Marcus Field, design mag editor: The architect is a wanker - 2000 (2009)

Sometimes an interviewee tells you a lot more than expected...

R.J. Preece (ADP)
Creative Business & Entrepreneurship | 13 July 2009

The following is one of my favorite interviews on the art, design and publicity front. It took place around the New Year of 2000, and was previously featured in Frame magazine. I recall the context being a bit mysterious: the editors knew I was doing research into critical media analysis pertaining to art and design, and I was offered a title to focus on critical interviews and website reviews. I was told to contact Marcus Field without any real reasons why, which remains a mystery to this day. Now onto the article...

Ever wonder what [sometimes] goes on behind the scenes of those super-sexy features on architecture and design? Marcus Field, former editor of London-based Blueprint, has risen from the ranks of design journalism propelled by his association with a variety of design titles. Switching from the specialist press to newspaper work, the 32-year-old recently joined the staff of the Independent on Sunday as associate editor of the arts section. In a frank and revealing interview, Marcus Field offers a personal, behind-the-scenes view of magazine publishing.

R.J. Preece: As we know, design writing occurs within a legal context that includes concerns about possible defamation claims, copyright reproduction permissions and property law - which empower the building’s owner to determine who can photograph the interior. Do you think these things influence the discourse on contemporary design?
Marcus Field: Hugely. It has a massive, detrimental effect. It limits your creativity and critical ability with a publication. When I worked at one publication [not Blueprint], it was a continual problem. I knew buildings were finishing, but to get [the architect/owner] to agree for us to get in and photograph the buildings - well, I was in their hands. They would say, "If you use this photographer and you use that writer, then you can publish it." Literally, there’d be things faxing through saying, "We must have the cover."

By the end, I would get so fed up, because sometimes I’d agree to these things just to get the story. It was always, "There are three other magazines than you - they’re all battling for it, and if you agree to these things you can have it first." It was very competitive, and it meant that you ended up with a puff piece basically.

I always used to find the photographers frustrating - the ones that I was asked to use. They had a very limited way of interpreting the buildings - they wouldn’t do it unless there was a blue sky, it was all very formal, and no people appeared in the picture - quite often these kinds of conditions.

At Blueprint, one of the big things I think we achieved to a large extent was to start reviewing things more like films or books. If we couldn’t get in the buildings, we’d say, "We couldn’t get in - the architect’s a wanker. We sneaked around, and we’re going to use these snaps taken with our cameras. In the name of free speech, we’re going to review it." It didn’t go far enough, but that was the intention anyway.

I think there needs to be more of that. In a way you have more of an opportunity to do that at newspapers, because you need only one big black and white picture.

R.J. Preece: Did you ever have the experience of the designer or owner trying to impose text approval in exchange for copyright approval?
Marcus Field: Oh yes. We quite often had people requesting to see the copy [again, not at Blueprint]. It wasn’t copyright approval. We never had anyone who copyrighted the image of the building. It was, "We won’t let you or your photographer in the building unless we get to see the copy."

Sometimes I’ve pulled out of things - I’m sure I will here. We won’t cover it [under these circumstances], because you might as well not. Otherwise it’s a case of writing a big marketing piece. I think this happens a lot with new hotels and restaurants - when you end up doing a press person’s job for them.

R.J. Preece: (laughs) Have you ever felt like a publicist?
Marcus Field: (also laughing) Yeah. We used to joke about it at Blueprint. Whenever someone would phone up and say, "Thank you", we used to turn to each other and say, "So-and-so has just phoned up to thank us for their puff piece."

R.J. Preece: Do you think that it’s important for readers to understand the media process of design publication?
Marcus Field: I think it is important for people to know that this happens. They shouldn’t believe everything they see. Of course the pictures are real pictures, but it is important to realise how mediated these images are— and these texts. Often things get left out and are unsaid—like celebrity interviews and so on. But I think people assume this with something like an Elizabeth Taylor interview.

Some big-name architects are very concerned about their media image, and they will do everything they can to ensure favourable press. This means mediating it as much as they can. You never get to see the whole story—that’s true with all news. But I don’t think people expect this with architecture, and students and readers should be aware of this.

R.J. Preece: Do you think the design-trade press, with its reliance upon advertising from the same sources as the readership, is in a difficult situation?
Marcus Field: Yeah, I think in consumer magazines people don’t notice it so much. But at some trade magazines, the advertising team will be given a list of all of the people and companies they’re featuring and will phone them up and say, “We’re featuring your product, would you like to buy an ad?” Obviously, they’re not going to purchase one if the reports aren’t favorable. In the worst cases, at some magazines—not the ones I’ve worked for—the editorial is sold anyway.

R.J. Preece: Do you think that readers also need to take into account the context of the writer?
Marcus Field: Yes, they should. Of course, they don’t always know [the context]. It’s like when a certain journalist writes about a certain architect’s work, and it’s because he shagged them or whatever.

R.J. Preece: Do you think this has implications for design history—that non-journos might not be up on these things? That texts may be interpreted outside their media context and potentially become "authoritative" in book form?
Marcus Field: Yes, of course. It’s great when design historians end up doing theses on these things. There are a lot of things written on how the Modern movement was represented in the press. It will affect design and architectural history, but it also provides space for revisiting things and saying, "It was never like that".

R.J. Preece: With your experiences in publishing—and knowing about how texts are put together and the issues involved in this—has it changed your view of design history?
Marcus Field: I suppose so, yeah. [As a student] I had read lots of books, and I believed them - I suppose I was a bit naive. You think you know about an architect’s work, you think it’s wonderful and you believe the stories. But in ten years I’ve gathered an amazing amount of knowledge on how things really work.

R.J. Preece: Why did you leave Blueprint?
Marcus Field: An offer came up. It was a very specific offer - there was going to be new space about interesting ideas on design, art and architecture. But it was also about editing and writing. I’ve always been interested in architecture’s and design’s place in a much wider social and economic context, and a newspaper is a good place to explore that position. Also, it’s about other things. Blueprint is quite a specialist magazine. I like the idea of broadening my knowledge and contacts.

R.J. Preece: Is the situation different working for a newspaper like the Independent on Sunday? Does it free you up to provide more critical coverage?
Marcus Field: I think it will.

Note to readers: Please note the following—during the interview, Field mentioned one famous architect and also an architectural design title. However, it was not possible to confirm what he had said. In order to release the names, I was advised by my lawyer colleague to request reverse indemnity from the magazine and have them seek advice. This means that firm additional procedures would be put in place and the magazine would take full legal responsibility if there were a complaint. I also felt it was only fair to those mentioned as well. The cost for legal screening was estimated at just 300 euros. The editors refused. As a result, I refused to release the names.

In the end, after one issue of being critical interviews and website reviews editor, I resigned over the fairness issue.

In critical retrospect, I still wonder how this interview became arranged and its motivations...and it’s this ambiguity and the surfaces of interview subject and editorial that I find fascinating to this day...