Summer 2007

Comfortably Numb (64)

Tyler Brûlé's high-flying monthly promises a cool, global perspective, but its attitudes to consumption are grounded in the 1980s

By Rick Poynor

Published in Eye no. 64. vol. 16 (text in full)

When was the last time you saw anyone wearing a monocle? It’s a memorable word and it makes a strong typographic shape on the page. Even so, you have to wonder what the message is when it is used as the title of an ambitious new magazine funded, we are told, by an international consortium of private investors. The only image a monocle readily brings to mind is of a supercilious plutocrat, c. 1900. How much credibility does this antique form of eyewear enjoy among optometrists today? To sport a monocle in 2007 would be not only the height of affectation, but of questionable ophthalmic benefit, too.

Since Monocle is a Tyler Brûlé production, we must assume that these associations are anything but accidental. The Canadian journalist and bon viveur’s follow-up to his 1990s hit Wallpaper* is flagrantly exclusive in its bid to win over a readership of ‘well-heeled, intelligent opinion leaders’, who might include Spanish bankers living in London, Finnish architects in Zurich and Brazilian gallerists in Tokyo, according to the Monocle website. Elsewhere, an ad claims anagrammatically that ‘Coolmen [note, men] read Monocle.’.

In its visual appearance, Monocle is a typographically subdued affair. Creative director Richard Spencer Powell eschews exciting opening spreads in favour of small, consistently sized headings notable only for the blandness of their writing, though the country concerned is always indicated in italic, quietly stressing the title’s global range of interests. The editorial is divided into five main sections – Affairs (about international matters), Business, Culture, Design, and Edits (upmarket consumer tips) – which blur together as you flip the pages because the pacing and grain is so even.

The use of photographs is similarly muted. A typical spread tends to show a collection of small to medium-sized pictures, with few attempts to construct arresting visual relationships between images through scale, rhythm or internal movement. Always surrounded by a white border, many of the photos are little more than snapshots in terms of their lighting, colour and compositional interest. Sometimes this understatement works, as in a pale blue set of pictures of Samara in Russia and in a photo-story about the G-Wagen production line in Graz (both in the second issue), but mostly it amounts to a kind of studied anti-art direction. Is this really the way to hold the attention of readers the magazine assumes to be demanding aesthetic connoisseurs? The cover has the same dull, over-formatted feel. Two issues of essentially the same thing didn’t leave me desperate to see a third.

Only time will tell whether Monocle’s drama-shunning, directory-like pages have the lustre to sustain a self-styled brand that already employs 22 editorial staff members and has established bases in New York, Zurich and Tokyo, in addition to its London ‘hub’. To concentrate on the details of Monocle’s design, though, would be to miss the larger issue. The magazine wants to be seen as a progressive concern, claiming to offer an alternative news source for those disillusioned with existing outlets, and there is a sharp feature examining the stereotype of the blond American news anchor in issue 2. Never one for false modesty, Brûlé aspires to ‘create a community of the most interested and interesting people in the world’..

Yet Monocle’s underlying assumption, indeed its primary agenda, could not be more retrograde. Brûlé can barely brush his keyboard without letting us know how much flying around he does. ‘I’m happiest mixing it up,’ he writes in his second column, just back from a round-the-world tour. ‘A little bit of London, a few days in Toyko, a bi-monthly swing through New York and short stretches in our Zürich office suits me fine.’

Monocle is aimed at people like its editor-in-chief who spend half their lives criss-crossing the skies in business class. There is no hint that we are belatedly waking up to the fact that frivolous air travel on this global scale is exacting a terrible environmental cost that will be felt, above all, by the world’s poor, most of whom will never take a single flight, let alone get to ponder such urgent matters as ‘the best Korean massages’ or the ‘emerging neighbourhoods to invest in’, as recommended by Monocle. The magazine appears to be oblivious to the fact that the self-indulgent way of life it advocates for a perpetually airborne class of high-spending ‘opinion leaders’ is as irresponsible as it is unsustainable. I am guilty of unnecessary flying, too. It can’t go on, but Monocle pretends it can. For a venture that considers itself well informed, this is just myopic. A good pair of spectacles might help.