You might not have heard the name Johan Svensson before, but his work there’s no doubt you’ve seen, at least if you have the slightest interest in high fashion. As art director of French Vogue, he produces one of the most remarkable magazines of today. He took over after Fabien Baron, who was one of the first people Johan worked with in New York. This was almost two decades ago, for the most talked about magazine back then, Harper’s Bazaar. Here you could call Fabien some sort of teacher to Johan. Today, there’s no student left in him. He is working closely with two of the most celebrated women in fashion, Carine Roitfeld and Emmanuelle Alt, as the only non-french person at French Vogue, and doing art direction for projects with the likes of Peter Lindbergh, Dior and Armani cosmetics. But closest to his heart are magazines, mostly because of the creative freedom and speed.
It all started back in Stockholm, when an interest in design evolved through high-school, leading him to New York, to never return to his studies at Beckmans School of Design. We met Johan Svensson at a café around the corner from the French Vogue offices, in his first real interview, to try and get behind the mind of an art director at one of the most influencial magazines in fashion…
Daniel Magnussen: OK, let’s start from the beginning. Where in Sweden did you grow up?
Johan Svensson: Stockholm. I was born and raised there.
DM: So how early did you know that you wanted to work with design?
JS: Early on. I think I was in high school or maybe even earlier. I went to England for an internship at Pentagram Design. I wasn’t like; this is the only thing I want to do, because I had no real idea yet what I wanted to do. But at least that interested me. And I wanted to explore it from a very early stage.
DM: Then you came to New York, right? Or was that much later on?
JS: That was much later on. After high school in Sweden I had to do my military service…
DM: Right. I also saw a picture of you in French Vogue where you had long hair and wore army clothes
JS: Exactly. Haha. And I took a couple of years off and did different things, and then I started at Beckmans School of Design in Stockholm.
DM: Was that a school that gave you a lot to carry on with? Or did you feel that you had to move on straight away?
JS: I had mixed feelings about it. I loved it and I was kind of frustrated and disappointed at the same
time. You know, there were some things that were fantastic; it was very free, very creative and some teachers were amazing. But then, I don’t know what I actually expected, but I felt maybe it wasn’t exactly the kind of education that I was looking for. But by chance, I then got an internship in New York… It was the summer after the first year, and I never went back. So I never actually graduated…
DM: Which year was that?
JS: That was in 91. And it wasn’t because I didn’t like Beckmans, but it just happened. And then, once you’re in New York and you’re doing an internship at a magazine and you get to work on real and interesting things, it seemed to me dumb to give that up to go back to an art school where I wasn’t necessarily that happy anyway. So I said, I’ll do one year, I’ll take a year off and I’ll go back later. And then, after that year had passed, Harper’s Bazaar was about to be relaunched and redesigned with Fabien Baron. And I got to go there as a designer in the art department, and I wasn’t going to pass that up to go back to art school. So every time I was about to go back home, something like that happened. And then, about a year after starting at Bazaar I was promoted to art director… And you know, I wasn’t going to go back then. And then, suddenly a few more years had passed, and I had been away for so long that I just couldn’t think of myself as going back home at that point. Or home had become New York.
DM: Did you also work at Baron & Baron from the beginning?
JS: No, the first year in New York I was working at a magazine called Mirabella Magazine (which doesn’t exist anymore). It was started by Ms Mirabella who was previously the editor-in-chief of American Vogue for decades… From there I went to Harper’s Bazaar and that’s where I met Fabien for the first time. I didn’t know him before.
DM: So you came to Bazaar right after Fabien became the creative director..
JS: We all kind of started at the same time as part of the new staff.
DM: Did you also work with Fabien on other projects than Bazaar?
JS: We did some little projects on the side. It wasn’t a lot because the magazine took up a lot of time. There were some little catalogues and some little campaigns that we worked on… So there were some projects on the side, sort of within Baron & Baron, but on the side of the magazine.
DM: And how was it working with Liz Tilberis?
JS: Liz was a wonderful editor to work for. She managed to do an incredible magazine and still make it feel like we were all part of a family. It didn’t feel like hard work, even though we worked very long hours.
DM: I guess French Vogue came much later, but what came between Bazaar and French Vogue? You also did Jane Magazine, right?
JS: Yeah, I did Jane Magazine for seven years, which seems like a very long time to stay at the same magazine. It was a great place to work, though, for as long as it lasted. Many great people worked there, starting with Jane herself, and we all tried to do a different kind of magazine than what you would probably expect in America. Eventually I got fired, though…
DM: When it closed?
JS: Well, this was before it closed. Jane, the editor-in-chief, left. And shortly thereafter I got fired, and the fashion director got fired and the publisher got fired, and everyone got fired. I ended up being freelance for about a year and a half.
DM: In New York?
JS: In New York. I worked on a bunch of random little projects… I wasn’t that ambitious. I wasn’t working that hard.
DM: I know that feeling.
JS: Haha. Yeah. It was really good actually. Doing a magazine every month, year after year, with all the drama that goes on and especially when something like that happens, when they change the whole magazine, is very stressful. So it was good to work a little less hard for a while.
As a freelancer, whatever project I did, once it was finished I never saw it again. It might have been stressful while it was going on, but then it was over. It’s not… I mean at a magazine, once you’ve finished with an issue you’re already late with the next one. So the next day you have to start over.
DM: So at French Vogue you work on two issues all the time? Or maybe even three issues?
JS: We pretty much do one issue at the time. We’re planning ahead, but I definitely work on one issue at the time, as far as doing the layouts. Now we’re planning October, November, but we’re about to start working on the August issue. For me, on a daily basis, like what I do most of my time, is one issue at the time and that’s just the way it works here. At other places you may work on three issues at the time…
DM: So how did you get the job at French Vogue?
JS: I have stayed friends with Fabien since the days at Bazaar, and obviously he was the Creative Director at Vogue Paris since 2002 or 2003. He needed an Art Director to take care of the day to day business since he lives in New York and works on so many other projects at the same time, and he asked me if it was something I would be interested in. As much as I loved being a lazy freelancer, I couldn’t really say no to that opportunity.
DM: Fabien left French Vogue almost three years ago. And then you became art director, right?
JS: Technically he was the creative director and I was the art director and when he left I remained the art director. There is no creative director now.
DM: How did you arrive at the new design and the typefaces for French Vogue after Fabien?
JS: I actually kept the same typeface, I’ve just changed the way we use it a little bit and I’ve changed the design, but it has been very hard to replace that typeface. We tried to do it, Fabien and I together in the beginning, because we wanted to do a redesign when I started.
And we did kind of a redesign then, but we still kept the same typeface. It’s really beautiful and it’s very French Vogue. Elegant and chic and classical and you can do a lot of things with it, so you don’t want to change it for the sake of changing it. And we just didn’t come up with anything so we kept the same typeface. Instead I have tried to do different things, like doing all the titles in handwriting in some issues, to not make it too static.
Finally we are about to change the typefaces completely, though. It has not been easy to replace it, but in the end I am very excited about the new design.
DM: Before there were no issues with colours in the type. I like that you also brought in guest designers like Kaws who did the graphics on the couture story Sorrenti did with Raquel Zimmermann. The magazine feels more young and fun.
JS: Yeah, I tried to change it a little bit from what we did together and what Fabien did before. I got there. I tried to do it a little gradually because for our readers, it shouldn’t be completely different from one day to the next. And also, I don’t think that the magazine should be the same month after month after month. It’s good that it evolves a little bit, all the time. It’s more interesting for the readers and it’s more interesting for me to work on it.
DM: And now, when you talk about change. Last issue, you had Penélope Cruz and her friends on the cover (red. May issue). I think that was the first actresses since the Julianne Moore cover by Testino. how do you decide on that every month. I know Carine prefer models on the cover right?
JS: We look at what is French Vogue. It’s not really a magazine that needs to be driven by stars and celebrities like a lot of magazines in America. I don’t think it really increases the sales and it takes it a little bit away from who we are. French Vogue is a fashion magazine first and foremost. And it’s high fashion, it’s not always commercial fashion, you know. It’s about the dream, about what inspires you rather than what you necessarily always can wear, or it’s a mix of the two. But our mix is a little bit more on the high end side… You know, we try to push it a little bit more than an American magazine which needs a huge readership and has to be more commercially conscious. They might be helped by having stars on their covers more than us. Once you start to involve too many celebrities, it kind of goes away from what we are. Sometimes it happens that we do it… In our Christmas issue every year we have a guest editor and sometimes it is a celebrity, a moviestar, sometimes an artist. That’s when we are most likely to have the celebrities on our covers. Otherwise, yes there is May when we might put a moviestar on the cover because of the Cannes film festival. I have forgotten exactly how it happened that Penelope ended up on this cover…
DM: Do you envision digital media will replace magazines one day? How do you see that entire discussion?
JS: I think it will affect it what we do both as consumers and as producers of magazines. I don’t know if regular magazines will completely disappear, at least not anytime soon. I think the idea of having the magazine, the physical object in your hand, is something we might not feel the need for in the future. But at the moment I think it’s hard to just give that up for something digital. Although I’m sure with the iPad, it being such a nice object, it might all change quite quickly. I think we will have to adapt and exist in the different medias as well and not just stick with the old format of the magazine. But I think, again that’s what we are, that’s the core. We can’t just abandon that.
DM: Interview just launched their April issue with Carey Mulligan as an iPad version. Is that also something that we will see from French Vogue soon? An iPad version of French Vogue with videos and other exclusive features.
JS: We are working on it at the moment, and I think with something as nice as the iPad we can still look very, very good as magazine. The photography is so important to what French Vogue is, and that doesn’t suffer on the iPad. It would be strange if we were not on there, but we just have to figure out how we want to do it. But it is looking like we will launch an iPad application for the October issue.
DM: It also seems you’re doing more and more videos and behind the scenes on your web.
JS: Yeah, and of course the idea is to incorporate all those elements and do a digital version of the magazine.
DM: I was just wondering… Carine (red. Roitfeld) came to French Vogue nine years ago and the first art directors were M/M Paris and then Fabien and now you. Are you the only none French person at the office?
JS: Haha. I’ve never thought about that, but it’s possible, it’s possible.
DM: Exactly. I think Carine mentioned that when she came onboard she wanted to bring it back to the roots so it had to be all French, you know, and Parisian staff.
JS: Don’t remind her of that…
DM: Regarding the photography in the magazine. How much are you working on that directly with the photographers? Is it more Emmanuelle (red. alt)
and Carine who are doing that part? And you focus more on the layouts? Or you all contribute with ideas for the shoots?
JS: There is no real exact way that we work at the magazine. Everything kind of evolves organically. Sometimes someone has a conversation with a photographer when they’re planning things and they come up with some great idea and I’ll just find out about it, you know, when they’ve already decided it. And sometimes we have proper meetings where we all talk about it. Or anything in between. So my involvement in some things is very, very deep. And in some things it kind of just happens really naturally anyway and I come in sort at the end of it. So in each issue I can point out stories where we worked in any number of different ways. In general we are all pretty involved, because it’s a tight little group… Nothing is very formal in the way we work, so we all talk about everything in a very natural way and makes us all involved.
DM: Have you ever done photography yourself, more seriously, or have you ever thought about it?
JS: No. I love photography and I take my own personal pictures, but I never considered doing pictures for a magazine or in any serious way. I don’t think I have the personality to be a photographer, anyway. And I’m not sure art directors should take pictures commercially. We have a vision of what we want and then we assign a photographer to take the pictures we are thinking of, and they come back with their version of what we asked for, and that is much more interesting than if you can actually go out and do exactly what you wanted to. Because then…
DM: They are adding something.
JS: Yeah, exactly, they add something and they make it more diverse and it will keep your interest longer. If the art director does all the pictures, the magazine would be very homogenous month after month after month. Although I always wanted to do one issue where I gave the same reference image to every photographer and see how differently they would interpret it, without telling any of them, of course.
DM: Did that ever happen?
JS: No, I never did it. I never pulled that off. It was just a thought I had, but I thought that it would be a good art director’s experiment.
DM: Which magazines do you read yourself, besides French Vogue? And which ones are your favourites?
JS: I honestly only read the The New Yorker…There are a few other magazines I like to look at, but being surrounded by magazines all day long, I can’t really make myself look at too many of them. Maybe that is bad, but it’s hard when you’re working with a magazine every day.
DM: But is that also because you’ve seen so much, so you don’t get that excited anymore? I remember Avedon saying that late in his career, he didn’t get the same excitement from shooting people because he’d seen so much and he had met so many so he wasn’t so excited about shooting certain people as he was obviously thirty, forty, fifty years before that.
JS: Good things and beautiful things still really excite me, but there is so much out there and to find the few good things is not always easy. If I looked at all the other magazines, that would get tiring. So I feel it is always better to look at less and then, when something fantastic happens, when somebody does an amazing story or an amazing new magazine, you can really enjoy it. There are just too many things to look at.
DM: And since you’ve worked with Fabien so many years, how do you think he pulled off Interview? What do you think about it?
JS: I think it’s very beautiful. It sounds unfair, but
because Fabien has always done such beautiful things, I think it actually looks like what I expected; it’s flawless, it’s really truly beautiful and the photography is really good in it. It’s a really well made, beautiful magazine and it’s probably the most beautiful magazine in America.
DM: Do you have any bigger upcoming projects besides French Vogue? Something you’re working on, something you could tell about?
JS: This time of year there is no time to work on anything else, and this year in particular. we are working on the October issue, which is also the 90th anniversary issue of French Vogue. It looks like it will be the biggest issue ever, and on top of that we are doing a huge supplement with it.
DM: So that will be with a lot of images from the archives of French Vogue through 90 years?
JS: The supplement will be archive images… We have chosen 90 slightly shocking images, old and new, and mixed them all together.
DM: Talking to you now, it sounds like it’s more the love of doing magazines than doing you know, other more commercial works like campaigns. You’re foremost an art director for magazines, is that true?
JS: I’m very passionate about doing magazines. I like certain forms of advertising, and mostly I love photography. I like how in a magazine we try to communicate in a little more honest and a little more direct way than advertising. But I would think that if I didn’t do the magazine, I would be quite happy doing some form of advertising too.
DM: And this love for magazines, did that start early on, when you were young in Sweden?
JS: Yeah, I loved magazines when I was young, but I went to art school not necessarily thinking I was going to do magazines. I was more into film and thought I was going to do that.
DM: But did you have any heroes in art direction and graphic design when you were young, who was doing magazines?
JS: You know, all the usual suspects… Obviously I admired Fabien. Right before and when I started art school, he was doing Interview the first time around and I thought that was quite amazing and the old ones like all the…
DM: Usual suspects.
JS: Yeah. And I loved The Face. I was a big reader of The Face, and I still like to go back and look at it sometimes. But I cannot really see these things objectively, you know. I was young at the time, and I grew up with it… I thought it had the biggest impact, perhaps it didn’t, but it did for me because it was the right time for me when I discovered it.
DM: So do you think we will see a magazine from yourself at some point in the future? Like starting your own magazine? Maybe just as a side project to what you do now.
JS: If it’s to make a living I don’t think it will happen, because I can’t imagine many things that are more difficult when it comes to making money than magazines. But, if it were just a small side project, because it was fun, it could be possible. But not when I’m working full time at a magazine already, because doing two magazines might be a little bit rough at the same time.
DM: So it’s not so much the content, it’s more the photography and the layout you’re passionate about?
JS: I care a lot about the content. I don’t think you can be a successful art director if you don’t care about the content, and get involved in it, but the art director and the editor-in-chief should be two different people.
DM: Which fashion designers working today do you admire or really like?
JS: Who do I like? I like… I mean, now living in Paris for the past couple of years, it’s the people around here that I think are interesting. I think Marc Jacobs is very good. I think he maintains a very high level, and keeps it interesting season after season. And I think Martin Margiela always is fascinating.
DM: When you mention Marc Jacobs is that also because you admire how they build the whole image of the company?
JS: I think he does a good job of that, but mostly when I mention Marc Jacobs I actually think about the collections and I think the clothes are very good… Of course McQueen was fantastic, I thought. Those shows were always spectacular and I think he pushed it in just the right way with making really kind of extreme things beautifully – they were both beautiful and extremely well crafted. I think it was fantastic… So it’s more, I think it’s more about the actual product, like the clothes, what they do, instead of the whole image…
DM: And photographers, who are your heroes from the last fifty years? Both in the past and working today?
JS: Without a doubt Helmut Newton who was remarkable for the sheer number of strong images he managed to produce, and how modern they all still feel today. And then all the other ones like Avedon and Penn and Bourdin, you can’t not mention them. Today I think David Sims is a truly great photographer, as well as so many of the others we work with regularly. Like Mario Sorrenti and Terry Richardson and Inez and Vinoodh and Mert and Marcus etc. It really is a privilege to be at French Vogue, where we get to work with these fantastic people on a daily basis.
DM: They will also be great in 50 years
JS: Yeah I would think so. They’ve been around for a while already even though they are quite young, but I see no reason why we won’t remember their images for a long time to come.
DM: A couple of last questions. Have you ever had any desire to teach at some point? Last issue I had a conversation with Greg Foley, he teaches this class at Parsons with Cecilia Dean, so I wondered if that would also be something you’ll like to do at some point?
JS: I’ve always thought about it and I’ve always thought it would be fun… And I even looked into it a little bit, at Parsons as well, but I never had the time to do it. But I would like to. Obviously not in France because then you have to teach in French. And that would just be embarrassing.
DM: So your french is not very advanced?
JS: There is nothing really advanced about it, no.
I do like the idea of teaching, though. Selfishly it seems like a good way to stay connected to what is going on outside the office. And if my experiences could help some students figure out where they want to go and even how to get there, that would be very satisfying
DM: Do you have any new obsessions? A new band, or a new director, or something like that?
JS: My daughter.
DM: How young is she?
JS: She’s one year. She takes up all the space.
DM: So that’s everything besides the magazine?
JS: Yeah, there isn’t room for anything else now.
DM: With the whole economic situation last year, has that changed anything for your work at the magazine? Because budgets for shoots are getting lower and number of ad pages falling.
JS: Our philosophy from the very beginning of the crisis has been that it’s important that we don’t change, that we stay true to who we are, because it might be rough for a little while, but we’ll be stronger in the long run. We can’t just dilute the brand b
ecause times are a little bit rough. If we stick to what we do and we do it well we’ll be all right.