interview :: michelle ogundehin

Katie | May 30, 2012

ELLE Decoration Editor in Chief Michelle Ogundehin

She’s only gone and done it. On Wednesday 23rd May the Government announced official changes to the law regarding copyright protection for the design industry, from 25 years to “the life of the creator plus 70 years”, bringing it in line with disciplines such as art, music and literature. Michelle Ogundehin, Editor in Chief of Elle Decoration, has been campaigning for just such a change since she heard that Samantha Cameron had bought a fake Arco lamp. I spoke to her about her Fight the Fakes campaign, and about herself, before the decision was announced.

Why is this campaign important to you?

It matters to me because I’d like to think I’m an advocate of fairness. I think when I see what I perceive as injustice, and it’s within the sector that I support and promote, if there’s something I can do about it, I feel I have a responsibility to do that.

What triggered the campaign?

I’m not absolutely sure. The example everyone keeps coming back to is that I was pretty pissed off when I heard that Samantha Cameron had bought a fake Arco lamp. She wouldn’t sit on the front row at fashion week wearing a fake Burberry… which highlighted to me that if someone who was that eloquent, that educated, in that position, didn’t understand, then clearly there was something we needed to help people understand.

As we started to unravel what the misunderstanding was, it became very clear what the educative process needed to be. And it’s proved to be really fascinating, just as a research thing… It turned out that it was simply an intellectual property issue.

Conran Fight the Fakes Window

Why is there a difference between the length of time design is protected by copyright versus other creative disciplines?

In the beginning, design was perceived to be things like nuts and bolts and car parts… But since then the concept of what is design has hugely changed. This is about creativity and I see it as about creativity on a par with art or any of those other disciplines, but our copyright laws haven’t kept in step with that.

I’ve tried to keep it very, very simple, so it’s just about parity of protection. The ins and outs of it are for a lawyer.

We use a lot of fashion analogy to help explain, because people are very familiar with the idea that knock-off handbags are made in China by four year olds with broken legs. We don’t know for a fact that that is what is happening in furniture, but there are only certain ways that you can bring prices down, so you can make assumptions. How do you make a £1,600 light for £250, even before you get into arguments about well could the £1,600 light be a bit cheaper.

Do you think those prices are fair?

Is £6,000 for a Hermes handbag fair? I think we start to miss the point when we start to argue about such things. These are not every day utilitarian items these are luxury goods. We’re talking about the Eames chair, the Arco lamp, the Barcelona chair… Luxury goods, handmade to specific specifications in incredibly high quality materials demand a premium. So the prices have been set.

The thing that we’re arguing is that people who are copying them don’t have the right to do so, that copying is theft. You have to question how they make it cheaper, because some of it is through cutting corners, and therefore the consumer is being conned.

A lot of the key manufacturers have had things returned to them and have had explain that it isn’t one of theirs. The whole industry suffers, because people just think design is overpriced tosh. If they bought the real thing, it could last for generations, but if they bought a fake, it’s going to be in a skip in a year. That’s why my issue is with the copyists, because they don’t have the consumer in mind. They’re not fans of design, they’re not protecting legacies – they’re just making a quick profit. And I think that should be exposed for what it is.

Did you expect this level of interest, and controversy and debate? 

No. My motivation at the beginning was very pure; I don’t think this is fair, I think we could do something about it. I have a wonderful publication through which I can show my support. It has always been our editorial policy to never knowingly promote fakes, because it something I absolutely don’t believe in on any level. I just think if you can’t afford something, you either save, or you buy something else.

It’s been incredibly exciting. It’s also been incredibly fascinating to learn more. And once I knew more about it, it was my responsibility – I’ve got a consumer facing front that I could use to make something happen, and I’m very thrilled and excited to have been able to galvanise this level of debate.

Conran Fight the Fakes Window

Having talked about the campaign, I was keen to know more about the lady behind the magazine…

What’s the most important thing to know about you?

I’m passionate about the things I believe in. I’m very direct about expressing those passions. I know that’s two things, but I think that would be what people would summarise me as. And I’m not as scary as people think. I just believe in “mean what you say and say what you mean”. But I’m Northern, so I call a spade a spade.

You trained as an architect, what tempted you into journalism?

The desire to communicate. Architecture is an amazing thing to study but I always loved magazines, I mean I absolutely loved them, but because I loved them so much it never occurred to me that they could be a career. They were this slightly other, slightly distant thing.

And then I was living in New York, working at an architects office and my neighbour actually worked for Elle and still the penny didn’t drop. I used to go and visit her in her office sometimes; to the point when I remember her editor striding by and saying “Don’t let them work you too hard”  and very slowly it filtered through to me that this could be a job.

But I’d started architecture, so I wanted to finish it. I came back to London, I did my Diploma, but I knew I didn’t want to practice. Although I loved architecture, I wasn’t passionate about it, not 100%. And being a true child of the media age, I didn’t want to wait until I was 50 until I’d done anything.

Whereas, the joy and it is still a joy, both a joy and a terror, of magazines, is that you keep doing more of them, so maybe you do one and you think maybe it wasn’t quite perfect, but it doesn’t matter, you’ll do another one, and another one.

It also comes with a huge responsibility, I’m given 300 pages with which to communicate, and I think that’s a tremendous honour, but it’s also a responsibility that I don’t take lightly.

I wanted to ask you about that, because it’s the sort of magazine that people count down the days until it lands on their doorsteps and then savour every spread. Does that feel like a weight on your shoulders, or is it exciting?

No, not a weight. I still get surprised when I see it on the newsstand and you realise that it’s out there. It means so much to me that people don’t like Elle Decoration, they love Elle Deco.

Elle Decoration has become a badge you wear, it’s a club you can join and I’ve always wanted it to be a very inclusive club. We won’t go down, but we do always say: “Come up, come up, it’s great up here.”

That’s also why I moved from trade publications to a consumer magazine, because I wanted to tell more people about this stuff, I don’t just want to preach to the converted. I do want to help people understand that if you make your home a wonderful place to be, your life will be better. And it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money: design isn’t about expensive stuff; design is about how things work. It’s as simple as having a place to put your keys when you come in, your bed being well made so you sleep better… It’s about having a decanter with a lid, so you don’t get shit in it!

And I do really care about those things, and I care about people buying only what they can afford, but quality over quantity, so buying the best they can afford. And I want to really encourage people to make their own choices. Anything can be great, really, if you love it, if you love it enough – as long as it’s not fake!

Conran Fight the Fakes Window

What advice would you give to an aspiring design writer? 

Just to care. Really, just to genuinely care about either the story that you’re telling, because you are telling stories. The advice I give people who are learning to write is to be genuinely excited about what you’re about to write about, because if you’re not excited about telling someone, you shouldn’t be writing it.

Our editorial policy is that we don’t write about things we don’t like. We make our point by exclusion. I don’t see a place for negative journalism unless of course, someone calls me to task about something on my blog, but within print, I want to celebrate stuff that I think is genuinely great and I hope we do so in a way that’s inclusive and informative.

And then write as if you were telling your Mum. Just think, how would you explain it? Because people tend to think they have to use long complicated words to appear intelligent. And all you’ve got to do is help people to understand what you’re trying to say. And that was a piece of advice given to me by one of my first editors when I worked at Blueprint. I was trying to describe a building and I was really struggling, and he just said, “What does it look like?” I said, “Well it’s kind of like a big shoe box with a pyramid on top.” He said “Just write that”. That was a real breakthrough moment for me.

Just keep it simple and tell the story and be authentic.

What’s the best part of the job?

I think probably discovering new talent. And that’s on all levels, whether it’s a writer, a photographer or a designer. But I think when you meet someone who is genuinely gifted… and interviewing the greats. Meeting and discovering talent.

I’ve always prided myself on being able to smell talent. But it has to be aligned with a pure motivation; that someone genuinely wants to make the world a better place, or create something wonderful, or have a distinct style. There are others who want to make loads of money and be famous, or be provocative, and I’m less interested in them.

You’ve had a pretty amazing career with a who’s who of design titles, your own MO Studio, you’re a V&A Trustee, what are you most proud of?

It reminds of me when people like Terence Conran are asked this question and they always say: “I hope it hasn’t happened yet.”

I have sometimes said that when I put out an issue of the magazine and I can say, “Okay, this one is perfect, absolutely perfect,” then I’ll stop. And I’m not sure it’s entirely a joke.

You’re relatively new to the world of social media, but you really seem to have embraced it.

Yes, I’m like the proverbial duck to water. I think it’s an incredibly natural medium for me. I love it. Facebook, I struggle with a bit more, but I think the opportunity and potential for magazines is huge, but again it does come with a responsibility, because you shouldn’t forget that it’s instant and potentially global.

Conran Fight the Fakes Window

How has social media changed how you work, the way you interact with your audience?

I think it’s probably made me a bit more approachable. I think it makes people behind magazines appear a bit more real, that we’re real people, that we really do go out and look at things and I have problems with my builder, and I can’t decide what paint to have, and I’ve changed my mind, that we’re not these… I’m not sure anyone thinks we’re perfect beings, but I don’t have all the answers. I find doing houses just as difficult as anyone else. In some ways it’s harder because you’ve got all the information coming to you.

Dessert island design; which three designed items could you not live without?

I guess I’d need a knife. Philippe Stark redesigned the Laguiole steak knife in stainless steel and it’s one of the only Stark designs I actually like.

You’d need something just beautiful, something ridiculously over the top from Fendi.

And something really practical like an umbrella.

I’m going to steal one of your questions and turn it back on you…five words to describe yourself.

Passionate. Optimistic. Honest. Determined. Proactive.

Finally, what’s your favourite colour?!

My Happy Yellow. Absolutely without a shadow of a doubt. Not that I wish to be surrounded by it everyday, but as a pure colour, I love it. But it has to be Mr Happy Yellow.

Further Reading for the Especially Geeky ::

Founding Editor – Katie Treggiden

Having established confessions of a design geek in 2010, Katie Treggiden has gone on to a career in design journalism, writing for titles such as The Guardian, The Telegraph, Elle Decoration, Stylist, Design Milk and Ideal Home. In 2014, she launched Fiera, an independent magazine dedicated to discovering new talent at the world’s design fairs. Her second book, Makers of East London, was published in 2015.

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