So we’ve reached the end of 2007, and with it the end of my experiment with Tyler Brûlé’s Monocle.
Unlike every other design-minded blogger I know, I’ve avoided weighing in on Monocle until I felt like I at least had a reasonable sense of what the magazine was, and what it aspired to become. With all nine extant issues of the magazine now sitting stacked up in our living room, furnishing me with a fair basis for critical consideration, it’s time to report my findings.
I am sad to say that, in large part, my final verdict comes back in the negative, and not by a little. Since, as a charter subscriber and a longtime admirer of Tyler’s audacity both, I’ve been pulling for the magazine’s success from the beginning, it may be worth looking into just why this state of affairs should come to pass; I’m therefore going to go into some detail in examining my disappointment. (Full disclosure: in the months between its announcement and launch, I pitched Monocle on a story idea, and never heard back from anyone over there. I don’t believe that colors any of what follows.)
If you prefer the thumbnail version, at core all of my issues with Monocle boil down to this iron fact: at £75 annually, I simply don’t feel that my subscription delivers sufficient value for me to want to renew it. But there’s more to it than that, a great deal more.
Why have I come to feel this, about something seemingly so unerringly crafted to suit my own personal predilections, tastes and desires?
- First and foremost: the magazine just never felt essential to me. That is what Tyler promised and that, above all, is what I wanted it to be, or at least contain: a crisp, concise, deeply clued-in briefing on the state of global play, like something a younger, hipper Economist might put together for the front of the book.
I understand that the pace of change being what it is, timeliness is going to be an inherently difficult thing to pull off as a monthly. But currency can be measured in many ways, and one of them is indubitably providing the sort of canny strategic insight necessary to contextualize and properly understand the daily onrush of events in business, politics and culture. This is what I was looking for, not bemused dispatches on the lives of Danish fishermen (issue 07, October) and vintners in the remote Chinese west (04, June).
Not all weak signals are portents of things to come. In the context of Monocle‘s value proposition, the desire to report on the under- or entirely unheralded is only as laudable as the degree to which the subjects of these reports eventually signify. Otherwise it’s arbitrary, nothing but whimsy and window-dressing.
- Tyler’s persistent and intrusive Nippophilia has always been a bit much – especially, perhaps, for those of us with some actual long-term experience of living as foreigners in Japan. It was always part and parcel of wallpaper*, but in Monocle he really gave it its head; my own personal tipping point may have been that one paean too many to Tokyo governor, notorious immigrant-basher and avowed “fascist” Ishihara Shintaro, whose recent conversion to green enthusiasms reminds me that there’s nothing at all incompatible between environmentalism and authoritarianism.
There are plenty of things to admire about Japan, but calling things Japanese out for higher praise than you would grant the directly-equivalent Western item isn’t appreciation, it’s fetishism.
Case in point is the magazine’s elevation of Porter luggage to iconic status. Believe me, I know my bags, and I’m sorry, but Porters just aren’t all that. As an owner of two or three, acquired during my years in Tokyo (and at Tokyo prices), I can tell you that they’re unexceptional items made with the mayfly Japanese fashion cycle in mind, not the long haul; treating them like they’re simultaneously blessed with the looks of a Valextra and the durability of a Filson is just silly.
What goes for Porter bags is true of so many of the magazine’s other Japanese enthusiasms. Would Monocle heap nearly so much praise on a Ohioan Tadao Ando, or an Angeleno Tokyo Midtown? In your heart, you already know the answer to that question…and that’s just exactly the problem.
- As the unwonted praise heaped on world-class bad actors like Ishihara indicates, Monocle consistently lacks anything resembling a critical voice. At times it plays at being serious, raising ethical questions about, e.g., Chinese stem-cell research (issue 08, November), only to accept an interviewee’s dicier assertions without follow-up, comment or raised eyebrow. At others, it simply fails to engage the obvious ethical dimensions of what it chooses to report on (the newly-resurgent Japanese military, issue 01, March; Abu Dhabi’s biennial IDEX arms fair, issue 02, April; the Christian retail industry, issue 06, September; an Israeli antimissile system, issue the latest).
The magazine’s relentless focus on high-end consumption as a literal way of life is, of course, itself a major ethical stumbling point, and clearly one whose implications are not engaged in any way other than the superficial acknowledgment of “sustainability” as something to be aspired to in urban design. Your mileage may of course vary, but this strikes me as not particularly cutting it.
- Monocle blurs, like no Western magazine I’ve ever seen, the boundary between advertising and editorial. Advertiser products and services are frequently mentioned in features, reviews and articles, without any indication that there is a business relationship involved. In almost every issue, cross-branded advertorial is delivered in the house design vocabulary, typeface, and copy voice.
Color me naïve, but I find this among the magazine’s most distasteful qualities. (Perhaps it’s another Nippocentric innovation Tyler admires; it’s certainly nothing new to books like Casa Brutus, and marginal callouts like “PANASONIC X MONOCLE” even ape the Japanese convention.) Risibly, the product placement even extends to the (awful) manga, where it stands out like an orangutan with an erection might at, say, an office Christmas party.
- More subtly: over the course of its first year, at least, Monocle evinced a persistent tendency to turn to surprisingly hackneyed “usual suspects” when looking for insight from SMEs. I had hoped that a magazine predicated on its ability to deliver a certain novelty of insight would in turn acknowledge a generational turn in the wellsprings of expertise. Not to name any names, but this hasn’t been the case. Color this one more a missed opportunity than anything else.
- Most seriously, Monocle suffers from serious confusion in the way it positions itself. The book comes across as cloying, precious, and auto-parodizing, not at all, as one recent reviewer would have it, “ultra-stylish and ultra-global.” This is in part for its comically disproportionate attention to things Japanese, in part for its willful hipster-doofus obscurity, and in very large part, because I find thick lashings of name-brand luxury the sure mark of a pathetic arriviste, and not anything to be aspired to.
Let’s strip this down to the basics of social performativity so crucial to both perception and business reality, and you can think of me what you will: on finally receiving my very first, highly anticipated copy of Monocle, I held it proudly cover-outward and for all to see as I walked down the street. I, too, wanted to participate in its fantasy/value proposition of discernment, global reach and access. (OK, I’m sad that way.) But here’s the thing: I no longer wish to do so.
In a mere ten months and ten issues, Tyler Brûlé has, without question, succeeded in one of the most daunting tasks faced by contemporary enterprise, that of establishing a resonant brand ex nihilo. The trouble is that the brand he brought into being says all the wrong things about me and what I value.
I think that about sums it up, on the major counts. Throw in the fact that the ostensible added value provided to subscribers by the magazine’s Web site just doesn’t seem to exist – I’ve visited monocle.com exactly three times in the last twelve months, all apologies to m’learned and admired colleague Dan Hill, who, by all accounts, has tried to do something genuinely novel in his stewardship of Monocle‘s online presence – and there’s little to justify plunking down that £75 or equivalent.
Tyler’s to be applauded on quite a few, nontrivial counts: for trying something distinctive, personal and new in the first place; for paying painstakingly close attention to type, paper weight and texture; for pumping new life into one of my favorite words in the English language, “bespoke”; for commissioning pieces that, whatever their ultimate value, undeniably do not tread the usual path; and above all for believing, as I do, that in any consideration of the material, hard-to-quantify things like provenance finally do tell. (Of course, I would believe these things: wallpaper* was a big part of my education in the first place.)
These are all wonderful qualities, but they’re not quite enough to build a business on entire. I’d argue that if I’ve come to feel as I do – as one of a mere 5,000 charter subscribers, and doubly as someone who must to a fairly close approximation reside center-mass of the Monocle audience in terms of taste, vocation, air miles, etc. – then something’s wrong. In this, that piece in BusinessWeek strikes me as getting it just about right: the magazine “is either prescient, or steering sharply toward an audience that doesn’t exist.”
That’s almost on point, anyway. It is, of course, unquestionable that my one data point is insignificant in terms either of Monocle‘s business plan, or Tyler’s ambitions for the book. But whether its audience can be said to exist in the absolute or not, it is now smaller by one. Monocle is so far from what it could have been, and my world, anyway, is the lesser for that.