October 2011

A critical comparison of up-and-coming online design and decorating magazines.

At the time when home ownership seemed as if it could only be a blessing, interior design magazines also grew fat and happy. Then the housing crisis shrunk shelter magazines and, abruptly, big fancy houses seemed there just to taunt us. Long-established print titles disappeared, replaced sometimes in name, or in content, by a bewildering variety of blogs.

Today you can have a blog without a print magazine, but not a magazine without a blog'people like both, and advertisers do, too. So a new hybrid has stepped into the perceived breach: online magazines that differ from blogs (which present material in a string of posts marching down the screen) by aping the print magazine on your monitor.

The disappeared magazine I liked best was Domino (2005'2009). Domino broke design down, assembling bohemian or mod furniture vignettes like outfits, setting aside a separate section for those interested in renovating, and always, always telling you where to buy. Because of this emphasis on attainability, it is no wonder Domino's followers have migrated online, where they find links to stores, designers, and architects embedded on the virtual page. Typically published with the Issue platform, the online shelter magazine has all the structural elements of the old-fashioned print kind, but you click to turn the 'page.' Of the six online design magazines I recently reviewed, five'Lonny, Rue, High Gloss, Matchbook and The Nest'seemed aimed at one slice or another of the Domino audience. But in the both/and world of design media, these new monthly titles must now compete with better-established design blogs.

Lonny, launched in 2009, follows the Domino template faithfully, from front-of-the-book roundups of related clothes, accessories, and furniture (Abstract Japonica, Mod Moroccan) to a matrix of themed combinations of lounge chair, side table, and pitcher (Aegean Paradise, Desert Oasis). It also has pages of interiors. Pages and pages and pages. The first difference one notices between the online and print versions is that more photos are not better. We don't want to know that every bathroom in the house has the same tile, or see the living room from all four sides. We get it.

High Gloss (more glam, more West Coast) made me wince, mixing fonts that aren't friends, creating lines of text too long to read, skimping on photos, and giving weight to unconsidered words. A one-page story was just a string of meaningless adjectives: 'chic' and 'hip' and 'stylish,' 'eclectic' and 'pedigreed.' And 'unique.'

Rue is the most modern in layout and sensibility, but is almost half fashion, with a lot of artsy photographic filler. Matchbook and The Nest position themselves as 'lifestyle' magazines for twentysomethings who rent. Their pages have more clothes and travel and recipes, more pseudo'Holly Golightly exhortations ('The Matchbook Girl'views the world through rose-colored glasses').

Long visual features seem like the primary reason for online magazines to be magazines rather than blogs: The two-page spread, with multiple related photos, can be so much more immersive than a slideshow. Many of the problems with these online shelter magazines come down to money. The editors of the online enterprises have smaller budgets than their print predecessors, plus a limited track record, so they can't get the best work, the best photographers, or the best writers.

Blogs are cheaper to start up and cheaper to run, so there's a lower expectation of original photography and in-depth writing, and less time to dwell on mistakes. The rise of design and architecture blogs has changed what we need from magazines, online or otherwise. Who needs product pages when you can easily search, click, and shop online? Seeing all the options in one post, with hot links, is better than a magazine.

Entra, the newest and most luxurious of the online magazines, seems a lot like Architectural Digest (AD), whose former editor, Paige Rense, had employed some of its editors. Entra's summer issue had a roundup of hammocks. In AD, manufacturers' photos would be ganged on a single page, opposite an ad. But here, the bland images of lounge chairs by blue pools go on and on. There's a discipline to blogging (often six posts a day) and to the blog format (luscious photo, minimal text, more after the jump) that these online magazines don't yet have.

My favorite design source online is Remodelista. It is a blog that has a strong point of view, is edited by and for home-owning adults, and features architects, products, and design concepts in carefully selected groupings. You could send a client there to look at porcelain doorknobs. Or you could consider which is the nicest of 10 white bathrooms. For less literal inspiration, I turn to the Tumblr blog From Scandinavia With Love, which shows me the charming decor of Denmark, Sweden, and Finland each day. Its creators keep the blog tightly focused so stimulation is cumulative, rather than immersive.

In dismissing the online shelter magazines I am in no way dismissing the power or the usefulness of the web. But online editors need to think hard about what digital magazines can do that blogs can't. Just like their print compatriots.