And the Monocle staff live that way, too. One spring day in London, three of Brûlé’s deputies are at lunch at Dean Street Townhouse, the trendiest restaurant in the city right now, sipping glasses of white wine and comparing their Brazilian tans—they’ve all just gotten back.
“We always sit down for dinner together at the office,” says editor Andrew Tuck. “It’s just a choice of how to live.”
“I guess what unifies things for me is a passion for quality,” Brûlé says. “And that has to strike both high and low. I’m on a campaign against cheap veneers and varnishes. We like to stand back and kick the tires a bit, not just celebrate whatever it is, whether it’s premium travel or the redevelopment of a city block. It all has to function.”
Because as much as Brûlé likes design, what he really likes are things that work spectacularly well: He likes high-speed rail travel, and he likes the first-class cabins on Singapore Airlines. He likes Asian newsstands. He doesn’t love New York as much as he might if we had some high-speed rail travel of our own, particularly to the airport, and also if our street lamps weren’t so god-awful.
In many ways, Brûlé, 42, has become the gold standard of what is currently considered modern “good taste,” a Martha Stewart for the global elite (like Stewart, he inspires acolytes and parodists). Just look at what Wallpaper unleashed. If he thinks there’s a future in fragrant print, elegant TV, and soothing 24-hour radio talk shows, well, maybe there is.
Brûlé is Canadian, which could explain the penchant for practicality. (The accents are not, by the way, an affectation, as has been widely assumed; they have been in his family for generations.) His father was a football player, his mother is a painter, and all he ever wanted to do was to be like his Canadian idol: Peter Jennings. “I wanted to read the evening news,” he says. And my God, does he have the voice for it: deep, modulated, reassuring.
After school he went to London to work for the BBC. He wound up bureau chief for Fox News but woke up one morning and said to himself, “I’m going to burn in hell if I continue to do this job.”
He didn’t really consider himself a writer, but he went freelance and made a splash with an article about decadent teenagers driving their Ferraris to the beach in Beirut.
In 1994, he was sent on assignment to Afghanistan for Focus, a German news magazine. Back then, Afghanistan was a different kind of rough, but it was rough all the same: The Russians had pulled out, the Taliban was not yet in power, and the country was ruled by seven warring mujaheddin factions.
While Brûlé was traveling with a translator and a photographer in Kabul, his car was ambushed. One of the 39 bullets that were fired lodged in his shoulder, another severed a nerve in his left arm, a third skimmed his chest. “I got to the hospital and the doctor said, ‘Had you exhaled instead of inhaled at that moment, it would have hit your heart.’ ”
He went back to London to recuperate, a period spent perusing lots of home-design and cooking magazines. But they were all hopelessly mundane. He started to dream about a new magazine. “It was a reaction to wanting to live every moment,” he says, “to be a little hedonistic.” He took out a small-business loan and launched Wallpaper in 1996. It quickly got bought up by Time Inc. At that point Brûlé disengaged a bit; the corporate life was not his style. There was a dispute about expenses—some say it was over a receipt for a London cab, others say it was over the receipt for a private jet, but at any rate, it wasn’t working out.
A noncompete clause in his contract meant he couldn’t publish another magazine for two and a half years, so he focused his attention on a branding and advertising agency he’d started called Winkreative, which he still runs and which has counted among its clients companies like Toto, the high-end Japanese toilet manufacturer.
Brûlé also lived out his noncompete by going back to a series of binders he’d filled, over the past twenty years, with his favorite clippings from all sorts of magazines: a column by the Village Voice’s Michael Musto here, a shoot from German Vogue there. One day, toward the end of his noncompete, a Spanish branding client asked him why he had so many empty desks, and he explained that he was planning to launch a magazine when he was again able. The client, the matriarch of a wealthy family, offered to invest, but only if the other investors were in similar situations. And so Brûlé assembled a group of five family foundations, each from a different country, to finance the project—in combination with the income generated by Monocle shops selling the harder-to-find items from the pages of the magazine (ecofriendly Lebanese stationery, a perfect Korean tote bag, a limited-edition Finnish milking stool). In addition to the store here, there are outposts in London, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Hong Kong (“in Bo Fung Mansion! How great is that?”), and they also sell such things as Monocle-branded bags from Porter. Eventually, he’d like to have shops all over the world, with foreign bureaus in the back.