Q&A: Elle Decor’s New Editor in Chief on the Elements of a ‘Stylish Life’ and What Does Well on Instagram

Whitney Robinson discusses changes readers can expect

EIC Whitney Robinson wants Elle Decor's content to be relevant to what’s around them. Philip Friedman/Studio D
Headshot of Emma Bazilian

Current gig
Editor in chief, Elle Decor
Previous gig
Style director, Town & Country

Adweek: It seems like a lot of magazines in the shelter category have been trying to reinvigorate themselves by bringing in new editors to add more lifestyle, fashion, culture. Is that part of your directive?
Whitney Robinson: The thing about Elle Decor is that fashion isn’t just in its DNA, it’s in its title. It’s meant different things over the years, but the tagline has always been the same: Fashion at home. “Lifestyle” has become this dirty word, so to speak. It’s become a catchall phrase for everything. But what it means for me is that design and home are about all the elements of a stylish life. It’s about art, interiors, architecture, travel, food. All one has to do is look at everyone [taking pictures] on their cellphones in restaurants to realize that a beautiful plate of food is also design. So it’s not “is there going to be more fashion on the cover”—it’s whether the magazine is a reflection of its time and place.

So what sorts of changes can readers expect?
There are tent-pole franchises that are beloved in the business and that I have always loved, whether that’s “What’s Hot” or “Truth in Decorating.” But I am someone who likes to be more reactive to the world and what’s happening now, so what people can expect to see is content that’s relevant to what’s around them as opposed to evergreen ideas that don’t necessarily look so different from month to month, which is something that I see endemically around us. It’s also important for my editors and me to know who our readers are, as opposed to creating a magazine for some imaginary person who’s just out there in the ether. That’s one of the things we did at Town & Country was meet the readers. Who are they? Where do they live? What kind of food do they eat? That’s how I think we crossed a barrier there, which has made the magazine really successful, and I want to do the same thing at Elle Decor. We’re going to find out who’s reading it and appeal to them.

Obviously it’s important to know who your reader is, but looking at Town & Country, you clearly attracted a new, younger audience, too. Are you hoping to do that at Elle Decor?
Of course. All the time. But [at Town & Country], there wasn’t a moment that we sat down and said, “We need to capture a millennial market.” In fact, it was quite the contrary. We were the global nomads, so what we were seeing around us was then reflected in the pages of the magazine. It was as simple as that.

Let’s talk about Instagram. You have a fantastic account.
Thank you! For me, it’s a great way to connect with people. [When I was at T&C], there was this subtle shift to make our Instagram more reflective of what [editor in chief Stellene Volandes] was doing, what I was doing, where our editors were traveling. I think there’s this wall between the magazine and consumer that shouldn’t be there. I want [our readers] to know who’s picking the furniture in the magazine, what wine they’re drinking, what earrings they just picked up. Unless you’re a die-hard reader, you won’t necessarily realize that in the first few issues we’re working on, but it will feel a little lighter and a little more current. The language we use will also have a little more arch to it, so it’s more relevant. For instance, if we’re covering a furniture designer in London, do you say, “This is the guy to watch!” or do you say, “London style is back. Is this the person to blame?” That subtlety of language makes us go from something that could have been used in 1990 to language that could only be used today. Now, that doesn’t mean I’m going to put “lol” into my copy.

When you’re looking to shoot something for the magazine, how much do you think, “How will this do on Instagram?”
I don’t really see them as separate things because the lesson I’ve learned is that it’s the thing I didn’t think would do well that ended up outperforming everything else. I did a story on a house in Istanbul in 2011 and it’s a story that’s been syndicated all over Hearst, and every time we bring it back up again, it gets tens of thousands of hits. It’s this splendiferous, wood-framed Ottoman hunting lodge. I never thought it would do so well. It was beautiful, but it wasn’t modern or something really buzzy. It was just something that was eternally beautiful, and it turns out that eternally beautiful does really well online. I hope that what we shoot and what our taste is will resonate because it’s beautiful.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 25, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@adweekemma emma.bazilian@adweek.com Emma Bazilian is Adweek's features editor.