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Material Boy

Cover Story,
Shift
May 1998

How Winnipeg kid Tyler Brûlé founded Wallpaper*, seduced Time Warner, and became the planet’s new style-setter.



Wallpaper magazine, the style bible of the young jet set, has made its Canadian founder Tyler Brûlé the toast of London and the darling of the Time Warner empire. Shane Peacock enters the realm of the sultan of swank to find out how the other half lives.

Tyler Brûlé is planning his escape. He is sitting on the edge of an ancient grey balcony outside Wallpaper’s seventh floor offices, almost overhanging the Thames. Big Ben and Westminster stand regally in the disant London fog. He is deadly serious, his eyes calculating. Between clicks of the camera’s shutter, he glances at his sparkling Rolex and artfully adjusts the collar of his smashing black Prada coat. He has been posing for about half an hour. Earlier, to hit his mark against the grand backdrop, he had crawled awkwardly out a small office window, careful not to smudge the $1,500 coat, his disabled left arm giving him little help.

Now the arm is positioned perfectly, but the eyes are fidgeting. His body is here, but his thoughts have already moved elsewhere.

“How much time do we have left?” the photographer asks, deferring to him, as most around here do. “Ten minutes?”

“More like seven,” says Brûlé politely.

Four hundred and twenty seconds later, having lit up the lens on command, he has vanished into another hyperactive day. Seek him here and seek him there and wonder where you’ll find him. The young gun behind one of the hottest magazines in recent years is a man who roves the world the way most of us wander our neighbourhoods. He could be at The Ivy in the West End, ordering something other than the $20 hamburger, his cell phone stuck in his ear, his guest a business mover-and-shaker or a jet-set trend-setter. He could be picking out the perfect sofa for his perfect Marylebone flat; he might be choosing models, designers and caterers for a late-night cover shoot; or on his way to New York, Tokyo or Stockholm. But wait in his office long enough and he will return, on the run, though actually at a poised walk, to sit briefly at his desk in his Charles Eames chair, compose a story or two, commission another, select colours for a spread, take calls in German, English or French from chic ports of call, choose the airline for his next flight... and vanish again.

Welcome to the world of Tyler Brûlé. It’s a place of refined taste and spontaneous adventure, a world you may glimpse but rarely visit. This is where the 29-year-old publishing magnate and his beautiful magazine move at the speed of the next millennium.

Conceived by Brûlé during difficult days, Wallpaper is both a mirror and a product of our accelerating world. Arriving fully formed and taking off almost immediately, it is now backed by one of the world’s thickest corporate wallets and in the midst of a steep upward trajectory in circulation and profile. New publications founded by unseasoned editors aren’t supposed to get this far this quickly, but at a year and a half, this is a toddler that’s already sprinting.

Then, again, there has never been a magazine exactly like it. Ostensibly an interior design and fashion title, it is much more-and much less. A glossy oversized, 200-plus-page guide to very contemporary, very swanky, very global living, Wallpaper also manages to take the piss out of what it adores. Sometime this year, as its reach grows, you may even find yourself drawn, almost against your better instincts, to join the “cute, well-dressed, well-travelled, city-dwelling 25- to 40-year-old men and women” who make up its burgeoning readership.

Float down the seven flights from Wallpaper’s offices, turn left at Waterloo Bridge and enter the new swinging London, the beating heart of “Cool Britannia.” The Verve, Vivienne Westwood and The Chemical Brothers; Damien Hirst, Bjork and Goldie; cool, and variation, is all around. On the streets, kids with cell phones speak French, Italian and Spanish, and the interiors of stores in SoHo and Covent Garden look like designs from 2000. Wallpaper, which you just must consult for the right furniture and Scandinavian architect (and for the right attitude to adopt toward both); Wallpaper, the brainchild and the very colour copy of the lifestyle and teeming mind of Tyler Brûlé, fits right in. Near the top of the economic scale, that is. Urban modernists and global navigators, make yourselves at home.

The visionary behind this manual of style seems older than his three decades. When he entered his office earlier this morning, looking a little jet-lagged and unremarkable, he shook my hand like a businessman. Even the Prada coat,the black Prada pants, the crisp brown, thigh length shirt and the gleaming brown shoes did little to mark him as “the man.” Many of the slim, attractive, dressed-in-black editors and designers crowding the spartan white offices made a bigger impression. But then he sat down and opened his mouth. (“He can really talk,” a Wallpaper editor had warned me, “especially about his baby.”) Suddenly he was transformed into someone to whom you must listen, as carefully focused as a Wallpaper photograph. “Covers are more important in this market than in North America,” he says in precise, measured answer to my question about London magazine publishing. “Here, over 90 percent of what we sell is off the newsstands. That’s a pure impulse buy. The models have to look great.”

Getting the great look: this is probably Brûlé’s greatest talent-and preoccupation. He seeks and creates beauty in everything, including himself, turning on whatever he needs when his moment arrives. It’s a trick of his: An hour later, getting ready for his close-up on the balcony, a little frazzled from the long interview and in a hurry, he disappears for a few minutes with a stylist and returns as a Bruce Weber model-handsome, dapper, mysterious and ready to give good photo.

Most people don’t become leaders of international cool by way of Winnipeg, Ottawa and Etobicoke. Nor do they choose two years at journalism school and waiting tables at a Movenpick restaurant in Toronto as ideal training. And none, surely, can count among their formative experiences getting machine-gunned to within an inch of their lives in Afghanistan.

Still, on closer examination, Brûlé’s past does contain hints of a cosmopolitan future. Born in Manitoba, the only child of artist Virge Brûlé and Blue Bomber football star Paul, he was force-fed a life of travel and change from an early age. Trips to Europe and his father’s stops with the Rough Riders, Alouettes and then retirement to the real world as a marketing executive, meant that by the time Jayson (Tyler is his second name) reached the tail end of high school in suburban Toronto, he was world smart and, by necessity, quick on his feet. “If you move around a lot,” he says now, “you become very good at social navigation, and you realize pretty quickly how to fit in and how to make friends and all of that. I became a pro.”

He was fascinated by airplanes, architecture, war and fame. He was also, even as a kid, a little materialistic. “I’ve always been concerned with having great objects around me,” Brûlé admits. At an early age, he had decided that the likeliest road to success ran through a television screen, and so he enrolled in the Ryerson journalism school. He saw glamorous snapshots developing: of himself behind the anchor desk at a major network or flying into a hot zone under fire.

During his brief scholastic career he showed glimpses of his glittering future by becoming something of a legend in debating circles. In fact, within a few months of enrolment the school was flying him to high-profile contests. But outside the debating ring, Ryerson was too slow for the pace he wanted to set. Greg Firnau, now a Toronto lawyer, struck up a friendship with Brûlé after facing off against him in several debates. He remembers a dynamic personality, less sombre than the current incarnation. “Tyler was known for taking outrageous cases and winning.” He recalls the time Brûlé convinced ABC News to open a bureau in Toronto for the 1988 G7 Summit and place him at its head, age 19. “He wouldn’t be happy with the status quo. He doesn’t accept failure,” says Firnau. And even then, Brûlé’s eye for sartorial style was in evidence. “He wasn’t just cutting edge back then, he was bleeding edge,” Firnau notes. “He was wearing trends two years in advance. ”

After just two years at Ryerson, Brûlé quit and applied for a researcher’s job at the BBC news show Reportage out of Manchester. He was promoted before even taking up his post, impressing the interviewer so much with his talk that he started as an on-screen correspondent. Over the next five years he continued his climb, first in TV with the London arm of Good Morning America, 60 Minutes, and as the 21-year-old bureau chief of Fox -News in London; then in print, working for everyone from British Elle to The Sunday Times, Stern and The Globe and Mail. He began flying around the world, noting the styles, the architecture, the furniture, the attitude wherever he went. Sometimes he even came close to flying bullets.

Then, in 1994, he and photographer Zed Nelson went on assignment to civil war-torn Afghanistan. Accompanied by an interpreter and a driver, Brûlé and Nelson travelled in a banged-up Toyota station wagon through several checkpoints, moving carefully in the centre of Kabul and warily eyeing 15-year-old “soldiers” packing serious machine-gun heat. At a tense moment they stopped to talk. Something seemed wrong: there were fewer people around and a strange feeling in the air. Moments later they were caught in a crossfire. Wheeling the car around, the driver attempted an escape. They swerved and nearly rolled over a riverbank. The gunfire ceased. When the car regained its bearings, shots erupted again like a fire storm. The bullets shattered every window and pierced the exterior 39 times. Instantly Brûlé was on the floor, looking up at a ceiling painted with blood, his right arm tatooed with bullet holes, his left nearly shattered, and his heart nicked by a glancing blow. Nelson and the driver lay grievously wounded and the translator had taken a bullet through the back of his head. Somehow, all survived. At a nearby hospital, doctors shook their heads in disbelief. Days later, Virge and Paul Brûlé arrived to airlift their son to London.

Sitting in his stylish Wallpaper office today Brûlé rolls up the sleeve on his right arm using his barely functional left and shows me an indented bullet wound the size of a couple of loonies. I hadn’t asked to see it. It’s a characteristic move, a dramatic gesture with barely any detectable conceit or boast, but unquestionable impact.

The close call in Afghanistan would mark the turning point in his life, and, strangely, usher in the birth of Wallpaper. The story of its birth has become something of a legend: Brûlé in hospital, slightly medicated, experiencing hallucinogenic visions of grand designs. “There’s been a lot of artistic embellishment,” he says, rolling his eyes. “I’m always seeing angels carrying magazines.”

“Actually,” he continues in his deep, anchor-desk voice, “I was thinking a lot about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life and what was important to me as a journalist. My friends are important to me, living in a great house is important, as a journalist I still want to travel and see the world, and all of these thoughts started to solidify. The more I thought about it, the more I thought, maybe there’s something here in the form of a magazine. I thought, what is all this saying to you?” He imagined a magazine that transported the reader out of his life and into another, more exciting one; a publication that “redefined what it means to live in a city... about great food, interiors, seeing the world, mixed seamlessly with fashion and everything.” “What’s truly important is a sense of quality of life,” he says, “and you know you get one shot at it. I was fortunate enough to be given a second shot.”

Brûlé isn’t a man who bares his soul, certainly not to strangers asking pointed questions. So you have to read between the lines. Now, would “great food and interiors” become a priority for most of us after recovering from a near-death experience? When reaching deep into our souls and deciding what was most important in our lives, would many of us think of living in a great house? But then I remember something else he had told me. “I’m really bad with money”, he offered unprompted. “I’m really good at spending it. Like, too good. Because of my experience in Afghanistan it’s... you can’t take it with you.” The finer things in life had always been important to him; now, it seems, they became almost almost everything.

Toward the end of his convalescence he was having dinner with a friend. Asked to sum up his concept, he said, “It’s about the stuff that surrounds us.” “What surrounds us?” asked his friend. “Well,” Brûlé deadpanned, “Wallpaper surrounds us.” The next day he called his lawyer to register the name.

The title was perfect: campy, very 1999. “Wallpaper*: The stuff that surounds you” is, about style, modernist mostly and its appreciation, comprehension and deconstruction. It’s about knowing who who Alvar Aalto is (a Finnish architect), and how to get a free flight on the right airline to an exotic locale, and what to visit when you get there. A recent issue explored the architecture of Brasilia, furniture at the Getty Center, the beauty of the red Swiss passport and, appropriately, the stylish Tanner Krolle wallet. In its pages you see an alluring compression of many places and many styles, thrown at you in the wink of an eye. But reading the magazine, you may also get a strong whiff of irony-though it’s an undercurrent that escapes many who casually flip through page after page of high-priced goods. In some ways, it is even silly (“We’re all just stupid,” joked one Wallpaper editor to me). “I edit the magazine so it can be read on several levels,” says Brûlé. “The Wallpaper experience can be a whole lot of different things: ironic and arch and tongue-in-cheek, or you can read it cormpletely straight.” In this way Wallpaper puts itself forth as a sort of test of cultural savvy, dividing those who take their media at face value from those aware of the mingled subtexts in the eclectic culture we consume.

From the beginning, Brûlé realized that he’d need a great deal of money and the best connections to bring his concept to life. Most people start magazines in a basement with a few tiny backers. Brûlé got on a plane and proceeded to pitch every big-time contact he had. First he flew to San Francisco to meet friends at the Gap. Surprised by and impressed with his idea for a glossy aimed at Generation-X jet-setters and wannabes, a niche others had not exploited because they feared it didn’t exist, Gap executives heard that smooth Tyler talk and were quickly sold. Hundreds of phone calls and many flights later, Versace, Gucci, British Airways and fellow U.K.-based Canadian phenom Patrick Cox, the shoe couturier, were among the many wealthy clients signed up for gorgeous ads at up to 5,000 pounds a crack. (The fact that, according to widespread reports, advertisers get special consideration in the choice of products featured in the swanky spreads probably didn’t hurt the pitch.)

The first issue was designed in a hotel in Vienna, the second in the Toronto studio of Canadian friend (and current Wallpaper editor-at-large) Chris Chapman, with colleagues staying at Brûlé’s mother’s house. The initial staff was a handful of true believers close to Brûlé, people he could trust. The big fees demanded from advertisers were for more than just the magazine’s high-production look. “I had six or seven mouths to feed, I couldn’t give pages away,” he says. It sounds like the concern of a parent, and judging by the fierce loyalty of the Wallpaper crew (most of the originals are still on board), he shares a genuine closeness with his staff. But for all their in-joke familiarity, there is never any doubt about who calls the shots. “The magazine’s very much me,” Brûlé admits, “I can’t lie about it. It’s a very autocratic operation here . Everything passes across my desk.... People know what I want and peoplc strive to give me what I want.”

What he wanted in Wallpaper seemed, from the very first issues, to resonate with a sizable audience. The publication got off to an impressive start, quickly reaching a circulation of 35,000. But the need to match the content to Brûlé’s exacting vision meant that writers had to be flown around the world, and nothing, from photo shoots to paper quality, could look second best. Chronicling a dream lifestyle, like living it, is an expensive venture. He had some money, but needed a lot. “There were some grim periods”, says Brule’s friend Firnau of the start-up days.

Then a saviour arrived: Time Warner, massive and capable of sending Brûlé and his people wherever they wanted to go, in the style befitting their magazine’s content. After meeting with Brûlé, Time editor-in-chief Norman Pearlstine told his head man in the U.K., Richard Atkinson, “I just met this guy, really sharp, really bright, and he’s got a great magazine. Atkinson had already seen Wallpaper and claims to have been “just captivated” by it because it was not cut from the same template as the interior design books made “for 45-year-old housewives.” After further consultations, Pearlstine emailed Atkinson with a simple question: Should Time buy Wallpaper? The answer came back in a single word: “Yes.” Though suspicious of joining the stable of such a giant, Brûlé knew he needed deep pockets to realize his ambitions. He cut a deal to hand over his baby for $1.6 million U.S., with the proviso that he maintain artistic and editorial control.

So far, Time seems content to let its first and only freestanding European publication do its own thing. The magazine, though now thicker, slightly richer-looking and coming at the reader from even more locations, is remarkably unchanged from the early editions. “It’s a very different acquisition for [Time],” says Brûlé. “They don’t have a lot of tradition with glossies.... It’s a prestige brand for them.”

Still, Time doesn’t invest in magazines just because they’re pretty and kind of hip. Pearlstine characterizes the purchase as “an opportunity to extend the magazine publishing operations of Time Inc. [a division of Time Warner] in London in a rather quick, efficient fashion.” That’s corporate-speak for saying that a magazine catering not only to young people but young people with money gives the media giant the perfect foothold for expansion in Europe. The purchase has also bought the company the talented embodiment of this demographic, an investment Time is sure to exploit. “There’s absolutely no doubt that Tyler Brûlé has more than one magazine [in him],” says Atkinson.

The first step, however, may well involve taking Wallpaper multimedia. The publication’s ingenious trademark asterisk, which looks like a stylized version of DaVinci’s man, is poised to become the centre of a lively brand expansion-Brûlé’s own Nike swoosh. Press reports claim that images of Wallpaper stores and products dance in its founder’s head. He has already talked with CNN about a TV show, and thinks that “quality, high-ticket” items might some day bear the logo. Talking about the brand, he allows himself a little excitement. “The wonderful thing about the asterisk is, it references so many things, from Playtex bath daisies from your childhood to just being this symbol within our language which means to draw attention to something.”

Brûlé’s style-maven credentials have also made him a sought-after consultant. Some time ago, Air Canada wanted to get his thoughts on its in-flight magazine. Arriving a half hour late for the meeting, he wasted no time in tearing into the publication. “He said, ‘This magazine is the biggest piece of shit,’”recalls the rep who brought him in. “It was one of those me-me-me-all-about-me things. There was this little space he moved in and his truth was truth, period.” As for his criticisms, “they were actually very true.”

Wallpaper and its founder have certainly generated a buzz in international media and design circles, and if the response has been mixed, it’s seldom tepid. Toronto architect Bruce Kuwabara is a fan who feels that Wallpaper, in its often ironic looks at its subjects, is not only aware of itself, but has a consciousness about the larger magazine form and design. “I think it’s really appropriate at the end of the millennium to have a magazine that densely layers all the publications you’ve ever read. There are so many layers of the history of magazines that are involved in Wallpaper, and yet it still seems fresh.”

Others, however, see little beyond the pretty surface. Jefferson Hack, editor of U.K.’s ultra-hip pop-culture magazine Dazed & Confused, offered me a terse if provocative comment: “If you throw enough shit against the wall,” he sneered, “some of it sticks.” Some have wondered aloud who in the world, aside from designers, would read it.

What draws the most criticism, however, is Wallpapers narrow focus on a wealthy and materialistic group of young jet-setters who have little in common with the rest of us. Many magazines for young adults are earnest enterprises, cheekily critical about mainstream culture, and many would just as soon eat the rich as join them. Or at least so they like to pretend. Wallpaper’s shameless celebraton of a life of luxury and excitement goes sharply against the grain.

Bonnie Fuller, the Canadian editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, bristles at criticism of Wallpaper. She is aghast that anyone could be so naive as to think that in the late 1990s young people are, or should be, against commercial culture. “I don’t see any great anti-materialism among young people today. They are more aware of designer labels than any other generation, and I think that if you have developed an eye for what you wear, you’ve often developed an eye for what surrounds you.”

Brûlé fends off the charges by both emphasizing the ways in which Wallpaper has fun at the expense of its featured content and by defending the importance of its escapism. “You could live in [the Toronto neighbourhoods of] Lawrence Park or Etobicoke [and think], God, you know I really love my husband or wife or boyfriend and I’ve kind of bought into this lifestyle. But God, it’s really great to pick up Wallpaper and see, or at least think about, how the other half lives.” In all fairness, escapism is what most successful glossies traffic in; Wallpaper just does it with more obvious relish. Everyone enjoys a trip to bountiful, even those of us who fancy ourselves connoisseurs of intellectual substance. I admit I fell for the exquisitelv photographed Villa Spies in the January/February issue, an extraordinary home on the rugged Swedish coastline. It looks like a comfy spaceship in the wilderness and is absolutely irresistible.

“When you break it down,” Brûlé insists, “[Wallpaper] is about three things: shelter, nourishment and travel.... When you strip away all the Gucci and Prada and Cappellini chairs and B and B sofas and Qantas first-class tickets, that’s all it is. We just package it so it looks a lot more appealing.”

Another important ingredient in the Wallpaper recipe is a sense of globalism. Brûlé likes to stress that the magazine has one edition for the whole world, which can be read in Tokyo and Toronto with equal satisfaction. For him, travel is virtually an art form, and a necessity for anyone who really wants to grow in life. “To me, travel represents a thirst for knowledge,” he says, and he doesn’t accept the argument that most people can’t afford it. Most of us are too static, he contends, saving pennies instead of living life. “That’s what really drives me nuts about Canadians in general, people saving, ’Why should I go to New York?’ Well, get on the damn plane and check it out! I really hope we push enough people’s buttons, no matter where they live in the world, to go our and see what’s going on and really explore.”

After a while, defending his vision tests Brûlé’s patience. “A lot of people think [Wallpaper] is enormously pretentious and we come under fire for that. But you know what? If you don’t get it, then I don’t want you to read the magazine.”

“Get it” or not, love it or hate it, what in the end may be Wallpaper’s most contemporary feature is the way it reflects the breakneck speed of modern life. Architect Kuwabara offers an interesting comparison: “I believe that Natural Born Killers was the fastest film ever, image-wise. I see that acceleration in Wallpaper. In a way, it’s a bit more than the time it takes to flip a page. [Wallpaper] is about multiplicity and speed.” Not only are you tempted to leaf through it quickly, gobbling up the stylish images, but each article is short and sends you on your way in a flash, placing you in Stockholm at one moment, New York the next, then suddenly Tokyo or Brazil. You are attracted, repelled, unsure, and when you set it down, you feel you’ve been around the world, racing faster than the Concorde.

Brûlé has a postcard of the Concorde on the table in his office, a book about it on his shelf. His life mirrors the speed of his magazine, and vice-versa. He offers me a week in his life: Flew to New York on Friday morning on the 10:30 Concorde, took a helicopter into Manhattan, visited furniture stores, had a major advertising meeting, met with the editor-in-chief of Time to renegotiate his contract, a reception for Jeffery Bean at Le Cirque, then to the airport, fell asleep in the lounge, took a Virgin flight back to London, spent the weekend with two Swedish editors, then Tuesday a Concorde back to New York, a big production meeting, then next day an eight o’clock to Reykjavik, Hamburg on Friday morning, and back to London Saturday for an advertising dinner with Prada people and “you know, Gwyneth Paltrow and Sam Neill blah blah blah,” then to Hamburg, back to London Monday night, a Gucci dinner, a shoot for the cover, Zurich, then Davos...

Ten hours after marching through our interview, I find my way to a big studio in an old building off a narrow alley near Old Street, where Jack the Ripper used to ply his trade. When I push open the old wooden door, turn through the kitchen, its elegant table decorated with food, and move past a surreally beautiful Argentine male model in a bathrobe and a phalanx of black-clothed employees, I can see Brûlé buzzing back and forth, on the phone and off, directing everyone, cool on the exterior but his ears red with energy.

The scene for the shoot is very Wallpaper: artificial, campy, with airplane seats sitting in the middle of the room and a huge chair that looks like a medieval throne lording it over the space. The style is impeccable. “Alexander McQueen,” announces someone, rushing a dress past the boss. Sitting in a chair directly behind the photographer, Brûlé reaches out to adjust the utensils on a perfect plate of filet mignon. At midnight the shoot is still in full swing. As I prepare to leave, I wave to Brûlé . He is on the phone to Los Angeles, speaking firmly, looking serious. He manages to flash me a slight smile.

The next day the Shift photographer and I appear at his flat in posh Marylebone. For an instant I feel like I’m either back in the ’70s or in a place designed by someone who loves the Jetsons. It seems as if I’m standing in a Wallpaper spread: There are seven globes in the living room and a mirror globe in the den, many model Eiffel Towers, a sofa after Florence Knoll, a George Nelson this, a Charles Eames that, everything in beige and brown tones. Tiny airplanes are everywhere. Ongoing renovations are trying Brûlé’s patience, but every inch bears his touch, down to instructing workers what to do about the dust now gathering on his dark, soft walnut floors. No interiors, he reminds the photographer- Harper’s Bazaar is doing an exclusive next week.

Soon he is turning it on again, posing for photos in front of a huge, white-and-green, modernist painting by London-based John-Paul Philippe. Commissioned by Brule and painted right in his living room, it frames him perfectly.

Looking around his domain, I’m struck by the special world he has created around himself. It’s an extension and mirror of what he sends out to us on the pages of his magazine: discriminating, luxurious and cool, it is hard to resist. If you choose to look for it, you may also glimpse a larger reflection-of the multiplicity, the drive toward globalism, the accelerating pace of our times, even their shallowness, materialism and greed. But something is missing. I find that spending several days in the realm of Tyler Brûlé hasn’t inspired envy in me. For all his success and dynamism, he rarely shows much joy.

He is getting anxious to escape again, but it will never show on film. The Rolex is ticking. Still polite, if businesslike, he is eager to get back to the office and God knows where else. Moments later, the last shot taken, he is gone. The dust settles. We’re left alone in his expensive, tony flat, full of the objects he has acquired. It feels like a shell without him.