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Newell Turner on Tweets, Dollhouses, and the May House Beautiful

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Welcome to Curbed Interviews, a new column in which the talented Raina Cox (of If the Lamp Shade Fits and Curbed's Moonlighting series) interviews major players in shelter media and interior design. Have a suggestion for someone whose voice should be heard? Send it here.

One year ago, Newell Turner was promoted from House Beautiful's style director to its editor in chief. His infectious enthusiasm for great American decorating—"I love pretty!"—shines in HB's consistently vivid, imaginative pages. A true Southern gentleman and history buff—not to mention notorious dog-lover—Turner believes in the power of color and that "everyone has a great house inside." Optimism: there's still a place for it in print media!

You've worked for some of the biggest names in shelter media, including House & Garden, Metropolitan Home, and Cottages & Gardens. What sets House Beautiful apart?
We do issue themes that are meant to clearly delineate us from our competitors. For instance, with the March "Color Issue," we took a chance and focused on a color [pink] that I frankly thought could either do really well or really bomb. The April issue is "Wild About American Style" because I want emphasize what House Beautiful is really about. We don't do houses in France or Italy or Morocco. Some of our competitors do that beautifully and that is their voice. For House Beautiful, we are really about American design. We do show products from all over the world, but we're really about how Americans live.

Is the American take on interior design a personal passion?
For me personally, it's something I get incredibly excited about—I can't read enough about it or think enough about it. I'm not a designer but I'm a huge groupie of designers. I like to call myself a "design junkie." I said in a recent editor's letter that I can look at a beautiful room the way a lot of other people would look at a work of art. I look at it, study it, and think about it. What was done and why it was done and the beautiful effect of it all.

When you look at projects in other magazines, you know right away whether it's an American home or an international home. There is something very distinct about the way Americans live and furnish their houses, and I am fascinated by it. My goal now is how to feed that into the magazine.

You are personally tuned into social media with a Twitter account and a blog chronicling the building of your Catskills retreat. How has social media and design blogging changed what you do as a shelter magazine editor?
Blogging has come at an interesting time in decorating. It has really been an energizer and given us so many more ways to communicate. But the biggest shake-up for us in the print platform is we no longer "see and report." In the past, we would get letters from people, but now it is more of a two-way street in terms of communication. The volume of the feedback is so much larger and so much more intense. It's really caused us as magazine print editors to think about what we're doing.

For example, we no longer do show house stories due to issues of immediacy, and we no longer use stringers [regionally based freelance reporters]. Bloggers are our stringers. I think of bloggers and some websites as today's beat reporters. We try to keep our ear to the ground through y'all and read about what you're seeing and discussing. It really does inform and influence how we then package and tell stories.

With all of the digital platforms, magazines have had to really focus on their content, who they are, and what they're about—truly define their position and editorial to make a magazine distinctive. Blogging also changes how news gets disseminated. There is no way we, the print magazine, can complete with blogs—including our own website. In publishing, it's really more about finding the right platform for the right content.

Do you feel these adaptability issues have caused the recent demise of so many magazines?
To use showhouses again as an example, magazines used to publish showhouses all the time, but there's no way we can publish a showhouse as quickly as a digital platform. Those stories are really better suited to websites and blogs. In the shelter category, it has caused magazines to really think about what we do in the business. It's not a hobby, though for a lot us who are in the business we love it and it's like we get to work at our hobby. But in the end, the magazine, the website, and the digital edition is a business and you have to run it like a business. Unfortunately, that is what has happened to some magazines who've fallen by the wayside. You can't spend more than you're making. That's been a big shakeout in our business. It has really helped us refine our editorial voice and position.

When blogging about your Catskills home, Twilight Field, you mentioned the influence of your Southern upbringing on the final design of your house, specifically its tall ceilings. How do experiences from your Mississippi childhood influence your editorial choices?
I grew up in household that was very interested in design, in a tiny, tiny town of 2,500 people—about as rural as you can get. My parents had a number of friends who were decorators. We would go on vacation and might see a historic house. Mississippi has such a rich architectural history, and you grow up aware of that. When I went to Ole Miss, I pursued a degree in journalism and also a degree in Southern Studies, essentially a multi-department study of a population. It gave me a strong foundation and feeds back into what I do now. A sense of place is incredibly important for so many reasons other than aesthetics. It drives a lot of what we talk about in design and what we do at House Beautiful in particular.

Your inspired submission for Curbed National's "Operation Dollhouse" project was incredibly creative. You even shared your own vintage dollhouse with our dapper delivery man, James Andrew. What's the story of your tiny house?
I've always had this fascination with dollhouses. I never had one because I'm a guy. When I was working at Hamptons Cottages & Gardens magazine, there was this amazing dollhouse in East Hampton at the Ladies' Village Improvement Society's offices. I had this idea to use it for a story in HC&G. We sent a photographer who shot it incredibly close. In print, you couldn't tell it was a doll house because the detail was so incredible.

When I got the job as editor in chief of House Beautiful [designer] Jeffrey Bilhuber sent me an amazing tiny architect's model from 1948. You can lift off the paper roof and see all of the construction details. I keep it on the table in front of the sofa in my office. We loved Operation Dollhouse—it became this whole office project. You would have never guessed editors would have so much fun gluing.

Could you share with us a sneak peek of the May issue?
Last year, May was the "Advice Issue" and it did incredibly well at the newsstand. It was a challenge to see what we were going to do this year. With this May's "Designer Secrets" issue, I really wanted to emphasize that House Beautiful is about decorating advice.

We have an amazing story with decorating legend John Saladino and a feature with [designer] Meg Braff. She is new on the scene and has such a young, fresh approach to decorating. We also have story with a young man out of San Francisco who hasn't been published before—Benjamin Dhong. You will also see Markham Roberts, a master at color and pattern. And because we don't want to be just an East Coast/West Coast magazine, we will be featuring Atlanta designer Stan Topol, who was discovered by Billy Baldwin. We photographed his office (which looks a lot like a house) and talk about his project ideas and analysis, a sort of master class with Stan Topol.

· All Moonlighting columns [Curbed National]
· All Newell Turner coverage [Curbed National]
· All House Beautiful coverage [Curbed National]
· House Beautiful [official site]
· @tnturner3 [Twitter]
· Twilight Field Journal [official site]
· House Beautiful Dollhouse: Cinematic Moody Blues [Curbed National]
· In Which Dollhouses are Delivered to Five Top Shelter Publications [Curbed National]
· John Saladino [official site]
· Meg Braff [official site]
· Benjamin Dhong [official site]
· Markham Roberts [official site]
· Stan Topol [official site]
· If The Lamp Shade Fits [official site]