Q+A – Kurt Andersen

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Colors, the bimonthly magazine “about the rest of the world,” published by Benetton since 1991, is being relaunched in March. Under Kurt Andersen’s direction it will be a quarterly with a small New York-based editorial staff and art direction by Emily Oberman and Bonnie Siegler of Number 17. For Andersen, who co-founded Spy, served a term as editor-in-chief of New York, and was a cultural columnist at The New Yorker, the assignment is an opportunity to think globally from home.

Colors‘ first editor-in-chief, Tibor Kalman, once claimed that he had a $3 million annual budget to produce the magazine. I think you replied that you wished you had a big load of money to play around with. Is that what attracted you to this job?

I don’t know about a big load, but certainly this magazine is all about playing around. The fact that Tibor started it, frankly, appealed to me in some kind of sentimental, picking-up-the-baton way. Actually, I met Tibor ten years ago when he asked me to do Colors with him, so there was something karmically appealing about that. Benetton’s only wish seems to be to make an interesting magazine that people care about and talk about. I don’t think they think of it as a huge part of their business, but in addition to being interesting and surprising, it can be run in a more commercially sensible way. You can try to sell ads and actually put copies on newsstands.

There seems to be a consensus that the magazine has lost its edge since the 1990s.

It’s changed its edge. By any definition it does things that are resolutely, almost perversely uncommercial. There are things I want to do with the magazine that are very unlike the way it has been done lately, and in some ways more like Tibor’s magazine.

Design critic Rick Poynor described Tibor’s Colors as a “celebrity-free assault on the narrow conventions of the newsstand.” But it did have a kind of didactic side, which Thomas Frank, in his critique in Artforum (February 1999), called “relentless hectoring.”

Frank seems to me to get it wrong; he builds a lot of straw men in that piece. The idea that Tibor thought he was conducting an international socialist revolution with the magazine is absurd. [But] his version did tend toward the didactic in a way that mine won’t. I think my approach to it will be, well, I wouldn’t say more conventionally journalistic, but less about preaching to the converted.

One thing that defines Colors and makes it seem a little dated is that it has a strong sense of “we”- supported by the single-theme format and clean, distinctive design that takes cues from educational textbooks. Given the trend to move media toward a more decentralized model, like a portal or the Internet as a whole, Colors seems to stand obstinately facing the opposite direction.

It’s interesting you say that. I’ve been looking back at the old issues and, as wonderful as they are, they often remind me of the coolest high school textbook in history. If you mean by the “we”-ness a kind of “don’t we all agree about these things?” I guess I find that annoying and smug. It should be really provocative and disagreeable to people sometimes, and ideological in lots of ways other than what it’s famous for.

Will you stick with the single-theme issue?

Yes. It gives a coherence to the thing that as a reader, let alone as an editor, I find helpful.

The idea of devoting an entire issue (#52) to one guy living on an island near the South Pole was brilliant.

There have been many brilliant attempts, like the issue without words. That is what you don’t see these days-the sheer, nothing-taken-for-granted ambition. If anything, magazines have become less risk-taking and more nervous. That’s what’s interesting to me-to have a magazine with some resources and impact that isn’t about putting Ben and J-Lo on the cover.

Do you think Colors has had a traceable impact on magazine publishing and design?

In a funny way, you could draw a line between it and Lucky, for instance. Just in terms of objects, that kind of unembarrassed fascination with things.

Why did you pick Bonnie Siegler and Emily Oberman to art direct?

I know them both pretty well and admire their work. They’ve done magazines but not enough magazines to have become hacks. I felt we could hit the ground running a bit and speak in the shorthand way that well-functioning editorial units need. Emily worked on the first issue of Colors at M&Co and helped design the logo. When you’re going to change something considerably, you want to have some institutional memory and in-born respect for what it was and has been. It certainly meant she wasn’t particularly eager to radically change the logo.

It’s a very recognizable mark now.

I think it’s fair to say it will be printed much larger on the cover than it has been recently. It’s been shrunk.

That proves a certain durability, that it can go that small and survive.

The thing about this magazine, for better or worse, is that you can do anything and it will survive, because Benetton has decided that it will survive. That restraint and recessiveness has been an interesting way for it to go.

You mean visual restraint?

Most kinds of restraint. There haven’t been very big, aggressive editorial ideas driving it. I don’t want to apply invidious words to it, but it has been less constructed to tell particular stories-less like a magazine as I know magazines-and more like a portfolio of photographs around a theme, which has its own virtue. But I guess my editorial instincts are to use more of the tools in a magazine-maker’s arsenal more aggressively. Magazines I like have a more variegated tone pictorially and textually.

Randall Rothenberg wrote in Advertising Age that he thought your challenge was to give Colors “the full legitimacy of allegedly autonomous infotainment.”

I’m not sure he has seen enough of the copies to understand how non-advertorial and how non-selling-of-Benetton-clothes it has been. Maybe we can make it better in his eyes, but ultimately, in all its iterations, it’s hard to imagine a more serious magazine in the best sense. To some degree it will always seem odd to the Randy Rothenbergs of the world that a clothing company is putting out a magazine that has serious aspirations about explaining the world. But that’s what it is; and it’s proven that it isn’t, despite what Thomas Frank thinks, some kind of crypto sales tool for selling sweaters by showing a kind of U.N.-lite, that young people are beautiful all over and they should all be wearing Benetton sweaters. It’s absurd. It isn’t that.

The fact that there aren’t others magazines like Colors perhaps leads to the perpetuation of the idea that it is some kind of vanity publishing project. Most other single-sponsor magazines are magalogs.

It’s true, it’s anomalous. Especially in America where extrarational considerations like “we love this and want to put it out” are nonstarters. But until the day before yesterday, when The New Yorker started making money, it was a vanity operation, I guess. Arguably, most benefaction and philanthropy is a vanity operation. It’s a phrase that’s thrown around to dismiss a lot of good, it seems to me.

It’s an issue that won’t go away.

Yes, but they’re as restrained and recessive as a patron in this day and age can be. One other thing I didn’t mention about why this project appealed to me is that in the past two years I’ve spent more time reading news stories with foreign datelines than ever before. For better or worse, globalism since 9/11 has made all these issues-what the rest of the world is like and what it thinks of America-more pressing and more fascinating than ever before. Given everything that’s going on, it’s interesting to do Colors in America, since America is seen by so much of the world as some kind of oafish or evil giant. That’s a responsibil
ity that appealed to me. I really do think globalism in all of its good and bad aspects is the story today and to have a magazine devoted to that story makes it an interesting moment to saddle up and ride it.