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So What Do You Do, Margaret Russell, Editor-in-Chief, Elle Decor?

Elle Décor's EIC reflects upon her reality TV experience, staying put for 18 years, and her decorating pet peeves

By Diane Clehane - September 26, 2007
As anyone who tuned into Bravo's compulsively watchable reality series Top Design knows, haughty fashionistas have nothing on the divas of the interior design world. But there are a few exceptions. Margaret Russell, Elle Décor's editor-in-chief who served as the show's even-handed but exacting judge might wear Prada but to her, the devil is in the details of a job well done. A self-described "perfectionist," Russell's refreshingly down to earth take on her career and the magazine that has defined it is in stark contrast to the sleek, slick veneer associated with the interior design industry and the magazines that covers its styles and stars. While Top Design's fans raved about her glam wardrobe on the show's blog (Russell told Women's Wear Daily that once she found her way around the set she jetted home from Los Angeles, unpacked her suitcase full of "Jackie O sheaths" and high-tailed it back to the west coast with "every cocktail dress I owned."), to hear Russell tell it the experience was anything but swanky. (Long hours! Nasty bloggers!)

To the legendarily loyal editor, the good life is embodied by the things she loves -- "Simple, fresh flowers -- especially peonies, garden roses, or hyacinths; good, strong coffee; Amagansett; my bed ('I have a great bed.'); pasta Bolognese; vintage jewelry and really, really high heels that enable me to believe that I'm 5'8" and not 5'3". And, oh yes, working for the same magazine for 18 years."

Name: Margaret Russell
Position: Editor-in-chief & vice president, Elle Décor
Resume: Joined Elle Décor as part of the launch team as an associate editor in 1989 ("I was the second person hired.") and was promoted to senior editor before the first issue hit the newsstand. Has systematically risen through the ranks holding various positions at the magazine including design and decorator editor before being named editor-in-chief seven years ago. Named vice president in 2003. Author of Designing Women: Interiors by Leading Style Makers (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) and the upcoming So Chic: Glamorous Lives, Stylish Spaces (Filpacchi). Began her editorial career at Glamour.
Birthdate: "June 25th, several June 25ths ago."
Hometown: New Canaan, Connecticut
Education: B.A. From Brown University; triple major in History, Political Science, and American Civilization.
Marital status: Divorced
First section of the Sunday Times: "Section One, page one. I don't want to miss a thing. Occasionally, I'll turn straight to Randy Cohen's magazine-section 'Ethicist' column -- he's both clever and kind."
Favorite television show: "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. When I can't sleep, I watch Law & Order or Sex and the City. And I TiVo Oprah and wish I would remember to record Charlie Rose and Meet the Press as well."
Guilty pleasure: "Life's too short; I'm never guilty about pleasure."
Last book read: "I tend to read a few things at once. I've had some sad news lately, so I did a Nora Ephron extravaganza this weekend -- reading her never ceases to make me laugh. But I'm halfway through The Grand Surprise, the compilation of Leo Lerman's journals, which is fascinating."

How would you say you've gotten to where you are?
I'm where I am because of a combination of being willing to work hard and kismet -- just being in the right place at the right time. Even bad decisions or difficult situations -- getting divorced and moving back to New York -- have resulted in my being offered some amazing opportunities. Honestly, it sounds so mundane, but it's hard work and actually just being curious and interested. Because I was on the launch team at Elle Décor, I've done almost every job there is at this magazine except physically lay it out. A lot of that was because somebody would say, "Oh, we need someone to do this or do that" and I'd say, "Oh, I'll try that. I've never done that before." So, it's been a lot of fun and kept me going here. I do think I have a bit of a reputation with my staff for being a bit of a workaholic, which not fun when everyone wants to take summer Fridays off -- I'm the one who is here. I really like work. It's a pleasure for me.

That seems to be a prerequisite for the job of editor-in-chief. You can't phone it in.
You really can't. I feel really fortunate that I get to do what I love every day and actually get compensated for it. I do think that when it comes down to it, the line between private and public [life] is somewhat blurry. There are days when I think, "Oh Lord, if only I had a job where I could walk out the door at six o'clock and not look at my Blackberry," but that's not what I signed on for. I actually really love it.

18 years is a long time to stay in one place -- especially in magazines. What's the secret to your longevity?
I've had other offers, but it's always different here. I actually just had my seventh anniversary [as editor-in-chief]. It's always changing. There's nothing is static, so I don't have a chance to get bored. This company has been really good to me. Even though I've had other offers there hasn't been anything I've wanted to leave for. Jack Kliger gives me a lot of freedom. I work with really good people.

What did you learn in your first job that still has relevance in your career now?
That's a really good question. I started as an editorial assistant at Glamour straight out of college. Actually, I took the summer off, which I'm sure shocked my friends and made my family nervous. I worked with Ruth Whitney which was an experience unequaled. She really was an amazing editor-in-chief. For somebody right out of college she was this goddess of publishing -- a smart, strong woman and a really good role model. I was trained by a really tough editor, Linda Whitmarsh, the design editor there. She was really demanding and extremely tough. Whether I was making travel arrangements or sending out letters to readers who had written in, I learned that if you make a mistake the best thing you can to say, "I'll do my best to make sure I don't do it again." I loathed making mistakes. It made me more of a perfectionist than I'd ever been before and [made me] realize the value of working hard. That that's the way you get ahead.

The first day we were taping we were there until 4:30 in the morning. We were tired, sweaty and cranky -- it's amazing that we were nice to anyone.

How did you land your television gig on Bravo's Top Design?
My trashy reality TV career. [Laughs] Bravo came to us. They spoke to several different magazines -- I think there were about ten and they had narrowed it down to a few. They had done very well with Elle with Project Runway. I was told they had seen my reel from the different times I'd been on The Today Show and that their concern was that I was too nice. I had to go in and be videotaped by this producer where she showed me these pictures and said, "Which of these is like your taste?" The pictures were just vile. As soon as I opened my mouth she realized I could be a tough judge.

Anything about doing television at that level that took you by surprise?
I had no idea that it took forever and ever. The first day we were taping, we were there until 4:30 in the morning. The earliest night we got out of there was midnight. On average it was about 1:30 or 2 and there was no air conditioning when we were taping because of the sound. We were tired, sweaty, and cranky -- it's amazing that we were nice to anyone. It was a really good experience because it's made me more comfortable on camera. It certainly gave me a thicker skin having to write a blog and then finding out that all sorts of crazy people like to write crazy things online. Everybody said, 'Don't read it.' I read some of it. You take whatever good advice and criticism you can and also realize that some people are just mean.

Will there be another season?
It's up to Bravo. I think they're still doing post-mortems. They most likely will, but they have so many good shows coming up it probably wouldn't be until well into next year. [Editor's Note: Top Design has been renewed for a second season. Taping will begin in early 2008.]

Did you watch any reality shows before doing one?
I loved Project Runway and I did get hooked -- partially because Nina [Garcia, Elle's fashion director] was on it.

Did Nina give you any tips?
She said don't read the blogs. [Laughs] She did warn me and say, "You know, my darling, sometimes they shoot very, very late." I thought, "Oh that's just Project Runway, this will be different." I did watch Queer Eye because I'm friends with Thom Filicia. Before that, I actually wrote a whole column about it -- I hated all those shows like Fear Factor. I just couldn't stand them. I didn't really have any great affection for them -- unlike [Top Design judge and designer] Jonathan Adler, who was hysterical and made me meet all the housewives from Orange County when we were at TCA. It was funny.

How did you juggle your shooting schedule with your job at the magazine?
It was five weeks in Los Angeles. The first day of taping was October 11. I found out about it ten days before I had to go which is not, by the way, the way to get into reality TV. I thought, "How am I going to get the magazine out?" I didn't know something existed called the VPN card which Hachette doesn't like to tell you about. It's a code thing so you can break through the firewall so I could get into our InCopy and do all of our electronic bill paying long distance from my hotel room. There was a lot of FedEx and phone calls. I came home whenever we had a three day break. It was a really interesting thing because it gave me a little distance on the magazine. I came back and made some staff changes, added three new fonts and a few new columns. Sometimes you're too close to things. I was also able to manage my time a little better. I actually managed to find time to work out twenty minutes a day.

Did the show have any effect on the Elle Décor brand?
It was good for the magazine because it put it in front of some people who were not necessarily very familiar with it. I think that's always a good thing.

A lot of editors appear determined to become television personalities. Was that part of your master plan?
Oh gosh, no. Forget it. I have no interest in that whatsoever. Top Design was a lot of fun and I would do it again in a heartbeat. I think one of the reasons I've been successful at Elle Décor is because Elle Décor is really about Elle Décor, not Margaret Russell. Even though I run this magazine, and to a degree it's my taste or my embracing of other people's taste, I have a really clear cut vision of brand and that's my job here. I'm here to create and protect Elle Décor.

It is interesting, though, that so many editors seem to aspire to be stars.
I'm a middle child. I think that has a lot to do with how I run my life. I have a sister who is an actress and has always been the big sort of high-strung personality one and a younger brother who is a partner in a big law firm. I sort of made my own way. I'm always the peacekeeper diplomat in the family -- it's never been about me being the most important one, so I think the magazine benefits from that. [Laughs] It shouldn't be about one personality. It's about people creating a magazine to attract a wide group of people.

You mentioned your blog for Top Design before. One of your entries was entitled "Fascinating and Terrifying People." Who's the most fascinating personality out there and who's the most terrifying?
[Laughs] We didn't come up with the names [of the entries]. I hate questions like that. [Laughs] I think Bill Clinton is a fascinating man. I think he's been one of most fascinating personalities of our time.

And terrifying?
Oh. [Pauses] Honestly, I'm not so easily terrified. I'm not that fragile.

Why do you think people are so intimidated by decorators and interior designers?
I did a whole column on why it's easier to buy a suit than a sofa. I think there is this sense that you're making an investment -- not only are you making a statement about your personal life to anyone who comes in if you have a dinner party or a cocktail party, but there's this idea that it's hard to get rid of a sofa if you made a mistake. I think it's so sad because you can always slipcover something, you can always paint something. You can always change things. I don't know why it's so intimidating. It makes me very sad that it is. That's why I'm glad there are good magazines out there that help demystify things for people. I love it when I see someone going through the magazine and ripping things out. Often the deciding factor when I'm editing deciding between this and this is, "This one has more ideas." I do know that people rely on magazines to help them decorate even if they're using a professional architect or designer -- everybody has some folder of things they've collected.

What's the biggest decorating mistake most people make?
They don't know how it edit. They don't know when to stop. There's too much stuff. Also not looking with a fresh eye at the way they live. That's the funny thing about shooting people's houses. We don't bring a truckload of stuff. Sometimes when we go in, we'll bring some flowers or fruit or move a chair for a camera angle and more often than not people will leave it the way it was done for the photo shoot.

People keep things the same for far too long. I grew up in a house where, for the summer, my mother would slip cover everything and pull up the carpets and put down sisal [rugs]. Then in the winter, the heavier throws and the velvet pillows came out. It's just such a nice thing because twice a year you get a refreshed look and it makes you celebrate the seasons.

What's your biggest decorating pet peeve when you go to other people's house?
My biggest pet peeve is just boring -- when it looks like something just came from a catalog or someone who hired a designer and there's not one look -- a peony or something -- that's a sign of life. I think rooms that look like hotel rooms are awful. As someone who has spent a lot of time in hotel rooms, I can tell you they should not be inspiring. Maybe the bathrooms -- some hotel bathrooms are great -- but not a living room.

Any celebrity house you'd love to get into that you haven't seen?
We don't do a lot of that. I don't think celebrity necessarily equates itself into taste. I would think the bigger the celebrity, the greater the chance that someone has come in just like dressing you for red carpet. I would love to see how the really intelligent actors and actresses of our time live. I would like to see Sigourney Weaver's house. I'd love to see Meryl Streep's house. I'm sure they have things that influence them and inform their lives in some way, so it's less about the celebrity but more about the intellect.

I like seeing people's offices. I think they're very telling.
I love seeing people's offices because you spend so much time there. I'm not a nosy person, but I am a curious person and I love seeing how people live and what's important to them. When we shot Julianne Moore's loft that her brother-in-law had done it wasn't a surprise that she had chosen to live that way but I loved that she loves interior design and she bought a lot of the stuff herself. I like seeing the thought and the mindfulness that goes into it.

What's your dream job?
I have it.

Do you have a motto?
Actually it's not a motto, it's a word. My dad was longtime IBMer -- when he died he was assistant general counsel. The IBM motto is 'Think' and it's emblazoned on every pen, pencil, and pad. I have these vintage signs that say, "Think." It sort of says it all.

Diane Clehane is a contributing editor to FishbowlNY and TVNewser. She writes the Lunch at Michael's column.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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