When Amy Astley was named editor in chief of the shelter magazine Architectural Digest three years ago, she likened it to inheriting a “sleeping beauty.” The Condé Nast publication had glamour, prestige and pedigree but a small digital imprint in an age when HGTV and house-flipping Instagram influencers were taking over the zeitgeist.
Astley, who sees this as a return to her roots (her career at Condé Nast started at the now-defunct HG magazine) immediately pushed for the brand to lead the online conversation, and the numbers prove it: The website’s traffic grew 223% in the two years beginning in December 2016, while on social media she’s overseen a staggering 718% uptick on YouTube and 930% on Instagram. As other magazines go through layoffs, she’s launched two subbrands: the millennial-focused Clever and AD Pro, for industry professionals. Astley has also featured buzzy names like Kylie Jenner in her magazine in addition to its traditional stable of high society types.
This year marks the magazine’s 100th anniversary, and with it, the requisite celebrations — including a special print edition out in November and a lush coffee table book featuring some of the brand’s most sumptuous images. Because the magazine was founded in Los Angeles, Astley made sure to honor those roots, emphasizing Southern California and its importance in the home design world. Over iced tea at the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood, the editor spoke about leading a magazine in the digital age, why anniversaries are good for looking ahead, not back and why Los Angeles is “dictating how people want to live now.” (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Architectural Digest was founded in Los Angeles, and you’re highlighting that as part of your centennial celebration, including the book “Architectural Digest at 100: A Century of Style.” What, to you, has been California’s contribution to architecture and home design?
Well, you’ve got every type of architecture here. There’s Spanish, Tudor, super modern, Craftsman. It’s all here, which I think is unique in the country. You cannot overstate California’s influence on American style. It’s California’s taste and lifestyle that’s actually dictating how people want to live now. Indoor-outdoor, letting the sun and the air and the light in, big windows, retracting doors. Gardens, pools, making the gym a focus — these are all California things. You know, I think the ultimate trophy now is a Pilates or yoga studio! That’s very California.
The book is really a survey of how Americans have lived — and how American life has changed — over the past 100 years. What was your takeaway after looking through all those images?
When you look at something like Fred Astaire’s house in Bel-Air, it’s fabulous. But the formality that people used to live with, like a proper sitting room and dining room — that’s over. I’ve heard people say that we’re getting over the open floor plan, but I don’t see it. We’re moving away from formality and towards informality and an embrace of family.
I’m sure you and your team see beautiful homes every day. But what makes a house worthy of being in the pages of Architectural Digest?
I talk about “wow factor” and “best in class” all the time. So if it’s going to be a modern home, it better be at the top of what that looks like. If it’s floral chintz-pretty, it better be really well done. It should look like it could only be in our pages and not any other magazine. I’m looking for AD100 [the magazine’s yearly list of notable designers, architects and decorators] talent as much as possible, people we feel are working at the very top of their field. Like if it’s a modern house, the architect would be Olson Kundig or John Pawson or David Adjaye. That level. There are tons of great modern homes with big glass windows, but we want people who are not only working at the tippy-top, they’re pushing design forward, from interior design to the garden to the architecture. It should be influential and directional, something that’s pushing the design conversation forward.
Obviously anniversaries encourage people to look back, but as an editor, what do you want people to expect from AD in the future?
What really struck me while editing the book is that the last hundred years were amazing, but they were all on paper; the next hundred years are off the printed page. The sky’s the limit. In the last three years we built a proper website, we grew a large Instagram following, we have 2 million YouTube subscribers when before we had none. This is a lot of dedicated people contributing their talent, you know? It’s definitely not just me. And we’re looking at the next five years: What’s the next Instagram? What’s the next platform? Because we want to be there.
You’ve featured younger, riskier subjects — Kylie Jenner, Wiz Khalifa— in your tenure. What’s the reaction been?
I don’t want to be this bland thing that people don’t talk about. Bill Sofield, Tom Ford’s decorator, recently quoted Diana Vreeland saying something like, “A little bad taste is like a splash of paprika.” It adds a little zest and fun and a little bit of something that’s off. I think it’s important to be connected to how young people are. Kylie Jenner is a worldwide influencer; we should see her house — and it’s OK if you hate it! People get bent out of shape, but it’s fine; it’s my job. I think being a steward of the brand now means being in the moment and making it something that has cultural relevance.
What do you think the big trends are going to be in the future.
Sustainability and the environment. I think we’re having a trend towards smaller homes. It feels wrong to live in ginormous houses. People still do, of course, but I think people are much more mindful, like: How much space do I really need? How much energy am I consuming heating and cooling my house? And there’s technology, the smart home: Alexa, Nest, home security. Again, the world is frightening, so more security in the home and technology in the home ... though I will say, I feel like there could be a technology backlash. But the trend that I don’t think is going to go away is the California trend of indoor-outdoor living. I think people are becoming much more aware of plants and greenery and gardens and how good it is for the world and for us.