as a stand-in for ice cream or Elmer’s Glue for milk. “Our food is real,” Oliveira stresses. The practice is all the more important considering that the team usually enjoys the fruits of its labor. As Oliveira points out, “We eat all the food after a shoot.” Edgar Allen Beem is a frequent contributor to Photo District News.