“I have to say I cannot believe it’s already been a year and I also can’t believe it’s only been a year. But on the world stage so much has happened for all of us,” said Asad Syrkett.
Syrkett was running New York operations for Hem, an international furniture brand and design studio based in Stockholm, when in September 2020 he was approached by Stellene Volandes, Town & Country editor in chief and editorial director of Elle Decor, about taking the helm at the latter, succeeding Whitney Robinson, who stepped down in April 2020. He didn’t actually apply for the position in question, but was recommended to Volandes by his former boss at property news site Curbed (now part of New York Magazine), where he had worked for several years as deputy editor, overseeing special projects and its popular home tours series. Previously he held editorial positions at Architectural Digest and Architectural Record magazines. “I got an email from Stellene. it was very brief and asked if I would be interested in speaking with her, which I absolutely was, so we got on the phone and the rest is history,” Syrkett continued.
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The Hearst-owned title’s first Black editor in chief, Syrkett has been busy since joining virtually, launching the publication’s inaugural earth (accountability renewal, transformation and humanity) issue, overseeing the renovation of the VIP lounge at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, working to make the title more diverse and inclusive, and filling it with more essays than ever before.
“Essays were not a thing that people generally found in the pages of Elle Decor and that has been a really lovely thing to add to our mix of renovation content and decorative inspiration and all the other things that we know and love in the pages of our magazine,” he said.
Here, Syrkett reflects on his first year in the job.
On what a design magazine should be today:
“It should be a source of inspiration. It should be a source of conversation. It can’t just be about the latest textiles and the latest furnishings, even though those things are crucially vitally important. I also think it’s our job as editors and journalists in that space to offer context. The best thing that we can do or say is this is why things are trending or this is why a thing is having a resurgence, which is what we’re seeing a lot of in design all the time. We want to keep the reader on their toes in a way that feels fun and engaging because if you don’t do that why should people stick around.”
On making Elle Decor more diverse and inclusive:
“I wanted to right away think about who gets to be part of conversations about design and how we contextualize historical designs that remain highly influential in contemporary decorating and interior design. For our March 2021 cover we commissioned an illustrator, Rachelle Baker — based in Detroit — to work on a reimagining of Nancy Lancaster’s influential salon in London. Lancaster was an expat interior decorator in London in the 1950s and she designed the yellow room, which is an incredibly influential room. She placed two blackamoor small side tables in this room and blackamoor furnishings and decorative accessories depicted enslaved Black figures. We had Baker remake the room for us and create an illustration that edited those tables out and imagined a Black visitor to that salon and started a conversation about why those tables were there, what it means that this room remained influential and challenged people to think about the context around this really prominent and ubiquitous design inspiration. It was quite well received. We’d never done an illustrative cover of Elle Decor before that. It’s not just about diversity in the photography in who’s depicted, it’s also about who’s behind the lens, who’s writing stories and all of that has come together in a way that feels really organic and authentic to this brand with me at the helm.”
On the renovation of the Alice Tully Hall:
“I grew up in New York so New York is very much home. I grew up in Harlem and I’ve lived in every borough except for Staten Island — apologies to Staten Islanders. Lincoln Center is such a landmark New York City venue for the arts, for culture. It is a center for architecture and design in the city that is parallel to only maybe Rockefeller Center in terms of architectural history in New York City. So we were really excited to partner with Ellie Cullman of Cullman & Kravis designs to work on a new scheme for Alice Tully Hall’s VIP lounge. It’s design in the wild. It’s a place that people go in advance of a performance and really want to feel like their show is beginning before the show has begun. We picked the designer. We asked Ellie Cullman if she would be involved so we worked closely with her team to select the designer for the space. We also had partners we worked with to secure lighting and furnishings.”
On working with Stellene Volandes:
“This is my first editor in chief-ship, which is not a secret, but I also come from design. I studied design in school and have a management background. Stellene really is a sounding board for me. I have tons of ideas and that’s why we hit it off right away when I started to speak with her about this role. She’s someone who is an absolute expert in making magazines and not just making magazines, but magazines that reflect what’s happening in the culture at large and what people are talking about right now and anticipating very smartly what people will want to talk about and that was really something we bonded over. Having that aspiration as a core for Elle Decor magazine not to just be about decorative advice and interior inspiration, but also to really reflect the cultural conversations that are happening right now that might be difficult or might be challenging or might just feel like something that was outside the purview of an interior magazine. Stellene and I meet regularly. We talk about themes for issues that I’m interested in exploring. She gives me feedback. But really she’s an adviser and it has been really really lovely to have her in my corner.”
On studying architectural design:
“I started as a creative writing major and really thought ‘I’m going to go on to get an MFA and work in creative writing some way’ and instead I took a course — one of the required art history courses at Columbia as part of your first-year studies — and I was bowled over by the depth of the subject. So I decided I’m going to make a pivot and study art history and architectural history with no view, by the way, on what I would do with that degree. I really thought ‘I’ll just study this and see how it goes and figure out how to make a life in this zone after I’m done with this degree,’ which I did. I actually got a paid internship at Architectural Record magazine the summer before I finished my final year at Columbia and it was a huge opportunity. It was a hugely eye-opening experience to be able to work at a magazine. I believe this is still the case but Architectural Record is the longest continuously published architecture magazine in the U.S. I learned from some incredible veteran journalists about the work of being a journalist from writing captions to fact-checking stories to editing stories with some of the world’s greatest architectural writers and that was a huge training ground for me. And then I went on to work at Architectural Digest before I ended up at Curbed. I am so grateful that I have that design background and a love of writing and language and it built into what I knew I wanted to do. Ending up in magazines was not always the plan but the moment I was in the zone I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
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