Why I’m Leaving Surface Media After Eight Incredible Years
When I arrived at Surface nearly eight years ago, a fresh-faced 25-year-old just out of Columbia Journalism School, I never imagined that, only two and a half years later, I’d become the editor of one of the most important design magazines in the world. The truth is, back then, I barely knew what design was. I was extremely curious, though, and able to weave a decent narrative, and would soon discover that I had a knack for distilling the value of good design to a broad audience. I also had the great fortune of working at an incredibly special brand: Surface.
In contrast to hulking corporate cruise ships, Surface is a sleek power yacht. It has been the ideal, nimble platform for pushing me to think, learn, and lead in new ways, and to quickly adapt to today’s fast-paced, rapidly changing media environment — all while holding on to two things that matter most to me: quality and soul.
Now, after five years, 46 issues, and a brand overhaul while editor-in-chief, my time at the company — as all good things do — is coming to an end. My last day will be May 18. Moving on isn’t a decision that was easy to make, but it’s one that I felt was right for me, and for Surface. (More on this in a bit.)
Being given the editorship in 2013 was a sink-or-swim moment — at once daunting and thrilling — for me and for the company. Unexpectedly thrown into the hot seat, I had to quickly adapt and prove myself and, alongside many great minds, over the course of months and years, persevere. Under the guidance of Surface’s CEO, Marc Lotenberg, we have expanded into a dynamic media company, Surface Media, with various digital, print, and event platforms, including the Design Dialogues talk series, the creative agency Surface Studios, The List (our directory of Surface-approved brands and firms), The Diner by David Rockwell with Surface + 2x4, the Surface Travel Awards, and Watch Journal.
In the years after the 2013 redesign and editorial revamp — sleeker, pared-down creative direction; a more approachable and prescient content plan; all of it spurred by Marc and later refined and executed by the editorial team and myself — the company saw the size of our staff quadruple and our revenue grow sixfold. Our website, SurfaceMag.com, has enjoyed a 30 percent increase in traffic since it was relaunched in late 2016. And we’ve grown our Instagram audience five times over in the past two years. It’s been a heady whirlwind. We have all contributed in transforming Surface into a potent product that, in both the worlds of media and design, is garnering more respect and reach than ever. I’m deeply proud to have been a part of that.
It’s been especially rewarding to help reposition Surface into something that’s relevant and, for so many, indispensable. As opposed to simply covering the “design world,” as it once did, Surface now looks at the world through the lens of design — a very important distinction. Design impacts practically everything we see, touch, hear, and do, yet so many still don’t ever think about this fact. I believe that only when politicians, executives, and others in power actually understand what design is — and work closely with the world’s best designers to solve our problems — will it truly have an impact. And I’ve sought for Surface to become a platform for espousing this important, far-reaching, world-changing idea. I feel that, in a relatively short period of time, we’ve been able to push this mission forward.
By choosing to put portraits — not products — on our covers, we’re showcasing the humanity behind design, primarily focusing on process, craftsmanship, originality, and detail. All of these things are inherently human and take time to refine, and ultimately make the world a better, more thoughtful place. Collectively, Surface shows that design isn’t just something that is, to use a pun we tend to overuse here, surface-level; it shows that design (and especially good design) has deep, profound impacts.
I will never forget the roughly 1,800 days I’ve been at the helm, during which Surface has published covers highlighting everyone from Tadao Ando and the late Azzedine Alaïa to Neri Oxman and Kanye West, and featured subjects as varied as Detroit’s 20th-century architecture and design landmarks, Chanel haute couture, Montana’s Tippet Rise sculpture park, iPhone addiction, and marijuana packaging. This mix has made my job not only engaging and challenging (and, at times, maddening) but hugely fun. It’s been a joy to bring the Design Dialogues series to life, moderating talks with the likes of David Adjaye, Daniel Boulud, Thom Browne, Michael Kimmelman, Stefan Sagmeister, Paula Scher, Ian Schrager, and Annabelle Selldorf, and to collaborate on projects with — and get the support of — leading voices and brilliant minds such as Hans Ulrich Obrist, Willo Perron, Donald Robertson, David Rockwell, Susan Sellers, Valerie Steele, and Andrew Zuckerman, to name a few.
Our Los Angeles–based special projects editor, Bettina Korek, has been particularly important to the company’s evolution, especially in the world of art. She has guided us by making many key introductions — Obrist, John Baldessari, and Michael Chow among them — and helping Surface gain credibility in a rarefied, hard-to-break-into space through her vision and voice. I’ve also had the pleasure of working alongside some incredibly talented, hard-charging editors, designers, and creatives, including William Hanley, Tiffany Jow, Courtney Kenefick, Sasha Levine, Simonetta Nieto, Nate Storey, Aimee Sy, Lily Wan, Dani Burry, Charles Curkin, Matthias Ernstberger, Elizabeth Ferraro, James Gaddy, Mimi Hannon, Aileen Kwun, Dave Kim, Roxy Kirshenbaum, Jeremy Lehrer, Jennifer Parker, Brett Tabolt, Jada Vogt, Allie Weiss, and Hally Wolhandler. Collaborating with writers and photographers such as Marina Cashdan, Julia Cooke, Grant Cornett, Adrian Gaut, Nonie Niesewand, Ogata, Christina Ohly Evans, Tim McKeough, Nathan Perkel, Cynthia Rosenfeld, Jonathan Schultz, Delfino Sisto Legnani, Pilar Viladas, Ian Volner, and Weston Wells has been a joy.
I would be remiss here not to mention Adriana Gelves, our associate publisher, who has worked at Surface longer than I have, and has been through all of the high-highs and low-lows with me. She’s a force! Mark Noë of Noë & Associates, who conceived the magazine’s 2013 redesign and layout, and Tony King of King & Partners, who built our refreshed website, have been pivotal to Surface’s momentum, too. I would also like to acknowledge Dan Rubinstein, my predecessor, who took a chance on me at a young age by hiring me (I remember telling him in my job interview for an assistant editor role that I could only name something like five architects. Two of them, Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry, I would later interview for the covers of Issues 100 and 123, respectively).
And, of course, I would like to thank to Marc, who gave me this opportunity and put his faith and trust in me to build Surface with him. He has been willing to take risks that have brought the company tremendous results. I’m also deeply indebted to our chairman, Eric Crown, without whom none of this would have been possible.
So why leave now? The simple answer: because Surface has grown and evolved tremendously during my tenure, and so have I. We’re both in far different places than we were five years ago, and while it’s true that we’ve achieved a lot in the past few years — and even so, that there’s still much more to do — I know that it’s time for me to pursue new opportunities and challenges in media, design, and beyond.
As Surface is going into its 25th anniversary, it too has plans to explore new opportunities and strategies, especially as it relates to digital and screens, opening up the conversation of design to an ever-wider audience.
If there is one thing I’ve learned during my years at Surface, it’s that a company is bigger than any one person or individual team — it’s a force that expands, contracts, and adapts as needed. I will be forever grateful for the experience, and I look forward to seeing Surface, with fresh energy, continue to grow and evolve in the years to come.