The tastemaker: Transforming life into business

By Ruaridh Nicoll

Through the super-styled pages of Wallpaper* and Monocle, Tyler Brule has turned his own life into a successful business.

Tyler Brule believes in a 'tidy ship'. Photo / Pal Nordseth
Tyler Brule believes in a 'tidy ship'. Photo / Pal Nordseth

So what's the secret?" I ask Tyler Brule, the exquisitely groomed editor of Monocle. As the sun glances through the windows of his office in Marylebone, central London, the man who has made a success of a magazine, of a printed product at a time of media crisis, begins to talk. He starts to ramble, so I interrupt, saying that I'm disappointed, that I was expecting something pithy.

Brule, who at 43 has real physical presence, a gift from his American-football-playing father, looks aghast and for a moment his raw competitiveness shows. He struggles for the right line: "People need to attend to details," he says at last. "I believe in a tidy ship. No jackets on the backs of chairs."

I like Brule. You'd have to be po-faced (or, the sceptics say, know him well) not to. He's an original. Nearly 20 years ago, an editor I know told me that in him she'd found her perfect glossy-magazine foreign correspondent: "He's not scared of war, and he knows a good pair of trousers."

The Brule myth began shortly afterwards when he was twice shot while in Afghanistan. He had a conversion on a hospital bed, less Damascene and more Beverly Hills. He thought about what really mattered to him - and it was friends, a nice house and travelling. Since then he has turned this vision - himself - into two successful businesses. He went on to found Wallpaper* and, subsequently, Monocle.

His assistant walks in and asks whether I would like "some baumkuchen from Germany?" Brule breaks in: "Actually it's from Japan. It's one of those things that you'd now be hard-pressed to find in Germany, but the Japanese have gone nuts for it." Of course, Brule knows I will write about this. Self-awareness is what he does. Art-directing his life, his style is his business model. The baumkuchen is delicious, like an aspirational Swiss roll.

Wallpaper*, with its tagline "The stuff that surrounds you", was the epitome of urban dreaming. The magazine baumkuchened up the idea of Homes & Gardens, and in 1997, a year after he founded it, Time Inc bought it for a reported US$1.63m ($1.99m). For several years, Brule lived the corporate life, but it didn't suit him and he says now: "We've seen the creep of the consultant on to the editorial floor - and that brought on a certain crisis of confidence."

When, inevitably, he fell out with the Americans, a non-compete clause saw him branch out into consultancy with Winkreative, where he has brought his taste to bear on everything from Swissair to the country of Taiwan. But as soon as the legal restrictions fell away, Brule went back into magazines, founding Monocle. A compendium of global, newsy nuggets with a furious aversion to celebrity, it wanders from Saudi arms deals to fashion shoots in Tokyo barber shops, all leavened with an obsessive fascination with aviation. It is about the infrastructure of living internationally. It earnestly, if wittily, wants us to enjoy our planes, our hotels, our metro transportation systems. But it's never going to advise you to kick off all your clothes and jump into the nearest stream.

Brule says he's selling more than 70,000 copies of Monocle at £6 each. According to ABC, who audit these things, 11,000 sell at newsstands and 2000 by subscription in Britain; the rest go abroad.

Last year he founded a 24-hour digital radio station which seems to want to be a baumkuchened-up BBC Radio 4 and although it has not yet achieved anything like the depth, you can hear the aspiration. Add a biannual newspaper and a global chain of shops selling the accessories for a Monocle-based life, and you get a picture of the Brule empire.

It's all based on a philosophy that runs counter to prevailing thought in the media. "It didn't make sense to us to give away our journalism for free. But we did have to think: "How do we add value online?' We started with video then it became radio, but it couldn't replicate what we were doing in print."

Brule leads me down to the morning conference. Everyone has just returned from a fifth birthday party in Budapest (they have also celebrated in Tokyo, Seoul, Berlin and are on their way to New York). In the meeting, they spend much of their time discussing the various airlines they've used. There is an echo of a male fascination with giving directions - Monocle meetings seem to play on this geeky joy.

Brule is half-Estonian, but was raised in Canada. "I grew up in a variety of cities from Ottawa to Montreal to Toronto, in an era before the invasion of US channels across the border. From an early age I was dazzled by the big nightly newscasts and I always wanted to stay up late and see these men and women broadcast from around the world. In parallel, I grew up in a magazine household, whether it was Forbes or my mother's decorating magazines. And when I visited my Estonian relatives - people who had fled Germany - there were always copies of Stern and Spiegel. Also there was a certain gruesomeness in the German reportage. It was all incredibly exciting to me."

Into this is incorporated the painfully modern aesthetic that infuriates so many. Those programmes on his radio station and the section titles in his magazine reflect the man. He is an urbanist, he is absolutely a globalist, and he likes to speak from the perspective of seat 1A of the intercontinental jetliner. From there Brule finds himself first despairing of innovation in his adopted country. "There is so much international talent in London - architects, graphic design - but it's all despite itself, not because the Government and private sector get together to celebrate it. It happens because of the natural forces, that we're English language, that we're in the EU. You can't just rock up in New York as an Austrian and get a job in graphic design, but you can here."

So would he move the his business out? "We've had this discussion. The question is where. That's the curse of it all. The Government thinking: "Where would these media companies go?" I mean, we're not going to go to France."

What about Scandinavia? After all, Monocle is forever claiming Copenhagen or Helsinki is the best place in the world to live. Brule looks aghast, revealing the conflict between aesthete and businessman. "The Scandis are a bit too socialist." He swings his hand around the office. "Everything in this room is from Scandinavia, but the maternity leave would kill us." So Copenhagen may be the best place to live in Brule's world, but it is no place to run a business.

We're winding down. Don't you get bored of flying, I ask. "I'm moving to grand tours rather than there and backs." Your partner must hate it. "He travels with me a lot." Any plans for children? A strangled laugh. "Not yet." (Pity, his rigorous aesthetic would be a hoot on Mumsnet.)

Brule gives me a tour of the studios, separate floors dedicated to magazine, radio and consultancy. It is like a cool architectural practice run by a cult. He has told me: "Everyone needs to be on the same page - I'm not a huge fan of creative conflict." It's supposed to be cuddly, but comes across as slightly scary. Nonetheless, it makes sense because a good answer to my original question is that a publication's success usually rests on readers buying into a singular vision.

That's certainly true in Brule's case, and the view is absolutely from behind those thick-framed glasses.

As he walks me into the crisp sunshine, I can't stop myself messing with the show he's put on. "Tyler, there was someone in there with their jacket on the back of their seat." He looks momentarily crestfallen and mutters something about people on work experience. The next day I tell this story to one of his staff. "Oh that's why that guy was fired," he jokes. At least I hope he was joking.

* Check out Viva's brand new Facebook page, the place to find out what's hot in fashion, beauty, food, wine and design.

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