Interview, magazine designer Fred Woodward with Ellen Lupton. Conversation, June 6, 1996. Unpublished.
Tell me what you do here at Rolling Stone.
I’ve been here for nine years. I’m art director of Rolling Stone, and for the last couple of years, I’ve been creative director of the whole company. We publish US and Men’s Journal and some books. I keep the other two magazines staffed, and last year I was involved with changing the format of US. Mens Journal is being redesigned by David Amario. Richard Baker is art director of US. I design about two books a year, and whatever Jann [Wenner] has in his head.
What were you doing before Rolling Stone?
I worked at Texas Monthly, with a little stop-off in Washington, DC, where I designed the format and a few issues of a magazine called Regardie’s. Then I got the call to come here in 1987. That was pretty exciting. I always loved this magazine, as a kid I always loved it. It was Bob Wallace, executive editor of the magazine, who called me. I made it through the first screening and was deemed worthy of seeing Jann. I had quite a long interview with him.
What do you think it was in your work that made him choose you?
Typographically, my work probably owed a lot to the history of his magazine. When I was in school, I was very influenced by it. I studied design briefly, at Memphis State, just for two semesters. Then I went to work at Memphis magazine for the summer and decided to stay. My schooling was really working for the magazine.
What did you change at Rolling Stone?
Rolling Stone had gone through a four or five year period when it had kind of stripped down. The working term was “modern“—80s modern. It used Franklin Gothic. I came in and tried to connect the magazine to its past. It took a year or two to lay the foundation again. I put the Oxford border back in, to help clarify the relationship between editorial and advertising. The border had been used at the magazine before, but not for a long time. I made the magazine more eclectic again. Anything that went inside the border was Rolling Stone. It was actually very liberating. I was nervous about doing it, afraid that the border would be too confining, but I found that I could try anything within the limits of the border. I felt very challenged by the legacy of what others had done before. I was really working out of fear. That was a good thing. The two-week schedule was good, too. You just had to keep going.
Tell me about the work you’ve done with the type designer Jonathan Hoefler.
Working with Jonathan was a natural thing. He’s steeped in all the same history and sources. He’d uncover something new, give me a call, flesh it out. I’d be working on a special project and stop by and see what he was doing. The Cobain book was done that way—he had a typeface called Fell Historical.
How has the computer changed the way you work?
We’ve been doing everything on the computer for about four years now. I was scared to death of it, but that was good. We had a rocky period the first six months or so, but then we started making it work for us. The tail wasn’t wagging the dog anymore.
The computer didn’t really change the look of the book. I always felt that Rolling Stone should look handmade, kind of funky. We kept it that way. We were always trying to hand-tool those feature headlines, and it was a struggle to keep it clean-looking. We were cutting apart xeroxes, blowing it up, putting it back together. The computer makes it much easier to do that kind of work. It also makes it much easier to work at large scales like we were doing.
Over the last year, something has crept in that I think is different from the way we would have worked before the computer. The Alicia Silverstone feature where she’s blowing a bubble with bubble gum, and we used the reflection in the bubble as the headline—it’s not the greatest thing in the world, but it’s something new with this equipment.
We do all the photoretouching in-house, on a Scitex scanner, so we can control everything. It’s always been that way at Rolling Stone—we had our own film strippers. I like that. The magazine is a home grown product.
What do you think has been important in magazine design as a whole over the past fifteen years?
Fabien Baron’s work for Interview and Italian Vogue was very important. Harper’s Bazaar is less important to me. I think the work for Italian Vogue is where it started. The first year at Harper’s Bazaar, was very important, though.
Martha Stewart Living is extremely important. I hate to say it. It’s not that I like what it’s trying to do editorially, it’s just a beautifully crafted thing. It’s structured differently from any magazine that went before it. The art department evolved in a way that the designers really craft the stories with the editor, photographer, stylist, and so on. They go on location with the piece as it’s put together. That care really shows on the pages, apart from just how it looks. In terms of photogaphy, the magazine took the look of natural light and shallow depth of field and made it a trademark style.
Spy was very, very important, too. And in the early 80s, Robert Priest’s work for Esquire, around 1981, 82. That was very influential. It owed a certain debt to Rolling Stone but took it somewhere else. The magazine published very personal photography and illustration, a lot of it from Europe, that was unusual and ended up being quite influential.
What about Details?
To me, Details is a lot of watered-down Cranbrook, without being the real pure thing. Photographically, it’s very good, but otherwise, it feels like it’s trying to do something, but its cuffed. It holds back. Of course you’re showing Ray Gun. That’s been incredibly important and it’s quite a phenomenon. And I hope you’re talking to the people at Dance Ink.
What else about Rolling Stone?
Lately, the last five years or so, or six or seven, people have talked about the type a lot. But I think it’s the combination of the type with illustration and photography. But I’m the last person that you should be talking to about Rolling Stone. I can’t really talk about it.