Interview with Vanessa Holden, New VP Editor-In-Chief of Martha Stewart Weddings

ART DIREDITOR: Interview with Vanessa Holden, New VP Editor-In-Chief of Martha Stewart Weddings Vanessa Holden joined Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia in August 2008 as Editor-in-Chief of Martha Stewart Weddings. Vanessa came to MSLO from Vanessa Holden AD+D, a consulting firm focused on magazine development as well as book and branding projects, specializing in food and lifestyle. Prior to that she was Creative Director of Real Simple magazine, and before that co-founded and worked as the Creative Director of the award-winning Donna Hay magazine. A native of Australia, Vanessa previously worked at Marie Claire (Australia) and Marie Claire Lifestyle (Australia), Vogue Entertaining and Travel and Vogue Living.

DB : So Nessa....I have to do a blog. I want to interview you about your new job as editor of Martha Stewart Weddings. Maybe talk about how it's been going and how it's different from your previous position as creative director of Real Simple... you know.... what it's like.  What do you say??? I loved talking to you at our lunch. C'mon Aussie!
VH : G'damn demanding moose-huntin' trout-fishin' hockeystick swingin' Molson-swillin' Canuck. Of course, anything for you. Does this mean we get to have a cocktail?
Cocktail sounds good, but I was thinking back and forth e-mailin'--no hockey! Cocktails later, but would love to see you soon.

Your "Eh" talkin', beaver trackin', rye on the rocks swillin' and in general f'in' awesome Canuckin.'

P.S. Fit that on your big rock, koala lovin', Foster swillin' crock huntin' Dundee.

V+D art work.pngSo, tell us about your history. I'm very interested in your Aussie roots.
Mmm, my Aussie roots? You know that means something different in Australia, right? Let's just say I'm a Sydney girl through and through: born there, went to school there, art school there, worked there, and then New York came along. I still get back to my Aussie roots every year tho--Sydney's the best.
Donna Hay is an absolutely beautiful magazine. How was this magazine conceived and how were you involved in it from the get-go? What was your role?
Donna and I shared a studio, and worked on books and other projects together for a few years before the magazine came into being. Like many magazine art and style-y people, we talked together forever (and all the time) about the magazine that we wanted to work for and read, but that just didn't exist yet. We knew exactly what we didn't want, and had a very strong idea about what we did: we talked together so much about it that it became very clear to us what the mix was, what the look and feel was, and how it might come together, and when I took some time out to have my daughter, we went ahead and put together a 50 page dummy that we started shopping around Sydney. I finished the prototype in March '01, News Ltd. bought into the idea in June, we staffed up (a tiny bit)--adding an editor, an ad sales team, a market editor, couple of full-time freelance food editors, and a couple of art staff--and the first issue hit the newsstands that November. It came together very quickly, with a very small team, and from the very beginning had a distinctive point of view because it was so much a product of the two of us.
I know that in 2004 you moved to New York and became the CD of Real Simple. This seemed like an obvious, very good choice--the content and the aesthetic, is somewhat similar in many ways to Donna Hay.   What was this transition like? What were the biggest changes?
I moved to NY in 2004 to be the CD of Real Simple, a magazine I'd completely fallen in love with in 2001. I loved the idea of it--I loved that it was totally new, and a very different kind of American magazine. A shared aesthetic made the transition fairly smooth, with most of the adjustments I had to make being cultural (in terms of my understanding why particular kinds of content presented particular kinds of ways was so compelling to our reader--believe me, there were more gaps than you might expect--why American women are so petrified of swimsuits is something I'll never understand) and in terms of scale. I had never had a photo editor before (I'd always called the photographers direct), or a production art department (likewise, I'd always closed the pages). My annual budget at DH magazine was the equivalent of a single issue of RS. Getting my head around all that, and figuring out how to work creatively, and effectively, within a much bigger group was the biggest challenge by far.
How was the creative process different at Time Inc. from your process at Donna Hay?
At DH, we had a small, tight team working very closely together. My desk was literally 20ft away from our photo studio and kitchen. I wouldn't even have described it as a creative process, it was just the way we did things: very much an "Ooh, that could be interesting, let's do that," approach. For such an upscale and sophisticated looking product, it couldn't have been more handmade (well, unless we'd xeroxed and delivered copies to the newsstand ourselves). There's an immediacy and spontaneity about that way of working that couldn't help but translate to the page.

RS by contrast, was very much a process. I'd never really worked from an assigning wire before, and the text had never led the visual so heavily either: on Vogue Entertaining for example, if you're the art director on a tabletop story, you're the one shaping the content of the story in its entirety (which is much more like the MSLO model, except at MSLO, those people tend to be called stylists). I'd never had to have indicative sketches approved by stakeholders including editor(s - usually plural), and indicative sketches were quite a literal shorthand for talking about a story, that fed directly into the production process. A lot of that goes back to the scale of the business again too - it's easier to take risks when you're not spending so much money.
Were you dismayed that your role had changed dramatically? Did you feel that you could have contributed more to the content than you were allowed to?
No, not dismayed, because the challenges presented by RS were different, and I enjoyed a lot of the other aspects of my job. If there was frustration it was around the inflexibility of the process and production schedule to allow me to bring  a more organic, spontaneous, alive visual sense to the photographic content. Life is surprising and funny and chaotic and messy, but so much of our content was about control, and so much of the content of our visuals was so tightly controlled, in terms of matching sketches, etc, that it became almost impossible to make the content really come alive on the page. More often that not, I found the process and need for control filtered out the opportunity for surprise and chance.
Have you always wanted to be an editor of a magazine or did your experiences here in the US necessitate the search for an editorship?
Yes, I think so. So much good, smart thinking comes out of the art and style departments of so many magazines. I've worked for many great editors who started their careers in fashion, style, home, food and art departments. Until I moved here, I didn't really think of editors as being "words people" who rose to the top of mastheads - the people who rose to the top where the ones with compelling points of view and the skills and passion necessary to translate them to the page, "words people" or not. But I don't think it was my US experience that galvanized that desire, so much as naturally getting to a point in your career where you just want to own the challenge.
Did you canvas hard for an editorial position? What were the usual responses?
Locally, not at all. I was negotiating last year with News Ltd. about the editorship of a women's magazine they publish in Australia called Notebook. I'd worked with News before, launching DH magazine: they were familiar with my contribution on that, and knew the skill set I brought to the table was bigger than a pencil case and Pantone chips. I came thisclose to moving back to Sydney in November of last year, but when the deal fell through, I shifted the focus to finding that opportunity or making it happen for myself here.
How did you go about getting the editorship of Martha Stewart Weddings?
Was it a surprise that they were interested in the idea of art director as editor? Can you tell us how this transpired?
Well I'd known Gael and Eric for years, and have a lot of great friends who work at MSLO. Soon after you left (leaving a giagantic-skate-wearing-moose sized hole), one of those friends suggested I reach out to Eric to see if there might be a freelance project, or consulting work, or something for me to do in the shuffle after your departure, and I did. We sat down, and caught up on where I was at, and what I was interested in doing, and a few weeks later he and I sat down with Gael, where the conversation turned to MSW, and the EIC role specifically. It was immediately really very interesting: the chance to head up a team of incredibly, incredibly talented stylists, art directors and editors at a company that values creativity to its very core, on a magazine with a lovely diversity of content under an umbrella of fantasy, romance, beauty and escapism. No was never an option really.
Darcy Miller is the editorial director of Martha Stewart Weddings. How do you see your role at this magazine?
Darcy has been at MSLO for over seventeen years, and on MSW since the very first issue. There is nothing about this content that she doesn't know, and she's our deepest connection to the market, and to the bride. She's an incredible resource for us on staff, and is the public face of MSW in the bridal market, on television and on the radio. She's amazing. I work more behind-the-scenes, developing stories and resolving line-ups, working with our edit team to bring those stories to life on the page and online, growing our online business, and looking at other franchising opportunities around the MSW magazine. Making a magazine and building a business.
Will you be writing and editing text?
Both, yes.
I was listening to Milton Glaser talk at the SPD speaker series evening on New York Magazine. He made a comment on how art departments had been considered a service bureau for the most part even though he really was the brain behind that magazine early on. Would you agree with this??? 
Ah, yes. Don't you Canuck?????
Do you think Martha Stewart Omnimedia is the  only company where an art director can be the editor because of the nature of the content?
I don't think it's the only company, but it is a company where that transition is possibly made easier because of the value placed on creativity and visual storytelling, quite apart from the nature of the content.
I know you have experience working outside the US. Do you think the role and contribution of an art director is different elsewhere. If so, how and  why?
Yes, it definitely is, usually because editorial staffs are so much smaller, and you have to multi-task. An art director in Australia, UK or Europe is more than likely to double as a stylist and a market editor of sorts: conceptualizing the story, getting the props, working on set with the photographer, and designing the layout. Oh, and then sending it to print--an art director is much more connected to all parts of the process, and has a powerful voice in the editorial mix, especially on lifestyle magazines.
How is it going? What were your first perceptions about the Martha Stewart culture? Would it have been easier to go from Donna Hay to MSLO or Time Inc.? Any surprises about MSLO? Are you enjoying creating content rather than reacting to a manuscript or editorial idea?
It's going really well. I'm loving not going to midtown. Loving. I love the white walls and the polished concrete, and the studio/lab atmosphere of the place (there are buckets of paper punches! cupboards full of beautiful fabrics! A-mazing, especially for a latent craft-dork like myself)--that sense of play and exploration and discovery really is central to everything here, and that's so exciting. It's definitely more similar to the way I worked at DH, but there are many differences too--we still talk through ideas a lot more here than we did at DH--there's more of an awareness of refining ideas and getting clarity within a story, which is more closely aligned with my RS experience, and the way I work through stories personally: I tend to seed stories with a single idea (editorial or visual) and let it grow from there.
How has being an editor changed the way you think and work? Do you find your creative side being compromised to make sure you are responsible to the financial security of the brand?
Almost not at all. I still sketch to figure out packaging and pacing, I love brainstorming and helping people grow their ideas. I type a little bit more than usual, and there're a lot more emails to deal with, and budget is slightly more prominent in the mix (but then it's always there for anyone working in an art department). None of this is foreign. I don't feel like there's been any compromise based on financial considerations--I'm very much from the Bigger-er (staff/budgets/ resources) is not Better-er school--if the idea is strong you can make it on less money, and often make it clearer in the process.
What's your favorite color? (If you say purple I think you should quit now unless it's a subtle and rare form of mauve.)
Not purple, not any kind of purple, rare or garden-variety, not even in this Purple Fall of '08. No, not purple. I'm a big fan of a Tiffany-ish kind of blue - kind of perfect, no?
Do you find that your voice is higher since you started at Weddings? (You don't have to answer that.)
LOL. I am saying "Love!" a lot, but then I think I did that anyway ...
Have you designed a wedding cake yet?
Kinda sorta not really ... but oooh I have lots of ideas. And I like cake a lot, so there's that.

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