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So What Do You Do, Allison Arieff?

Dwell's editor-in-chief on running an accessible, left-coast shelter mag—where the staffers finish each other's lunches.

- July 29, 2003

Since its launch in August 2000, Dwell magazine—with its accessible, inclusive take on modern architecture and design—has carved out a unique niche in the crowded shelter-book category. The magazine has quadrupled its circulation over the past three years, building a loyal readership that is as passionate about affordable prefab housing as it is about Eames chairs and Noguchi tables. At Dwell's San Francisco office, tucked on an alley at the edge of North Beach, editor-in-chief Allison Arieff spoke to recently about Bay Area publishing, the definition of modern, and why buildings need people.

Born: October 29, 1966
Hometown: Fort Hood, Texas
First section of the Sunday Times: The magazine

How long have you been Dwell's editor-in-chief, and how did you get started at the magazine?
I've been editor-in-chief almost a year. I started at senior editor in January 2000. I had left my job at Chronicle Books and was doing a little dotcom freelance. But then I heard about Dwell, thank God. We started in January, and the first issue came out in August. It was this really kind of crazy experience because there was no magazine, no guidelines. It was hard at first, when you'd call people and they'd say, "Why would I want to be in this magazine? I've never seen it before." And I'd say, "Yeah, I know. But it's going to be good." My first couple of weeks here it was me, Karrie Jacobs, the founding EIC, and Lara Hedberg Deam, the owner and founder. I remember I had a Rolodex and my laptop from home, and I was like, "All right, what am I going to do today?" It was a blank slate. But then we got more employees, we had this giant launch party, and we gained this momentum. And it's all been very positive—not that there hasn't been grumbling, but the whole creative team has been here since the beginning, which is pretty unique.

When Karrie decided to go back to New York, I was promoted to editor-in-chief. Since I've been in the job, there have definitely been some changes in the magazine, but not radical things. I did some interviews last year with people asking me what all the radical changes would be, and I said, "Look, I worked really closely with Karrie, and I'm not going to alter it just for the sake of altering it." There have been a lot significant changes, and I've gotten really great feedback, about readability and how things flow, and about some of the projects that have been chosen. I don't think that we were doing anything wrong before. But as we've had to expand our circulation and our audience, the changes that I've made have been with an eye toward our continued growth.

Most architecture magazines are really high-end, with houses that only rich people could afford. It seems there's an emphasis in Dwell on projects an average person could realistically aspire to. What's the philosophy of the magazine?
We do lots of super-expensive homes, and lots of not-super-expensive homes, but I think because no one else does the more affordable things, they just stick out. So it seems like that's all we do. It's great to find a house that was built for $125,000. But, of course, it's really exciting to publish really well-designed high-end stuff, showing that range. It's so unusual to see a magazine showing more reasonable options, or showing something slightly messy or not totally styled. I always look at other magazines and wonder, why are there always, like, two filled wineglasses but there's no one there? It's like everyone was forced to leave. So that's part of the magazine's philosophy—having real people in the pictures. I really believe that architecture is activated by the people who live in it. And to excise them from the process seems a little odd. So I love that we're reinforcing the notion that buildings exist because we need to be in them. Some of these architecture magazines are like women's magazines—they show this unattainable ideal that kind of screws with people's heads. I think people are really comforted by looking at Dwell. Like, "Wow, they're not perfect, either. They left something out on the counter." Of course, in our October issue we do have a house that's so minimalist it looks like the people own about two T-shirts each, but the house is super-interesting, so we're not averse to showing it.

Do you consider Dwell primarily an architecture magazine, or is it something else?
First and foremost, it's an architecture and design magazine. But we go beyond that and cover travel, art, food, film. It's not a general-interest magazine, but I think if you're interested in modern architecture and design you'll also be interested in x, y, or z, too. We have an article in the October issue about four contemporary painters who are working with architectural subjects in their work—not typically what you'd find in a shelter magazine like this but a natural extension of the subject matter. When a designer is designing your toothbrush and your salt and pepper shakers, I'm interested in getting that all in.

To those of us in New York it sometimes seems like it's the only place magazines are published. What's it like putting out a magazine in the Bay Area?
It's great. There's Zoetrope across the street, and there's ReadyMade, The Believer—I think all that stuff is terrific. I go to New York a lot, and we have contributing editors there. But I think the only people who are mad we're not in New York are the PR people, because we can't get to enough of their events. We're able to be a little more flexible here, because we're more independent. Not everyone came from a magazine background, so there's less resistance to doing things differently. It's better, I think, that people here are figuring out different ways of doing things and we're not following all these established criteria.

There have been a bunch of new magazine launched in the Bay Area in the last few years. Do you think that has anything to do with the end of the whole dotcom thing, that there's talent out there to work on something else now?
I think a lot of people who were around the dotcom thing but didn't really get into it—myself included—felt like, Am I an idiot? Why am I not working for a dotcom? Ann Wilson, the managing editor, and I used to talk about this a lot, and, well, neither of wanted to be the editor of some store. I think people like tactile things, literary things. They like holding things, spending time with them. After all this nebulous, no-product stuff, people are reinvigorated by the fact of craft or something as old-fashioned as a book—or a magazine. When we started Dwell, people asked, "Well, what's your web component?" We've always had a website, but there was never the idea of the magazine trying to support itself by selling furniture on the website. I'm not sure that would work. And I'm so glad we stuck to our guns. We are a magazine, and I didn't want to read Dwell or any other visual magazine on a website—I didn't think that was a good strategy.

Do you think being on the West Coast affects the sensibility of the magazine? It seems very different from other shelter titles.
I lived in New York, and I know New York tends to get kind of New York-centric, thinking there's nothing going on outside of New York. People in San Francisco are very sensitive to being not provincial, so you make sure not to always focus on San Francisco. But also I think we've just found out there's so much going on elsewhere—whether it's in Sweden or Milwaukee or wherever—and it's far more interesting to find that stuff. Other magazines just think they don't need to. But people are excited if they live in Oklahoma and they open up the magazine and see there's something about Oklahoma. So then they'll send you stuff from there, and it goes back and forth. Nothing against New York—I know how important it is—but it's not the only thing.

It's great to see these houses in the Midwest and other places that you don't usually see in design and architecture magazines.
When we were first talking about the current issue, the "Modern Across America" issue, we thought, we're never going to find anything; this is going to be a joke. But we found that actually there is a lot of cool stuff. I've been to places I never would have discovered—like Fayetteville, Arkansas—and I love visiting those places. It totally breaks down stereotypes you might have.

Tell me about the Dwell prefab home competition.
The Dwell Home Design Invitational has been great for the magazine; the amount of interest that it's generated has been great and totally unexpected. I got this job and my book, Prefab [cowritten with Bryan Burkhart], came out in the same two-week period. Because of the book, I heard from a lot of people interested in prefabricated buildings, so we decided to create this competition to design an affordable modern prefab house for a real client in North Carolina. Now that we've selected a winner, we have people writing in daily, wanting the Dwell home, others wanting to invest in Dwell home developments, design future Dwell homes, et cetera. I'm lecturing all over the place. The architect and I have a weekly date to talk about where things are at and to discuss the schedule. We're signing off on a manufacturer, and the house should be completed by the end of the year. Then maybe I can get a little rest.

Yeah, you seem to do a lot with a small staff.
I try not to think about it that much. We write a lot in-house. Everyone's multitasking. Sam Grawe, our associate editor, will write something and shoot the pictures for it. Our senior designer, Shawn Hazen, designed our website. And everyone can do many, many different things. I'm so glad that everyone here can rise to that challenge. Shawn designed a whole separate website for the Dwell home—and a logo for it—in about three days. It's a very close-knit, good group. We definitely have our shouting matches with each other, but at the same time we've spent enough time together that there are people eating off each other's plates at lunch and everyone knows everyone else's business. In a good way.

The magazine's tagline is "At Home in the Modern World." How do you define modern?
Defining modern is tricky—we're constantly trying to broaden the scope of what it means to be modern. It is not a midcentury style or a particular type of furniture or house but something much more culturally and emotionally broad. It goes beyond style to encompass a system of beliefs, a way of looking at and thinking about the world. For me, a modern house is one that is of its own time. It expresses individuality, truth to materials. No turrets, dormers, or arbitrary columns, for example. Being modern is about living in your own time, taking full advantage of all the latest technology, creativity, and innovation available in the creation of your own home. It's about being curious about the world around you.

So what's your own place like?
I live in an Edwardian apartment with amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge to the north and downtown San Francisco to the east. While the exterior is very traditional, the interior is a mix of contemporary, midcentury modern—Eames, Thonet, Russel Wright—and a lot of aluminum and wood and lots of books. I'd love to say I live in an architect-designed masterpiece of modernism, but hey, there's still time for that someday.

Adam Bluestein is an associate editor at Real Simple.

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