Contract: The Brand Beyond Print
Notes on the Closing of Contract Magazine
by John Rouse, Jennifer Thiele Busch, and friends / compiled and edited by officeinsight
Three weeks ago, one of our industry’s media giants announced it will be closing its doors. After 60 years of covering the contract interiors field of work, Contract magazine and its affiliated events and website will cease operations, with its last issue publishing July 2020, and online content and newsletters retiring September 1.
Our team at officeinsight recognizes the loss Contract magazine’s closing represents, and we know many of our readers feel the same. In an effort to pay tribute and hear from the magazine one last time, we reached out to a few friends who helped define the vibrant spirit of Contract. Below, please enjoy notes from Jennifer Busch, who served as a long-time editor-in-chief of Contract Magazine, and John Rouse, who for many years steered the magazine in the publisher’s role.
Jennifer Thiele Busch, Contract magazine Editor-in-Chief, 1990-2011
The other day I received a text message from my old friend Bill Grant, founder of Grant Design Collaborative, asking me to provide a quote for a retrospective he was preparing about his firm’s body of work, which includes the redesign of Contract magazine in 1999. Then came a phone call from Bob Beck, inviting me to write a tribute to Contract for this issue of officeinsight. And before those came some pestering from John Rouse, my one-time boss at Contract, asking me to partner with him on a statement honoring the magazine, which announced on June 29 that it was ceasing publication after more than 60 years serving the commercial interior design industry. I say this last part affectionately, as I credit John with so many good things in my career, including his unwavering support as I found my voice over the 11 years (1999-2010) I had the honor to serve as editor-in-chief for Contract.
The day Contract folded, I was shocked and more than a little despondent. To me the magazine was a third child that I nurtured for just shy of 21 years. What got me through that dark day was the good memories, and the many condolences I received from old industry friends and colleagues expressing similar feelings of bewilderment and sadness. And as I contemplated these requests to pay tribute to Contract, and what words I might want to commit to paper (or rather, the eternal, unforgiving spotlight of the digital realm), I realized that more than anything else, I feel that the loss of Contract is a significant loss for the entire industry.
I’m not going to cast blame. Many legitimate media brands struggle to find relevance in a social media culture where everyone considers themselves an expert, and the coronavirus pandemic has created such unforeseen and dire circumstances that it would be inappropriate to lay the responsibility for the magazine’s demise at any specific door. I will say that I believe the industry will come to regret Contract’s demise as the field of thoughtful and curated design magazines – which the design profession continues to embrace – narrows. A spirited industry such as ours, with a wide range of experiences and perspectives and no lack of inspirational stories and opinions to share, needs a variety of outlets for their voices. An important one representing design for the real world – not just the one percent – has now been silenced. Unfortunate that as our industry preaches about diversity, its media landscape is becoming less diverse. At some point we will wish to have a project published, a product introduction written about, a designer profiled – or even an advertisement placed – and there won’t be enough options available to reach the broad range of our constituency.
Perhaps more importantly, as the relevance of interior design practice continues to be challenged and devalued, Contract’s demise means we have lost a significant and vocal advocate for the profession as a key business consultant to clients seeking to leverage the built environment to reach their organizational goals.
Contract represented design excellence, from the Interiors Awards and Designer of the Year Award to the Best of NeoCon Awards, and of course, the month to month editorial pages that will no longer document the evolution of an industry. But first and foremost, Contract represented community – a community of passionate individuals engaged in thoughtful dialog for the benefit of their clients but also for the planet and society at large.
Several years ago, long after I had left the editorial world for the manufacturing world, I had an early morning breakfast with a designer who I had not seen in quite a few years. When he arrived and sat down, the first thing he said to me was that as he reflected on our shared past on his way to our meeting, he realized that most of the people in his trusted professional network he came to know through his connection with Contract magazine. To me it was the finest compliment imaginable.
The magazine will be missed. The community will live on in those who nurtured and supported Contract before, during and after my time there. I regard you all with gratitude for what we accomplished.
John Rouse, Publisher 2001-2016 / Publisher Emeritus 2017
As stated eloquently by Jennifer Busch, the print platform of Contract is the brand…it is what inspires, educates, reminds and pushes the design community to do great work.
In addition to digital, where Contract also led the way – remember Contract Connected – there are four imaginative face-to-face events Contract offered that brought an already collegial community even closer. Each of these events offered something valuable, unique and memorable.
Contract Design Forum is a serious discussion about the promise and business of design held annually at rotating venues across the country. From the Ritz Carlton, Key Biscayne, to the Hotel Jerome in Aspen, physical inspiration was always present. It featured speakers that were perhaps lesser known at the time but well known today. Topics such as virtual technology, quantifying design, start-up incubators and getting elected on a design platform were advanced topics for their time. Provocateurs such as John Cary, Cameron Sinclair, Howard Tullman, Maurice Cox and Theaster Gates delivered memorable presentations on the power of design. It also hosted what was the first panel discussion between real estate brokers, clients, and design professionals – a very spirited debate, in hindsight. Its most important contribution was fostering the good will generally present among all design firms: that by working together, a rising tide will lift all boats.
Best of NeoCon is the gold standard for product design. Under the aegis of Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc., Contract Magazine, and The McMorrow Reports, Eileen McMorrow guided teams of jurors to review as many as 425 entries in 24 hours over three days. She recruited and managed 50 jurors who met with each entrant, discussed the products, and had a question and answer session. Truly a master class in event organization, Contract’s editorial team would then create the individual awards and a slide show overnight for presentation to 200 or so very curious marketers and designers.
Standards are vital to any industry. What is considered the best? Who is considered worth following? How do we know what products are vetted by professionals versus “user-supplied content or online popularity” contests or quid pro quo? If your product is brand new, you need a small focus group to ensure you are on track. This competition provided that, and all industries need more products at the top.
The Best of NeoCon remains unchallenged as the highest achievement in product design for the commercial design industry.
The Inspirations Awards, over a period of 12 years, honored nearly 50 projects and awarded $150,000 in grants to worthy causes. Socially conscious commitment almost seems antiquated…yet Contract introduced the first competition for socially sensitive design.
These awards recognize a commitment to social responsibility in commercial interior architecture and design by implementing design to improve the quality of life for those in need. Winners are recognized for work completed for clients that serve a worthy cause. An astonishing range of projects includes a tsunami shelter by Japanese Professor Hiroto Kobayashi and students at Keio University, and Gensler’s The Honor Foundation, a transition facility for Navy Seals and Special Forces. The inspiration covers the spectrum.
The Interiors Awards featuring The Designer of the Year is the penultimate, and only, recognition of juried singular and collective design achievement. When started by Interiors Magazine and more than ably continued by Contract, Michael Graves, Orlando Diaz- Azcuy and Charles Pfister were not household names when honored. It has been almost 30 years for Gary Lee, 26 for Lauren Rottet, 22 for David Rockwell and almost 20 for Shigeru Ban. The DOY Award signified courageous industry leadership by editors willing to take risks on firms lesser known to the industry.
We believe “Starchitects” are important. They provide what many consider examples of great design. More importantly, they provide firms in the industry a method to determine their own work’s value. Over the years many professionals asked, “Why should I enter this competition?” The answer: Because you will know where you stand. Perhaps your work is legitimately superior. All the more reason to enter. This fraternity of the Designers of The Year as well an august group of Interiors Awards Winners cherished their experience, made new friends, and were collectively inspired to do their best work.
A few final observations on marketing, whether you have a firm or produce a product. As a design professional, you have options for getting your work published. Detailed explanations of how a healthcare project is successful are many times more important than the perfunctory corridor photograph. Clients expect attractive. Your programming, experience and research are sometimes taken lightly because there are too few pages to explain.
If you did not ask questions of the publications before, please consider each carefully. Who do they reach? Do they provide an online issue? Where will you be positioned? These are all important features to consider when getting published anywhere is generally a once every few years’ experience, except for the hyper-talented and hyper-productive.
Marketing professionals also need to constructively evaluate where to invest their hard earned “disposable” income. There are just a few editorial avenues. Maintaining even coverage of the verticals serving any industry is vital to its growth. Industry leaders have a special responsibility as smaller firms tend to follow larger ones and copy marketing strategies.
Finally, to the industry, I know I speak for the Contract team, past and present, that we immensely enjoyed our relationships with the many incredible design and marketing professionals over the past decades. Our hope is that you carefully consider all future decisions in order that your opportunities broaden instead of narrow.