Conference: Tyler Brûlé interviews Martha Stewart

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This wasn’t an interview, it was Debbie McGee vs the Terminator. James Richards watched through his fingers.

words James Richards

In the red corner was Martha Stewart. Her opponent in the blue corner, wearing the Jil Sander trunks, was Tyler Brûlé. This was brawny “American dream” interiors against urbane jetset culture, a prizefight matched up from opposite ends of the design spectrum.

Brûlé, creator of Wallpaper and Monocle magazines, is a prominent figure on the world design stage. But on the stage at Munich’s DLD (Digital, Life, Design) Conference, he was dwarfed by the towering presence of Middle America’s most powerful cake maker, ex-con and soft furnishing guru. A frightening prospect.

A veteran at 68, Stewart looks and acts far younger. But her success has always relied on smoke and mirrors; it would take a small army to produce all the crafts she claims to make on her own, although it’s only ever her in the pictures. And don’t be fooled by that cosy, homely facade – she survived a five-month jail sentence and kept her sprawling business running at the same time.

Brûlé, supposedly a consummate media operator, was visibly out of his comfort zone. Stewart rapidly hijacked proceedings with an extended showboating session covering all elements of her operation: the blog, the website, the magazine, the 24-hour radio show and the newspaper column.

This was a classy display of brand blanket bombing, Stewart’s signature weapon. Terrifying in its efficacy, it relies – to use her own words – on creating “synergies” between her website and magazine say, or the magazine and TV show. Brûlé’s arsenal of one magazine and a newspaper column, while impressive by most standards, looked paltry in comparison.

Thirty minutes had ticked by and he was still on the ropes, while Stewart unpacked and held forth on a suitcase of electronic goods. Brûlé, once called “the most fashionable man in Britain”, was outweighed and outmanoeuvred, reduced to the Debbie McGee role of assistant to the Great Performer. There were cheers from the audience when he finally got a question in.

Stewart’s merciless steamrollering of Brûlé left her free to plug her new range of digital cameras and picture frames. In 2006 she signed a deal with Eastman Kodak to produce personalised photography products, and now we were getting the sales spiel for the line. It was revealing and a bit disconcerting that even in front of a home crowd (fellow entrepreneurs and industry insiders), she was so “on message”.

But you don’t get to be a billionaire by missing opportunities to sell. And twice she struck well below the belt by endorsing home photo storage systems as a good way to remember deceased loved ones, with particular reference to the deaths of her own mother and brother. It was a chilly reminder of the icy kind of stuff it takes to build, then rebuild, an empire. Brûlé never really stood a chance.

Tyler Brûlé interviewed Martha Stewart as part of the DLD (Digital, Life, Design) Conference, Munich, 19 January

www.dld-conference.com

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