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Dwell President Michela O'Connor Abrams on What's Next

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Lots of changes happening chez Dwell, the San Francisco-based magazine and media company that produces volumes on modern design and architecture, not to mention an endlessly entertaining Twitter feed. To recap, editor in chief Sam Grawe and creative director Kyle Blue have just stepped down (leaving executive editor Amanda Dameron as acting editor in chief) and former House & Garden and Traditional Home exec Brenda Saget Darling has been named publisher. We caught up with Dwell president Michela O'Connor Abrams to chat about what's going on with these changes and the brand at large; turns out there are plans for a beefed-up NYC office, expansion in Asia, a commerce arm, and the expansion of industry conference Dwell on Design from Los Angeles to "another key market" that O'Connor Abrams wouldn't yet reveal. Oh, and there happens to be a really sweet new job opening that she's looking to fill: editorial director of the brand across all platforms.

We noticed the September 2011 issue is larger, by 12 pages, than the September 2010 issue. Tell us a little bit about how the print product is doing these days.
One of the things that has been the blessing of magazine model for us is that we chose a frequency and a circulation that had no problem maintaining profitability in '09 and beyond. So what we saw was a really incredible recovery, starting in the last half of 2010 that pulled us into 2011 and brought back a significant number of automotive advertisers, more of our endemic advertisers from Italy and Spain, and the trade commission business. We saw some new business and the return of business we hadn't seen in a couple of years. That's why the issues had gone from the 150s and 160s [pages] instead of the 130s and 140s.

I also think the growth has been because as we continue to show the world how we've been doing our research on our audience through the Dwell Strategy and Research division. It really is, simply, the exhaustive research we've been doing for 10 years now—on the website, magazine, people who go to Dwell on Design, and so on. While statistically I cannot prove that, following what has resonated with advertisers and newsstand buyers, I'd be willing to bet that our research has had a great deal to do with the resurgence. For instance, the issue that just came out (above), on Japan, was planned long before the earthquake and tsunami but we stayed with it because we wanted to talk about international influences of design, and most people—unless they're really in the core of the design world—don't know the influence of Japan. It may end up being our best-selling issue of the year, and that's all thanks to the fine-tuning that we do within the research division.

Let's talk about some of the more highly publicized changes at Dwell: the new publisher and recently departed editor in chief and creative director. What's going on?
Naming Brenda Saget Darling, as well as the move from Amanda Dameron to executive editor—it was all happenstance, honestly, that concurred with [ex-creative director] Kyle [Blue's] and [ex-editor in chief] Sam [Grawe's] departure. We certainly knew that Kyle was leaving as we were announcing all this—he has always wanted to open his own design shop. Being a really good manager, he did a phenomenal job putting a great team in place knowing that he had aspirations, and we're incredibly grateful for that. On the heels of that, Sam and I had been talking for over a year about the structure of the content across all the platforms, of which we have six—the magazine, digital, Dwell on Design, homes, product, and an emerging commerce model that we haven't announced. All of these platforms together means it can't just be a business initiative; it really must be a content and business initiative. That is not Sam's love and heart. His heart and soul is the magazine, and I think that's why we've done well. I think it shows—his keen writing ability, his understanding and love for architecture and design. His design chops I'd put up against any other journalist out there.

So are you guys looking to fill his position as editor in chief or rather hire someone to oversee content across all platforms?
We're looking for an editorial director whose purview is really taking the voice and properly taking the brand and applying it to all platforms. It's got to be someone who really has the design chops and an undying quest for shaping the content across all platforms. It's certainly a full-time job—I mean, we must meet with two or three new potential partners a week. So we really need to ask what's right for us. Our content, as with any publisher—digital or print—is our intellectual property and our core asset. It can't be thrown around. Which is why the editorial director should also be someone who knows magazine making. It's a craft, and it's one that has to be done really well, and by the right person.

We've heard you plan on opening a NYC office. What's up?
Well, we've always had our office on 36th [Street] and 5th [Avenue], but it's always been a sales office. It was my goal in '07 to really make a much bigger presence in New York, and that's finally happened. It will soon have eight people in that office, including two senior executives.

You guys were just named the most innovative digital magazine brand in a survey conducted by research firm Affinity. How would you describe your overall digital strategy?
I think first and foremost—and this has been true for a long time—it was never to repurpose the content of the magazine, it was always to take advantage of the medium and do things that would really hold people to the site as a resource and a source of inspiration. Lots of videos and slideshows are on the site, and we've been building those archives for the last three years. We have so many partners that we connect to that you don't feel like you're in an inner sanctum. We see our role as leading the discussion about architecture and deign in a compelling way, but we're not the only people who have good insight. We say, look, there are other places to find this inspiration. In general, I don’t ever feel like we've arrived, but I believe that we really built a site thinking about it as if we were just starting this company today—what it should be and not ever resting our laurels on the magazine. The website has to be incredible on its own, with its own depth of content. Currently we have 70 percent original content and 30 percent archives.

Are there any magazine/publishing brands you particularly admire for their innovativeness? Any that have served as an inspiration for Dwell?
Wired. No doubt about it—the magazine continues to be innovative, the site is incredible, and I really admire what they do. Wired, hands down, has really got it. I really do also think in terms of a brand, what David Zinczenko has done with Men's Health and Women's Health—his Eat This Not That book series, his TV appearances, and so on.

Can you speak any further about the "emerging commerce model" you mentioned before? Or is that hush-hush?
Well, I can't say too much, but I can say this: since our strategy in our internal business plan is bringing modern design to anyone, anywhere, anyplace any form, the winners of this whole content initiative on everybody's part is going to be those who master content, community, and commerce the best. In other words, those who make them inextricably linked while not selling out your editorial voice. And there is a way to do it, and contextualized commerce is just that, and I think we've been planning our moves strategically for the last year and a half.

Since you haven't hired an editorial director yet, you probably can't speak to specific editorial changes in the magazine in the wake of Sam's departure, right?
Actually, I would say that I really trust Amanda Dameron. While she has never led a brand as large as Dwell, and never been an editor in chief, we're already doing some fine-tuning that you will see evident in the February issue next year. Because we have such a great team of editors, we're all thinking: let's continue to innovate.

Any specific shifts to the editorial?
I think we're going to treat product a little differently—you've seen [the column] "Dwell Reports" for the last six years, the experts, and then our voice, I think you're going to see that expanded, with a much tighter correlation between that section and what we do online.

· Dwell Editor in Chief Sam Grawe Stepping Down [Curbed National]
· Amanda Dameron [Dwell]
· Most Innovative Mag Brands [Curbed National]
· Ten Items Concepts That Dwell Positively Cherishes [Curbed National]
· Dwell the Most-Followed Shelter Magazine on Twitter, Of Course! [Curbed National]