A Seat at Roger Black’s Table

It’s a typical November weekday in New York City, but in the living room of one of Gramercy Park’s grandest buildings on the city’s most famous private parks, where the only tweets come from actual birds, one is transported back to a bygone era.

Inside, the renowned publication designer Roger Black is holding court. His audience is a group of four designers, book and ad agency people he has gathered to ponder — over a lunch of mache, braised chicken over polenta and ricotta tart — what the future business models of print media will look like.

Black has been holding these salons in watering holes around the city for ages — one participant likened it to the Slug Club at Hogwarts, a reference to Prof. Slughorn’s handpicked group of favorite students — but moved them to his home after tiring of shouting in restaurants. “You can’t talk,” says Black.

As the conversations have continued over the years, the book, magazine and newspaper industries have faced their most challenged days. Black contends print itself, not the Internet, is the culprit.

“What’s killing print media? I believe it’s the advertising model that print borrowed from radio and television,” he says.

B. Martin Pedersen, the designer and owner of Graphis Inc. and the senior member of the gathering, worries particularly about the future of illustrators. “I’m feeling a profession is dying here,” he frets, as glasses of Perrier and white wine are passed.

David Matt, creative director at book publisher Workman, agrees, blaming the woes of illustrators on a push to cut costs as well as increased demand for photography. “I’m very depressed about it,” he says.

Black is the lone optimist of the group, but then again, he’s had one of the most charmed lives in print. During his career, he redesigned many of the industry’s leading magazines and newspapers. And along the way, he’s met everybody in the media and art world, from Ben Bradlee (“a typical old guy who’s been around a long time and doesn’t take any shit”) to Andy Warhol (“You could never communicate with him. It was like somebody from a different planet.”).

But as budgets for redesigns have shrunk (a custom Roger Black redesign starts at $100,000), he’s reinvented himself, focusing on Web design and launching a low-cost series of templates for publishers on a shoestring. These days his preoccupation is Nomad Editions, a mobile magazine startup he formed with Mark Edmiston, a former longtime media investment banker and chief of Newsweek Inc.

At one point, Black whips out his iPad to plug his new venture. The premise is that without paper and distribution costs, Nomad can pay contributors a decent wage — one that increases with circulation. Black explains, “Suddenly, it’s Vanity Fair wages!”

Away goes the iPad as the group moves into the dining room for lunch. The conversation turns to digital. Seth Rementer, associate creative director at digital agency AKQA (and the junior member of the group), throws water on the idea that the Web was killing print, saying he’d gladly pay for content on tablets that’s free of ads and well-packaged. But do you still buy books? someone asks. “Rarely,” he says, stretching out the word.

David Matt says he still buys books every couple of weeks: “There are times when I cannot look at another freaking screen. I like to sit in the bathtub and read a book.” Matt submits that screens are actually damaging people’s eyesight. “It is unnatural to focus on light. You’re staring into a strobe. I’m finding the younger designers I’m hiring all have glasses. When I was coming up, hardly anyone had glasses.” Promptly at 2, the Roger Black salon ends, and the group files out, reluctantly, to return to the reality of the workday.

“This is a good restaurant, and we can hear each other,” Pedersen declares, a statement nobody finds fault with. “I’m coming back.”