April 1, 2011
The founder and publisher of Metropolis talks about the early days of the magazine.
When I started working on Metropolis, I had a fairly simple goal: to create a magazine that explained why buildings and objects looked the way they did. At the time, postmodernism was new and Michael Graves’s classic modernism was even newer. But I was confused. I had grown up in grand old houses and spent a lot of time studying the history of buildings. I had attended events at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, where the first lectures on postmodernism were presented. I’d even helped publish Skyline, a magazine that the organization launched in an attempt to reach a broader cultural audience. And yet when I read a lot of the writing about architecture and design at the time, I was baffled. Why was so much of it arcane, pretentious, sometimes even impenetrable?
Metropolis was founded in large part in response to that question. I did, however, get some good ideas from Skyline (which closed in 1980). The great Massimo Vignelli was one of its design advisers. His best idea was to use a tabloid size and print the magazine on good offset paper rather than on newsprint. This was how we printed Metropolis in its early years. Skyline also covered more than just architecture. This approach dovetailed nicely with my belief that most readers consider architecture and design to be one subject. (Certainly, most professional designers share this view.) As a result, Metropolis has always covered all aspects of design.
Establishing the Metropolis “voice” was a real challenge (and remains, as it should, a work in progress). I had always respected publications that not only communicated clearly but were free of jargon and what I called “cheap shots.” Many of the articles in Skyline were written in the priestly language of architecture. The institute’s other publication, Oppositions, was a thicket of unreadable jargon. I thought this was an odd way to reach a larger audience. Metropolis would instead offer an alternative. We’d strive to be sharp, lively, thoughtful, challenging, and, above all, accessible. This remains our editorial mission today.
From the beginning, we tried to tell stories from multiple points of view. That meant we’d interview the architect or designer as well as the client and end user. We wouldn’t ignore the larger cultural context. And we’d not only tell a compelling story with text but visually show the process through the layered use of photographs, diagrams, sketches, drawings, and floor plans. Like all design publications, we were interested in showing beautiful buildings and objects, but we weren’t content with merely showing them as objects of desire. Through the years, all of these approaches were refined and improved, but the desire to explain clearly and concisely why things looked the way they did was in our DNA from the start.
Thirty years later, I’m surprised by how many of our original ideas for the magazine have survived, pretty much intact. The mission statement of the founding editor, Sharon Lee Ryder, in our inaugural issue, July 1981, describes a publication that bears a striking resemblance to the one you’re holding in your hands. Another surprise has been our readership. I’d originally conceived of a design magazine aimed at a general-interest audience, but our depth and broad, inclusive view of the field appealed to professional designers; by the 1990s they comprised the bulk of our readers. They are the audience we strive to serve today.
So after three decades I am pleased with our progress and especially proud of our dedicated staff. During one of the most challenging business climates ever, they’ve managed to maintain our high standards and break new editorial ground. The essence of this magazine, however, is to constantly look forward. The emergence of the iPad and other tablets provides us with an opportunity to create a new media form and a viable and lasting future. The changes and challenges to design and to the world at large need Metropolis. We will be there to cover them.