A Truly Great Magazine Says Farewell
What magazines do I read? There are quite a few. But what magazines do I consistently purchase on the newsstand without missing a single issue? There is only one: Nest. From the very first issue I was hooked. Not because the design was up to the professional standard of Fabien Baron and Fred Woodward, or the experimental chops of Rudy VanderLans and David Carson. Not because I was an avid fan of lifestyle or shelter magazines (I could take ‘em or leave ‘em and only in the dentist’s office). Not because I am so awestruck by artistically bizarre popular culture that I buy any old zine. No, I became a loyal connoisseur (the words reader or viewer are too neutral) because this was the first magazine in a long time that did not slavishly conform to common publishing wisdom of any kind. It was not stylishly grunge; it was not modishly post-modern; it was certainly not nostalgically retro-orthodox modern (like Wallpaper*). That it was, in fact, a shelter magazine for me was irrelevant—frankly, shelter or not it was like no other magazine before or since. It was also the most unusual, remarkable, uncompromised consumer magazine I had seen ever.
Nest was the brainchild, indeed passion, compulsion, and obsession, of a true eccentric; like one of those editors of yore for whom the magazine was a personal appendage. It moreover exhibited the most baroquely romantic yet decidedly engaging design taste I had seen. It was not my taste, but it was compelling. It was slick, beautifully photographed and well-produced, but it was also rife with a surfeit of the amateurisms that made it quirky (sometimes infuriatingly wrong). But it was more than the sum of its crazy parts—it was a true phenomenon.
Yet now, after twenty-six quarterly issues beginning in 1997, its founder, publisher, editor, and art director has impulsively decided to pull the plug.
After the Fall issue Nest, the winner of two National Magazine
Awards (though never an AIGA or Art Director’s Club citation of any
kind) will be history. The reasons for calling it quits have little to
do with conventional magazine pragmatics. Nest held steady at
around 30,000 paid readers; it garnered a fair amount of paid
advertising; overall it was privately funded and could have lasted for
at least another twenty-seven issues.
It will end as it began owing to the force of will of its founder, Joe Holzman, who recently explained in The New York Times his reason for terminating Nest was because “I’m afraid I’m going to get bored and that it’s going to show in my work.” So this provocative magazine that rose above bothering to take-on the tried-and-true shelter and design magazines, but rather guilelessly carved out a niche for inspired idiosyncrasy and graphic design serendipity will be no more. And at the risk of sounding maudlin it was a joy to savor while it published.
As an homage to this landmark zine, the following was originally published in PRINT magazine in 2000 (in a slightly different form) after I convinced the editors that Nest was not a flash in the pan, and that its founder had magazine cred greater than most magazine editors.
* * *
Nest, A Quarterly of Interiors, is cacophony of visual excess and
unrefined typography, the brainchild of its neophyte
publisher/editor/art director Joe Holzman, a self-taught interior
designer and decorator who untrained and inexperienced in the magazine
and graphic design fields, switched from “chintz-slinging” to
publishing. Despite its amateur beginnings, Nest has become one of the most daringly innovative and audaciously progressive new publications to hit the newsstands.
Nest’s content and design derives from a curious logic that defies conventional standards. How else can one explain drilling four symmetrically placed holes through an entire issue (ads included), or wrapping another issue that has a full-frontal female nude on its cover in a buttoned-down fabric belly-band designed by Todd Oldham, or publishing a cover showing seven cat litter boxes filled with sparkling copper ink?
Nest is nothing like the leading establishment shelter magazines, Architectural Digest and House and Garden, or even the hip Wallpaper. Although Nest is printed on the same slick paper stock it does not conform to the predictable canons of aesthetics (Modern or Postmodern) or accepted tastes. Nor does Nest exploit fashionably bawdy popular culture simply to inveigle its way into the youth market. Nest’s feature stories are not formulaic, neither are they presented in rigidly proscribed or repetitive layouts. The back cover, usually a magazine’s prime commercial real estate, is never given over to an advertiser (sometimes it only contains a pattern or abstract design). And there is no such thing as a traditional front or back of the book (i.e. columns, reviews, factoids, or service features). Instead, the entire magazine, with the exception of the advertising sections in the front and back that sandwich the editorial well, is comprised of self-contained yet dissonant visual essays which are jarringly juxtaposed, both in terms of content and design, to disrupt the reader’s complacent expectations.
Nest is the unabashed expression of the forty-something Holzman’s lifelong immersion into the history and practice of decorating interior spaces. Nest is a scrapbook of discovery wrapped in a magazine’s skin, which is not to imply that it is a desktop fanzine (despite the fact that it is produced in an excruciatingly cramped apartment adjacent to the editor’s apartment). In fact, nothing could be further from the truth! Nest is as slick and glossy as today’s magazines come, but its design is purposely raucous, sometimes unkempt, to underscore Holzman’s passionate obsession with the stuff that people compulsively, obtrusively, and eerily use to dress-up their abodes, be they castles, igloos, or prison cells.
Holzman’s own Nest, a one-bedroom apartment, half a block from Central Park on New York’s upper east side, resembles the visual essays in his magazine. Each small, claustrophobic room is crammed from floor to ceiling with bizarre, esoteric, and time-worn furniture, vases, paintings, frames, wallpapers, and ornament representing a clash of periods and an implosion of styles. Like the quirky magazine layouts and disorderly photographic settings, these rooms are stuffed with the homey and homely objects of a flea-market devotee, a reverie of boisterous ostentation. Yet like his layouts, each individual accoutrement has a distinct purpose in the overall decorative scheme. Each thing deliberately contrasts with or compliments the other objects in the environment. Incidentally, among the fleas are Picassos, Matisses, and Christopher Dressers.
One might say that this man’s home is not merely his castle, it is the essence of his magazine, and the personification of his editorial personality. Nest is predominantly influenced by its editor’s first vocation, not by other contemporary magazines (which he says he rarely reads). In fact, he funded the first issue of Nest on earnings from the sale of his own apartment in Baltimore, which took him five hermetic years to decorate because he obsessed over every nook and cranny. The stories in Nest are developed with the same compulsive intensity, focusing almost exclusively on the concept of surface. Instead of worrying about the cut of a particular typeface or the kerning of a text block, Holzman agonizes over the placement of accoutrements on a page in order that his magazine exude the look and feel of a great interior. “I want a photograph to reveal the quality of the surface,” he explains. “If it's really velvetish it will reflect light like velvet, and not be washed out and homogenized like so many architectural photographs that we're used to looking at.” Holzman strives to simulate an actual physical, three-dimensional presence on each page. “The way I usually go about designing these pages,” he continues, “is to find a background color or pattern that I think makes the whole idea more dynamic and makes the photograph sing.” Yes, just like one of his rooms.
Although a magazine is not the best medium for this kind of virtual experience, Holzman’s ingenious application of material and paper tip-ins, die-cuts, and foldouts, contribute to Nest’s tactility which supports the reader’s sense of being there. Since Holzman was not schooled in graphic design, he is not inhibited by its rules. He designs only for himself, not for any graphic design peers, pundits, or critics. And since he is own boss, he answers to nothing but his own taste. Having practiced a manner of interior decoration where oddity is a virtue, he has given himself the freedom to create a print environment in which anything goes. That is anything that conforms to his principles, which he believes ultimately contributes to the quality and appreciation of interior design.
“Sometimes things are propelled by ignorance,” Holzman says about how Nest began, conceived on a whim in 1996 when he was working on his first and only book of interiors. The book was derailed, but the experience of editing and laying out pages gave him an appetite for print and inspired the idea to create a “smart shelter magazine” that did not accept the genre’s conventions. With capital from the sale of his apartment, Holzman sought out the costly consultation of magazine publishing experts who told him that if he wanted to succeed he had to define his readers’ demographic. Although it was a reasonable request, Holzman admits “I believed that the reader was anyone that wanted to read it. The consultants, of course, countered that ‘it doesn't work that way in the real world’ and insisted on knowing whether the reader is this age, has that kind of economic background, and so on. I didn't think it had to work that way at all.” The consultants also looked at the preliminary layouts, which they pronounced a disaster. “They didn’t think I should be designing my own magazine,” recalls Holzman who said “Fuck it, I’ll do it myself.” So he kept the money he would have spent on advice and put out a magazine “just to see if it flies.” To help with the first issue, he hired a Baltimore designer. Alex Castro. who introduced a clean neo-Modernist typographical grounding, but Holzman was not keen on that approach and promptly injected an aesthetic that was much more cluttered and ornamental. He even insisted that the upper right-hand corner (but not the lower) of the first issue be curved, like a catalog or notebook, which although it made no logical sense, gave the pages a certain idiosyncratic character when compared to other newsstand magazines.
The first issue hit the newsstands without any promotion or fanfare. The cover photograph showed a black and white photograph of bedroom completely papered on the walls and ceiling with rows and rows of fashion magazine covers featuring the former Charlies’ Angel, Farrah Fawcett (it illustrated a story devoted to the residence of a fanatical Fawcett fan). The cluttered image also included a full-color inset of Fawcet on a TV screen at the bottom of the image (printed with a fifth color glossy varnish)—it was like nothing else around. The editorial of that issue declared that “Nest wants to be read by anyone who wakes up in the morning or in the afternoon with healthy curiosity about how others express themselves where they live. We hope to show you things you’ve not seen before—perhaps not even imagined, as well as shed our own light on some familiar places. And, reader, be advised: our houses have private parts. Nest is no waist-up publication.” To Holzman’s surprise the entire 25,000 print run sold out, and so did an additional 10,000 more. Now the challenge was to keep the momentum going.
Holzman’s exuberant design style masks a very reserved, if not downright shy personality. His chancy leap into magazine publishing not withstanding, he insists that he lacked confidence to take charge. The example he gives is the naming of the magazine. Although Nest is a perfect moniker, it was then and still is not his favorite choice. “The title is not what I would use if I were starting over,” he says with deadpan sincerity. “When I agreed on the word "Nest," I had not learned to make decisions myself. In fact, I used to be afraid to let people know that I was the chief. So I kind of feel that I was pressured into accepting the word. Sure it works, but every time I say it, I stumble, I’m a little embarrassed to say on the phone, ‘Nest magazine.’ People used to say ‘Next?’ ‘Nast?’ Okay, Now, they get it.”
Nonetheless, those simple four letters, N-E-S-T, embody the magazine’s essence. And under this rubric, in just nine issues, Holzman has successfully created a publishing hybrid, a kind of off-kilter National Geographic of shelter magazines. Nest has attracted a good number of loyal “cross-over” readers like myself. And while its current 75,000 circulation may not attract Fortune 500 take-over bids just yet, it is larger than many other niche magazines. The reason has to do with magazine’s unadulterated hoNesty and uncompromising focus. There is not a story or page that panders to an imposed commercial trend or fashion; not a word or picture that manipulates the reader to consume something that he or she does not need. The stories report on phenomena created by people in an attempt to command their environments. While Nest focuses on objects, things, and spaces, it is really about the weird, nonconformist, and creative individuals who conceived them. Sure, the magazine propagates taste—Holzman’s taste—but he is very quick to assert that while he designs every feature and chooses each photograph, the magazine has numerous voices: “I think that a lot of magazines, especially the shelter magazines, often possess a singular taste,” he says. “Our range is broader.”
The magazine has become laced with some well-known artists and photographers who, impressed with past issues, have approached Holzman to do work, including conceptual photographer Nan Goldin, architect and theorist Rem Koolhaas, and Simpsons creator Matt Groening (who created a flip book for issue #8). As for the writing, Matthew Stadler, a fiction writer from Seattle, is Nest’s literary editor. “I give him unbridled license. He’s as obsessed with words and I am with lampshades,” says Holzman. In turn, Stadler has lured celebrated authors like Maureen Howard, Naguid Mahfouz, and David Plante, who are free to express their personal fascinations with decoration and ornament. Holzman insists that it is important to let them address these concerns in their own ways as long as they stick, at least marginally, to his overarching mandate. “Our writers can write what they want,” he says. “But if it veers too far from the decorative arts, however, I'll supplement the story with captions.” He further emphasizes that since more “art photographers,” as opposed to architecture and interior photographers, are contributing to the magazine his only editorial criteria is that “they document the full space and not just send back details.” For Meis Van Der Rohe god was in the details, for Holzman heaven is the total environment.
Holzman’s Nests are drawn from various locales and numerous conceptual realms—none are pedestrian. Among the most curious is a “nautical bachelor pad” designed by Roger Weeden, carved from the bridge of an ocean going tugboat. Another is an urban apartment completely wrapped in silver foil. And still another is an entire home with wall coverings made from common lead pencils arranged in hypnotic patterns. Holzman does not see them as freak show oddities but as integral works of personal expression. “I tend to look at a sociological or anthropological story as a decorative story,” Holzman explains, referring specifically to features he’s done on, among other things, an igloo and a tree-house. “Yet while I push a story that would be anthropological in another magazine towards the decorative arts, I will look more anthropologically at a Fifth Avenue apartment.” In just this way, Holzman, a soft-spoken yet relentless contrarian, recently commissioned a writer to live in a homeless person’s cardboard box. “When the text first came in Arlene Miles, the author, was being rather sociological, but I really wanted the text to be about occupying this box. What is it like tactilely? The story is not really about homelessness because that would be awfully presumptuous; After all, I had a guard on her all night. So she's not experiencing what it's like to be homeless. She's experiencing what it's like to live in the box, which is a shelter.”
Holzman also takes pains to seek out both undiscovered and rediscovered shelters. One such rediscovery focused on former dean of architecture at Yale University, Paul Rudolph’s remarkable haute Modern “see-through” apartment located in a building on New York’s plush Beekman Place. Everything in this open triplex was constructed out of glass, and other transparent materials, even the bathroom. The layout adroitly approximated the experience of being encased glass. One of Nest’s newer old discoveries was shown in “Southern Gothic,” Diane Cook’s photographs of a house in Florida’s Upper Keys designed by Ed Leedskalin made entirely from coral rock.
With this major emphasis on contemporaneous esoteric shelters, Holzman tries not to loose track of his favorite period, 18th Century design. “I like to show the Great Houses, but in a different way,” he says. “It's interesting to a young reader to understand that these places were in bad taste, sort of Donald Trump when they were first built. Chippendale was new money.” So for a story on the ancestral home of British noble Sir Francis XXXXX, Holzman convinced the current heir to dress up like his ancestor and pose amid the artifacts. “This is a way that we present this kind of house in a way that Architectural Digest would not dare.”
Holzman does not think of himself as a taste-maker even though Nest certainly exposes its readers to alternative tastes. Holzman has only one real mission: To redress what he believes are the diminished standards in the practice and aesthetics of interior design today. “I think the contribution that designers have made to design in the last 40 years has been eclecticism. I would like to see it end. I really think we have to learn how to design again, and not just assemble objects that look back or are revivals. I'd like to find a designer who can create. I’d like to walk into that room that hits you in the chest, and not because there's a great painting on the wall. What I really want to do in this magazine is find a great young talent. And they're hard to find.”
Thanks to Joe Holzman for twenty-seven issues, each a gem of uncompromised vision and weird but savory design.
About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more. www.hellerbooks.com