Tyler Brûlé: Man behind The Desk

The studio smells of solid oak, the blazers come from Japan and the reporters are based across the globe. Tyler Br&Atilde;&raquo;l&Atilde;&copy; tells <i><b>Sholto Byrnes</b></i> about his new BBC4 media show, his fear of flying and why he doesn't read Wallpaper* anymore
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The Independent Online

When BBC4's much-vaunted new media show, The Desk, airs for the first time later this month, the presenter will not be the most obvious choice. For behind the desk (there will be one) will be sitting not a figure with the more obvious gravitas of an ex-Fleet Street editor or a network broadcasting boss but Tyler Brûlé, the exotically named Canadian responsible for the design and lifestyle bible Wallpaper* magazine. The presenter will not be the only unusual aspect of the programme. This is a show whose participants will not be allowed on air until they have been groomed by a Japanese stylist. During the recording of the pilot, guests even observed that the set "smelled great". "That's because we didn't use any veneers," explains Brûlé. "It's all solid oak and solid ash; warm and woody."

When BBC4's much-vaunted new media show, The Desk, airs for the first time later this month, the presenter will not be the most obvious choice. For behind the desk (there will be one) will be sitting not a figure with the more obvious gravitas of an ex-Fleet Street editor or a network broadcasting boss but Tyler Brûlé, the exotically named Canadian responsible for the design and lifestyle bible Wallpaper* magazine. The presenter will not be the only unusual aspect of the programme. This is a show whose participants will not be allowed on air until they have been groomed by a Japanese stylist. During the recording of the pilot, guests even observed that the set "smelled great". "That's because we didn't use any veneers," explains Brûlé. "It's all solid oak and solid ash; warm and woody."

Brûlé, 36, who is the executive editor of the series, is a perfectionist, so such meticulous attention to detail is to be expected. He proudly shows me the title sequence for The Desk on a laptop in the London office of Winkreative, the agency he runs. The sequence was created by Nexus Productions, the team responsible for the opening reels of Catch Me If You Can and other Hollywood films. "I thought we wouldn't be able to get them," says Brûlé. "They don't pick up the phone unless it's a major film. But they knew my work and said that they'd love to do something with us." Even the music for the show was written by the producer for the French pop group Air.

Brûlé's vision is for the show to do the "less obvious and more surprising", and also to have a very strong global perspective. He and Anne Reevell, the series' executive producer, were originally batting about an idea for a morning programme for Channel 4. "We started talking about this audience who were expats in one sense. They are the New Europeans - they work in one city, their home town is somewhere else, they have a partner who lives in another place - but we felt that there was nothing for these people. Here, the weather ends in Dover or Aberdeen, and there's almost no recognition that we're sitting in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world." Discussions with Channel 4 did not lead to anything in the end, but it was while Brûlé and Reevell began to focus on these viewers that they heard the BBC was looking for a media programme.

"First it was 12 companies bidding for it, then it was down to eight, then a shortlist of four, then it was just two," he says. "And all along they really liked that we had a quirky global component to the show. I wanted to bring a true magazine proponent to the programme, which meant it should be multi-topic: bitty in some areas; big, bold features in others; and an international agenda as well. We can tackle global topics and not have to provide a super-obvious link to home. We can aim quite high with the tone we strike with the viewer."

Brûlé criticises British broadcasting media for being "parochial" in its coverage of domestic news - it is for this reason that he now listens to the BBC World Service rather than Radio 4's Today in the morning - and says that The Desk will be a programme which "can live in this country, but it can also live around the world". He says: "People I networked with during Wallpaper* days will be feeding stories in for us from Kuala Lumpur, Beirut, Sao Paolo, Berlin. There isn't a show like this anywhere else. We've sold it to Swedish state television for Saturday nights, and they bought it without seeing the pilot. And there are other obvious markets where there is an audience for English."

How, I ask Brûlé, will he answer critics who question, as he agrees they will, his suitability to present the BBC's flagship media programme? Does he have the authority to anchor the show? "I've been running an advertising branding agency since 1998," he begins, "and that world has to be a big component of what we do. I started my career in television [on the BBC's Reportage strand], so I've been on camera before. I've had Janet Street-Porter in my earpiece yelling at me from Television Centre when I was on the Berlin Wall. I was a correspondent on Radio 4. I've worked on the features desk of a tabloid [Eve Pollard's Sunday Express]. I have started a magazine and sold it to one of the world's biggest media companies [Time Warner]. I started a brand which became one of the most iconic media brands of the latter part of the last century and the beginning of this one; I didn't say that, but many have done. As a correspondent, I went to Afghanistan and got shot." He pauses. "I've kind of done it, I think. Having actually rolled my sleeves up and been in those environments will allow me to speak on a variety of topics. And I've been in this country for 15 years, but I still feel like an outsider a little bit, and I think that's a good thing."

But he fully expects that reaction to the initial programmes will be dominated by superficial reactions to what the set looks like. "We'll be damned either way," he says. "We won't be able to win in the early days. People will focus on blazers made in Japan and fantastic carpets from Sweden and all of those things. They may not be able to cut to the content."

Does he feel that he has been over-branded by his own creation - that he cannot escape the popular perception of Wallpaper* as a fabulous, but essentially lightweight, lifestyle publication? "Will I suffer because I've been over-branded? Absolutely," he says. "It's this thing of all style and no substance. But we suffered the same thing at Wallpaper*. You could read it on lots of different levels, but I always thought the people who really got it were the ones who actually read the magazine, not just asked where they could get the handbag. We had one of the first features about Al-Jazeera, and another about an underground Swedish nuclear shelter that hadn't been open to the public before. The people who were the true followers were those who read and really engaged with the brand, and I think it'll be the same with the programme. I think the people who had those opinions of Wallpaper* never got beyond the cover or the first few pages of advertising. After two or three viewings, people will get what we're about, and they'll appreciate that I'm someone who can do the job."

Brûlé seems relaxed about having to face this barrier. Wallpaper* has been the defining moment in his career so far, and its founder did his best to live a life as glamorous as the one described within its exquisitely crafted pages, as he now admits. His boyfriend of several years was Patrick Cox, the shoe designer; the globe-trotting was continuous; the designer labels were the best and the staff parties were held in locations like Bali. "The stories about helicopters and Concorde and all those things?" he says. "Yes, they were absolutely true. But you know what? Those were all signed off by the company, so I wasn't working in a vacuum. In that sense, it was a fantastic time. I was so lucky. I was really indulged by Time."

What was the best story he heard about himself? "My favourite one was that I used to book an extra seat for my luggage" - Brûlé famously refuses to put bags in the hold, so that he does not have to wait at the carousel the other end - "which wasn't true but was kind of hilarious. I'm quite good at packing and because I'm a regular passenger the airlines tend to let me get away with three pieces. But not an extra seat."

Air travel features frequently in the Brûlé mythology. One rather implausible-sounding tale had a plane being sent from London to Brûlé's private island off Sweden to bring him proofs of Wallpaper*, because badgers had chewed through the lines to his fax machine. "It was true," he says. "I was out there on holiday. The phone lines were down, and there was a dreadful stench underneath the deck of the house. The man from the phone company told me that it was badgers. But having someone fly was actually more cost effective than FedEx, because FedEx doesn't have boats."

Whether that's a good excuse or not, Brûlé has long been fascinated by planes, having a youthful ambition to run his own airline. Recently, his agency was hired to rebrand Swiss Air. And on the shelves in his office, nestling among titles such as The Action Hero's Continued on page 6

From page 5

Handbook and The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, I notice a book of truly esoteric interest: Lost Airline Liveries by John K Morton. Oddly, though, when he tells me how his flight from Muscat to London on the day we meet was delayed in-air, he confesses to being a "nervous nellie" on planes. He is a mixture of the camp and the macho; the latter demonstrated by his bonecrusher of a handshake.

His certainty that The Desk will be a success is also no surprise. He doesn't come across as someone overly plagued by self-doubt. Growing up in Canada, where his father was a professional American football player for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the teenage Tyler set his sights high early on. "When I was 14, I knew I wanted to be a broadcast journalist," he says. "I was quite clear that I wanted to go to New York and take Peter Jennings' job as the main anchor on ABC."

The route to this, he thought, was to work his way up through regional Canadian stations. Instead, at 20, he answered an advertisement for a researcher's position at the BBC. He won the job, but was soon moved to be a reporter instead. Freelancing for television and press followed. It was during this time that he was shot in Afghanistan, and in the six months he spent recuperating that the idea for Wallpaper* came to him. Set up from his Chelsea flat in 1996, he sold the majority stake in the magazine to Time Warner for £1m after only four issues, continuing to run it for them until IPC took it over, as well as running his agency alongside. "When we won the Swiss Air business - for a lot of money," he says, "it was much more interesting to say to IPC, 'Look, I've been doing this magazine for so long; if I can't run Wallpaper* on my terms I'd rather have the agency right now'. And so we went off and did what we've been doing."

Feelings ran high after Brûlé's departure, with the new management laying accusations of excesses at the founder's door. "With a bit of distance, maybe I took the magazine to places it shouldn't have gone to," he says. "We probably didn't need to cover French modernist architecture with a Catalan illustrator, or go to northern Finland to train with an elite snow corps - no, actually it was Norway. From a commercial point of view, the magazine should have stopped and focused on interiors, architecture, entertaining. But then, that's what made the brand what it was. In the last couple of years, we were probably doing things that were for the core readers. But I think they were the 30-odd thousand who don't buy it any more." Does he read it now? "No. I never read it. We're not subscribers."

Given that The Desk will be going out on BBC 4, how will Brûlé deal with the challenge of covering stories about the corporation? "Curiously, that's a discussion that hasn't come up yet, which is a good sign." What, I ask, about the announcement of the move of various BBC departments from London to Manchester? "How would we have covered that? I think it would be a case of having Mark Thompson sitting in our studio and asking the difficult questions, not just about people not being thrilled about going to Manchester, but also that it doesn't make sense. We talked to another broadcaster who went through the whole process of decentralisation - CBC in Canada. And curiously, Mr Thompson, everyone's back in Toronto now. We did a dummy line-up the week those announcements came out, and we spoke to CBC and to ABC in Australia, because we don't want to talk to the four regular pundits that other programmes would go to, but to take media examples from other countries."

Another example of the global perspective Brûlé expects to bring to The Desk is how they would have reported the tsunami. "In the early stages, nobody on this side of the world had really woken up to the scale of it," he says, "and everyone was turning to ABC in Australia for their reports. It was extraordinary how wrong and how slow to react the news channels were. Then there was the big struggle over how much emphasis to give to Westerners - how much can you cover 200 British missing when you've got 100,000 dead in Indonesia?"

Who does he expect to watch the show? "Forty per cent of my fantasy viewers are the converted - those who work in advertising, branding, they're studying media, they're journalists," he says. "There's going to be another 40 per cent who are real news addicts. There's a large chunk of people who have their favourite correspondent - who have a crush on Ben Brown, or who love Christiane Amanpour. You feel that you have a relationship with these people if you spend a lot of time in hotel rooms. The other 20 per cent are looking for quality programming, and for us to take a bit of a punt and look into our crystal ball to say where things might be heading."

Brûlé seems to have spent some time examining the crystal ball looking into his own future. As far as he's concerned, The Desk could be much more than a BBC4 series. "It could be a very interesting brand," he says. " The Desk - the magazine? Does it live on radio?" And beyond The Desk, that special viewer he and Reevell talked about a year ago remains on his mind. "In the same way that news channels ground us, I think there's a place to do a network here that also exists in Sweden, and that you can find in Italy, Greece and Lebanon as well," he says. "Television may be moving towards 'on demand', but I think there's room for a few distinct, perfectly curated networks, too." It's when Brûlé starts talking about "perfectly curated" television stations that his streak of campery can hide no longer. Now seems the time to ask if the name, which sounds made-up, frankly, is his own. "Brûlé is French-Canadian," he says. He admits that his real first name is Jayson and Tyler is his second. "Tyler was always my second name," he says. "You can ask my kindergarten teachers. I was going to be Travis Brûlé - thank God I wasn't." Had he ever thought of changing it? "No. Never. It's odd that we're even having a conversation about my name. But we were talking earlier about creating a brand...".

The establishment of Brand Brûlé will only be further strengthened by The Desk. Perhaps this, and the distance he's been able to put between himself and his departure from Wallpaper*, has left him calmer. When I ask about his relationship with his father, to whom he has not spoken since Brûlé senior found out his son was gay, he says that communication has still not been made. "But I do feel that it's time to pick up the phone, to be honest," he says. "I'm the one who'll have to make that step. Time's moved on; the world's moved on." I tell him that his father must be proud of what he's done. "I'm sure he is," he says, "but I'm not sure he's abreast of the things I'm up to." And fluent, smart, confident, high-achieving Tyler Brûlé for once looks slightly bashful.

'Wallpaper* is on track, and I just steer it'

Ciar Byrne talks to Jeremy Langmead, who took the editorial helm from Tyler Brûlé

A label frequently applied to the design magazine Wallpaper* is "cutting edge", but it's a term that its editor, Jeremy Langmead, regards with ambivalence. He is keen to stress that his magazine is no style title, "photographing people who look as though they take heroin, standing on a bridge in an outfit that doesn't look like a piece of clothing".

Langmead prefers to think of the magazine as "the design equivalent of an ambulance chaser - if a new building goes up or a new piece of furniture is imagined, we'll be the first to hear about it".

Design has come a long way since Tyler Brûlé founded Wallpaper* in 1996. Langmead explains: "When Wallpaper* launched, people were a lot less design conscious. It was a magazine that dictated to them, whereas now, people have grown up with newspaper supplements that feature a huge amount of design and interiors, and television that's crammed full of interior-decorating and property programmes."

Langmead, a former editor of the Sunday Times Style magazine, took over as editor-in-chief of Wallpaper* just over two years ago, several months after Brûlé quit the title that he had sold to the US publishing giant Time Warner, which now publishes the magazine through its UK subsidiary, IPC.

"Like all people who start magazines, he had a great idea. But who founded Vogue? None of us know. Brands live on and the people who found them get forgotten. When I'm gone, it will make no difference whatsoever. It's a magazine that is on track and just needs someone to steer it," Langmead says.

He and his team have done no more than stabilise circulation - which now stands at 108,000 worldwide - but they insist that it is the quality, not the quantity, of readers that matters to advertisers. "We have the most sophisticated, design-savvy audience in the world, and if we chased circulation traditionally, through cover mounts and so on, we might lose that," says the magazine's publishing director, Richard Johnstone. The readership profile depicts a rare breed indeed, with an average age of 30 and household income of £135,000.

To the magazine's credit, it returned to profit in 2004 after making a loss for several years - turning in three consecutive record profit performances and ending the year 30 per cent up on forecast. The focus now is on extending and developing the Wallpaper* brand. The magazine relaunched its website last year, which now attracts more than 400,000 users a month and brings in a monthly total of between 400 and 500 subscriptions. There is also an online Wallpaper* club - with readers from around the world, including two in Nigeria and one in Nepal - who, according to the executive publisher Andrew Black, are "very verbose, very articulate and very passionate".

February will see the third issue of a spin-off travel magazine called Navigator - a biannual insider's guide to cities for the cash-rich, time-poor business traveller. Langmead believes that it will be a greater success than the magazine's short-lived fashion spin-off, Spruce, which suffered from an excess of competition.

Other plans include developing the title in the US, launching a Russian-language edition in March; making the magazine available online in digital form; and doing a deal with Nokia to provide Wallpaper* content over mobile phones.

So, do Langmead and his team actually live the Wallpaper* lifestyle? "You have to, to a certain extent. We certainly spend a lot of time travelling. I did wake up once wondering where the hell I was. So many hotels look exactly the same, so there's no clue to which country you're in - you could be in Milan or you could be in Bangkok." We should all have such problems.