Eyes on Media: Dwell, The Little Shelter Magazine That Could


Dwell Magazine set out to stage a minor revolution in coverage of design ideas that plant seeds for universal results. So far, we have witnessed a successful coup, one defying the dark notion print is dead. The alchemy? Making the shelter book an indispensable object of desire – one that visionaries reshaping our mod-century landscape simply cannot ignore. It’s no small feat that the magazine keeps on trucking in a disastrous era for the housing industry, proof that visual stimulus propels progress despite the odds.

“Because we offer so much in terms of design, photography and stories being told, it lends itself to print,” observes savvy Senior Editor, Aaron Britt, who adds that the magazine’s tactile allure might not apply to other books, such as his favorite, The Economist. As he sees it, a magazine that seeks to inform without necessarily exciting the senses crosses over more easily to the screen with nothing lost.

“With Dwell or National Geographic, you want to leaf through it forward and backward and that makes it an object.” adds Britt. “It doesn’t mean it is the only thing we can be or are trying to be, but it something we are really good at being.”

Really good for ten years now, the shelter magazine just celebrated a decade in print (it has an online component), a tribute to the fact design professionals value old school reference guides that complement onscreen viewing. A vast majority of its readers are forward-thinking designers, architects, landscape visionaries, and design-oriented consumers. In other words, pragmatic artists seeking to dovetail pages that inspire. In the sense you don’t have to print out an item to tack it on your bulletin board – it actually conserves energy.

At the same time, Dwell considers sustainability in its publishing practices, bypassing a conventional paste and waste process by using certified recycled paper. Its pages feel good on the fingers, less processed than its flashy, glossy cousins. The good pulp might not put the kind of dent in paper use purists rant about, but at least it’s a conscious act which shuns the frivolous alternative (see Neiman Marcus seasonal catalogs). Most likely, Dwell couldn’t live with itself without this commitment.

“Moving to recycled paper is the key to our redesign but taking advantage of the fact that sustainability has always been something Dwell has focused on, we are moving that dialogue forward which is essential to our growth as a publication,” publisher and president Michela O’Connor Abrams told Green Biz.com in 2007 about the resign introduced in February of 2008. It also resized the format from 9″ to 8.375 and along with the paper, began sparing an estimated 930 trees per issue.


You might ask if down deep, Dwell functions as yet another shopping mechanism since it does rely on ads, like most other successful media (even PBS), and does list the resources for the minimalist masterpieces showcased in articles – the tidy prefabs, the highly coveted bedroom additions. The answer is that it cannot deny it is selling something, but along the way, it goes beyond pushing product to achieve behavior modification. Dwell prefers to focus on exceptional design, which just so happens to fall into the green category in most cases.

“In a perfect world, everything would already operate in an efficient minded way,” Britt argues. “If we are successful, we won’t have to have the conversation anymore. It’s like we publish houses that have indoor plumbing. All houses do. We want sustainability to be woven into the built world as broadly as an indoor toilet and electricity.”

Meanwhile, for those needing to go directly to LEED, bamboo and solar concepts, the magazine provides an Off the Grid section completely devoted to sustainability. Much of this content also is cultivated on the web where editors product daily features. “We understand the magazine to be the bedrock of the brand, but Dwell.com and Dwell on Design are important forums to talk about things in the magazine and not in the magazine due to space restraint,” Britt explains.

One is left questioning if this enviable success story would be played out anywhere but San Francisco, a leader in progressive conservation ideas and initiatives, not to mention plenty of money to fabricate what is conceptualized, namely some of the most striking examples of nature-nurtured dwellings in the country. While Iowa-based and NYC minded Metropolitan Home offered up much of the same in its day, it really didn’t do what Dwell does to make us relate. It didn’t capitalize as much on the human emotion driving the design engines.

“Being in San Francisco give us a different purview than other design press,” figures Britt. “We are happy and proud Californians and hope some of that California-ness comes through.”

Most likely it will, as long as those patronizing the book can keep erecting what they conceive. As Dwell reminds us, the bottom line is you can build the best house in the world but we still need a better energy policy in Washington. That, and perhaps a little help from our friends, like new governor, Jerry Brown. It isn’t just a field of dreams. If you build affordable, beneficial low-use – they will come. Read all about it.

Images: Dwell

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.