Words of wisdom

Starting a magazine is fun.

I wanted to be a writer and when I came down from Cambridge I became a journalist. In England I was on the staff of the very visual Sunday Graphic and the bestselling (four million circulation) Daily Express. In Toronto I joined the Toronto Star before becoming associate editor of Modern Purchasing, a Maclean-Hunter publication. My other interest is film and theatre and I had a comedy produced at a little theatre in London. And radio plays in Toronto.

George Gilmour, our group publisher at Maclean-Hunter, did the math by adding up the number of advertising pages the American interior design magazines had, hoping that we would reach our goal of 10 per cent of that. 

He had talked to a couple of interior decorators specializing in residential interiors whom he passed onto me. To cut a long story short, my manager, Joe Resnick, and I quickly discovered that the credit ratings of most of the interior decorators was such that the kind of advertisers we wished to attract did not do much business with them. Herbert Irvine, who did a million dollars a year for Eaton’s, a lot of money then, was an exception. I was also to learn that the American magazines each had a niche readership.

In Canada we are 10 per cent of the size of the U.S.; and if Canadian Interiors was to be successful we had to appeal to all the niche readerships, as well as architects because they also were designing interiors. To these we added the industrial designers because they were designing so many of the products our readers were specifying, particularly furniture, and the developers, as the end users. 

We felt it was important that the magazine should look different from any other, that we would stand out if left on someone’s coffee table. I think John Bellinger’s solution of black-and-white covers worked very well.  

I believe one of the reasons for the magazine’s success was this wide range of readership covering so many different tastes and skills. And yes, we also covered residential interiors because interior decorators like Budd Sugarman filled their work with new design ideas. Like many of our readers, Sugarman was a great character who fought to keep Yorkville, and his shop there, as a smart shopping district. I never published his work, either in the magazine or later in my column in the Saturday Star, without him grousing about some minor detail he felt I had wrong, while at the same time telling me how this had helped him attract new business! 

The business magazine division of Maclean-Hunter mostly published magazines covering a technical field, and since we were partly about taste we stuck out like a sore thumb. George Gilmour had a lot of courage to start us and it was a pity he did not continue to be our boss. 

Design is a visual field and an
architect on our advisory panel would always illustrate what he was saying on a napkin or back of an envelope. So the art director was a key player. I felt we were a cross between a consumer and business magazine and we used Joan Chalmers, the art director of Chatelaine, for two of our first issues, and an art director from the business magazine division, John Bellinger, as our
permanent one. This set the tone.

Since I was a writer and journalist I listened a lot and had an advisory panel of designers from different fields. We also ordered every design magazine we could lay our hands on which John Bellinger and I would pour over. The photographers, correspondents and assistant editor were important as they needed to appreciate good design. Don’t forget that then as now, most writers and journalists are word men and women. Then there was the general public. While the remark is too clever by half, when the late architect John Parkin described Canadians as “visual illiterates” he was not entirely wrong. Television has changed tastes enormously. 

Over time we developed simple, strong layouts with a mixture of big pictures and little ones showing the details. Sometimes these details were taken off the big pictures, but it obviously worked better when the details were photographed separately. When I attended a photo shoot I not only suggested shots but lifted furniture and plants so that the interior looked the same in the photo lens as it did in real life. I would also provide accessories.

The younger interior designers would have degrees but some of the older ones needed to take an exam to upgrade their skills, which we encouraged. In Europe the interior designer is often called an interior architect, which better describes the role. We also encouraged the Ontario Decorators of Ontario to change its name to the Interior Designers of Ontario. While it is unfair to pick one president over another, Jack Houghton did a lot for IDO’s business image by negotiating to have it licensed by the province and becoming ARIDO, the Association of Registered Interior Designers of Ontario. A man of many parts, as an OCA graduate he had run the family firm in the field of contract interiors before becoming a successful stockbroker. 

To be a good editor I think your field has to become your life. Two architects who helped with the magazine, both as friends and critics, were the late Alan Moody and George Robb.

I had the most fun doing the foreign issues. Design is international and each country had something special to offer, from the spare classicism of Denmark to the rich colours and imagination of Italy. The Italians were the best hosts. One trade commissioner who took me round his country explained that not only were we guests of the Government of Italy, he was too, and he liked his food and wine! It was in Denmark and Sweden I developed a liking for beer chased by aquavit as well as their designs. These foreign issues were hard work but always had a high readership. Photographing the best designs from the Interior Design Show came a close second. We usually photographed the furniture beside Lake Ontario, accompanied usually by elegant models, but once by a tiger and another time by a policeman on his horse who happened to be passing. 

 The readers helped as it was their magazine, mirroring their work and influencing their times, and they were proud of it. Until Joe Resnick was promoted, the advertisers also helped by feeling an integral part of what we were doing. I attended their new product launches in the evenings and was careful that layouts of various interiors were accompanied by the spaces’ sources set in small type. We also had a well-read New Products section and technical articles when necessary. 

I often felt that our many editorial awards were given to the readers and advertisers as much as the magazine staff. They were a fine group of people who influenced their times a great deal during the 16 years I was editor, and are still doing so.  cI

—David Piper’s first issue of Canadian Interiors as editor was April 1964; his last was November 1979. During those 16 years, he won numerous editorial awards for himself and the magazine. In the years since then, David wrote a weekly column for the Toronto Star before starting his own business, Derwentwater Films, where he serves as writer and executive producer.