Dwell Magazine has Jumped the Shark

May 25, 2010 — 23 Comments

Dwell - Photo by Jack Thompson

I really used to love getting Dwell magazine but now …ehh. When I hear the beeping of the magazine truck backing up to our office to unload the 5 metric tons of magazines that we get, I still look forward to getting my hands on Dwell, but not for the same reasons as before. The projects have become so silly that it is bordering on irrelevant. Sorry folks, but Dwell has jumped the shark.

I like modern residences probably more than your average person; I have hundreds of books on modern architecture, I know the rules, I understand it’s objectives, and I get to design and build modern architecture. But none of my projects will ever get in Dwell magazine because:

  1. they aren’t 700 square feet (or less),
  2. they aren’t made from recycled wood pallets,
  3. and I don’t use shipping containers

Dwell - Photo by Matthew Williams

Bottom line, my projects are too practical and normal. Please don’t mistake my observation as sour grapes, rather as a primer for a conversation about relevancy. When I receive my issue of Dwell at the office, the projects are becoming so extreme and fringe that they have little practical application to the readers. I look through the projects searching for the handfull of details that are clever and exciting. You can find them, you just have to get past the ridiculous bits.

An on-going storyline appears to be what’s the smallest modern house we can find. Without much trouble, and with about 5 minutes of looking, I found three issues to illustrate my point;

  • Jan/Feb 2005 issue – Small is the new big: Homes under 2,200 Sq. Ft.

  • May 2006 issue – Think Small: Homes under 1,700 Sq. Ft.

  • March 2008 issue – Small Wonders: Homes under 1,000 Sq. Ft.

These were the on the cover page, who knows how many more stories there were on even smaller houses? Even in this months issue (June 2010) you can find the following article and caption –

‘Mind the Gap: On an eight-foot-wide site in London, architect Luke Tozer cleverly squeezed in a four-storey home equipped with rain-water-harvesting and geothermal systems’

Ooooh…that’s a double whammy – 8 foot wide and sustainable. Awesome….and so obvious.

I’m not really sure why the magazine is searching for examples of projects that their readers can’t don’t need to appreciate. It seemed to me that Dwell originally was a magazine that supported the exposure and promotion of modernity. Modern houses were highlighted between the covers and the ads exposed the readers to the resources and vendors that were available. And as a result, people could wishfully imagine their lifestyle onto the projects. As modernism became more mainstream, Dwell seemed to lose it’s way and started to focus it’s attention on a lifestyle suppported by the consumerism of modernity. Gone are the articles that explained and educated the masses on the modern style – now replaced by tragically hip dual income metrosexuals and photos full of bizarre and self-important props.  With the rise in popularity of the Unhappy Hipsters, it’s no doubt (despite being such low-hanging fruit) why it’s so much fun to poke fun of the photos.

According to Foliomag.com, Dwell saw ad dollars plummet 43.4 percent and ad pages decrease 46.4 percent in the first half of ’09 versus the same period in 2008 – something to which the recession undoubtly contributed. We have already seen other once-popular shelter magazine’s disappear (Metropolitan Home, In Style Home, Blueprint, Home, Cottage Living, Country Home, and Domino).

Yes, advertising dollars steer the magazine – I know this – but the bumbling around trying to find new sources for missing ad revenue has turned Dwell into a carnival freak show of projects and I’m kinda sad about it.

When I was looking up some information, I stumbled upon this article in the Washington Post about the demise of shelter magazines due to the lack of advertising dollars in the middle to lower markets – the demographic Dwell seemed to originally target 6 years ago.

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  • Holly Slatter

    I don’t normally write comments on people’s blogs, but I have recently started working at an architecture firm (marketing and other office duties, not being an architect) and I’ve become very interested in expanding my knowledge on the subject. With that said, I stumbled upon your blog (thanks to google) and I can’t get enough of your articles. I really love your voice and how you incorporate your life and projects into the blog, along with your knowledge of the architecture world. I read this article and thought it was interesting, since my employer just got done creating a modern “Tiny house” a total of 397 square feet (eat that one up Dwell magazine)….so I HAD to go check out Dwell for myself. The first subject on their homepage is an article titled “5 modern concrete floors”, which is the point of my comment here….on of the first articles I read of yours was about the epic adventure of you refinishing your own concrete floors. I had to laugh at the irony. I hope you found it as amusing as I did! Have a good day

  • Patrick Y Wong

    The content of DWELL has gone to the fringe because they may be jaded on mainstream modernism. They have been there and done that, and now they are getting their freak or simply pushing the comfort level of some of their subscribers. What appears extreme to middle class Americans may become the new normal with time. Blackerbird hit the mark with his comment 
    “…a reader who sees far out risks in media is more likely to take moderate risks as a client, that’s the service of a magazine like dwell to the profession. i think anything that broadens reader’s sense of what’s possible, what’s beautiful, what’s economical, creates a space for the creativity and innovation of all architects, regardless of formal idiom.”
    The editors at DWELL have no easy job of jurying submissions from around the world and in striving to balance editorial content with advertising, they are going to win some and lose some of both. Their mission isn’t to please everyone all the time.”Dwell champions an aesthetic in home design that is modern, idea-driven, and sensitive to social and physical surroundings. Written for young, intelligent consumers, dwell helps people shape their own living spaces in ways that express beauty, simplicity, comfort, and new sense of openness.”Whether DWELL survives, folds or transforms itself is not my concern, but I appreciate what they have done and I hope that DWELL prospers and continues to educate, inform, surprise, delight, inspire and explore design in the modern world.

    • Patrick,

      Thank you for such a considerate and well thought our response. I don’t think anyone believes that they are trying to please everyone, but there is no denying how things have fundamentally shifted in how information is described and portrayed. I don’t fault them for this, simply appealing to the marketplace.

      I am just finding that I don’t occupy the same spot in the market that I once did.


  • Ceit

    small is not the problem.  I live with 5 people and a bulldog in an 1100 SF house.  The problem is these places are trashy looking, lauded for their “genius” and cost many times more per sf than my modest little 1939 bungalow.  I have seen shipping containers used in delightful ways and trashy ways.  Just because you use some thrown away materials does not make the project “genius”.  It has to be done well, in proportion and scale, and with consideration for aesthetics. Any kind of aesthetic,  modern or otherwise, not just thrown together.

    • you are right – small isn’t the problem but small for the sake of small is not the objective for most of the glossy modern magazine buying demographic.

      Trying to figure out the message is what I struggle with – sure the projects look interesting and cool but I didn’t think that was the point, and based on your comments, I don’t think you do either.

  • Csphoto

    They lost me a few years back when they began adding people into their images with with Photoshop.

    • I didn’t know that they had done that – thanks for enlightening me Chuck!

  • Simple Builder

    Thank you! How mainstream do you think Modern is right now and will be in the next few years? Have you ever seen a Modern Spec home?

  • jc cardet

    Totally off topic but I was just leafing thru the Jan-Feb 2005 issue of Dwell and came across an ad for Revit on page 40.
    Two basketball players facing each other; a short, pudgy white kid representing brand X and a tall, lean black boy representing Revit. Just my humble opinion but… is there a tinge of racism in that imagery?

  • bobborson

    What Dwell mag thinks is small changed from 2,200sf down to under a 1,000 in 25 months. I know they are trying to stay current but what's the interest and market for a house under 1,000sf? That's why I think they have lost touch with their core readers – at least the ones they started with.

  • You know they say “small” and put 2,200 sf next to it. I grew up in a 1,600 sf house and my current house is 1,100 sf. (Ok, 1,100 is getting tight especially with 3 people) but 2,200 sf is plenty of space for a family of 4.

  • Doc

    and you have to make the pallet house cost $300/sq ft….

  • Welcome to the wonderful world of magazine publishing, dahling!

  • I don't think it's sour grapes, but it is an interesting observation. I think many of us are looking for design that can be realistically incorporated into our lives/homes and much of what Dwell offers is on the edge. And being on the edge isn't really what modern is about.

    The container house in the first photo is in my neighborhood. It has some nice features, but it looks like it is built from old shipping containers (one of the cons of building with old shipping containers). To add to the charm, it is across the street from a meat distributor.

    Next time you design a house, spend a day dumpster diving for broken pieces of Americana to randomly attach to doors and cabinets. Get an old bathtub to use for rainwater collection and replace the lawn with thistle and gravel. Keep it under 1200 sf and you're a shoo-in.

    • Blackerbird

      being on the edge is exactly what being modern is about; not every risk taken is a universal success, or to everyone’s taste, but without finding that edge, you’re not going to move beyond convention and habit. thistle and gravel, for that matter, can be beautiful and far more sustainable than a lawn! …a reader who sees far out risks in media is more likely to take moderate risks as a client, that’s the service of a magazine like dwell to the profession. i think anything that broadens reader’s sense of what’s possible, what’s beautiful, what’s economical, creates a space for the creativity and innovation of all architects, regardless of formal idiom. this is the idea of modernism not as a mere “style” among various historicist revivals, but as a sensibility, a philosophy, a necessity. bravo dwell for daring to think small in an era of bloat, and to get weird in an era of undue caution.

      • Blackerbird,

        Thanks for the comment, what you write actually makes a lot of sense. The reason I originally wrote this piece stemmed from a long recurring theme I advocate on this site – perspective and balance. I still subscribe to Dwell and I still flip through it when it arrives but the main issue I have with Dwell is that seems to have gone to the fringe and at times comes across as extreme for the sake of being extreme.

        There is a lot of work that embodies the principals of modernism in design that isn’t covered for the sake of highlighting shipping container houses. Fine – show me the shipping container project but could they mix in something a little less extreme and show me the balance that I thought was once more prevalent?

  • Mrm

    Sounds like sour grapes to me.

  • bobborson

    Given the popularity of the unhappy hipsters, do you think America is getting tired of seeing gravel driveways, concrete floors, and $1,000 rooms filled with $20,000 worth of furniture? I even started wondering if the furniture was staged because why would someone spend that kind of money on designer couches instead of more living space?

  • bobborson

    It actually makes me a little sad, I really did love getting Dwell (and Metropolitan Home) – now one is gone and the other probably should be…

  • Great post! Since I discovered unhappyhipsters.com, I cannot read Dwell with a straight face.

  • modernsauce

    So true, so true. Great observations! I think Dwell became a caricature of itself (and modern design) – and one that I don't care to read about anymore either.

  • I subscribed to Dwell a couple years ago for a short time; must have been at the tail end of their “relevant” period. I recall that the ads were almost more provocative than the articles. But the reader could still glean some original and fairly clever ideas from the homes featured: there were still “hey, look at this!” moments. Nowadays, I might see one or two small sparks of interest inside the pages when I run across an errant copy on someone else's desk, but mostly it is a compendium of ridiculousness. And so, I dwell elsewhere…