Representing the creative future

Cecilia Dean: The woman behind art’s unrivalled publication, Visionaire

Cecilia Dean, the founder of Visionaire - the magazine that rose from tearsheets, the Yellow Pages and a desire to radically redefine the stagnant print format.

This article originally appeared in 1 Granary Issue 4

From a set of five 12-inch double-sided vinyl and a package of plastic toy figures to a crate of conceptual perfumes, artist-created breath strips and a cotton backpack, the fashion industry’s most intriguing publication, Visionaire, rarely commits ink to paper. (Standard-size paper, that is, lest we forget the seven-feet-tall “Larger Than Life” issue.) Since its inaugural issue in 1991, the publication has not just pushed the boundaries of print media – it’s become an all-encompassing experience that has piqued the curiosity of mainstream outlets.

Co-founder Cecilia Dean is similarly difficult to describe. Born in California, she spent her formative years on Long Island, shuttling regularly into the city. She eventually began modelling in Paris, before returning to Manhattan to matriculate at Barnard; Visionaire no. 1 arrived on Rizzoli’s shelves shortly after Dean graduated. Here, she discusses working closely with creative types and her escape from rampant consumerism.


What do you think are the keys to a good publication?

I think a “good publication” is an experience – something you want to keep and revisit and share with others – and we are in a world right now that’s challenging the publishing industry to reinvent itself. Many of the traditional print magazines out there could be online-only, and the Internet is a great thing. There’s so much information at your fingertips; at the same time, there’s so much going on that you have to either be a very good curator, or rely on other people to edit the experience for you. Magazines, after all, are edited. It’s a subjective version of what someone finds interesting about the world.

Mainly, I don’t believe in disposability. Printing is harmful to the environment – the loss of trees, the use of toxic inks, massive amounts of shipping – so you have to question the endeavour. You have to make it worth the effort.

What do you think should be printed?

Things that you would hold on to or that you keep referring back to. Visionaire started 25 years ago and we have the same DNA, but it’s evolved alongside the industry’s evolution, and in a funny way, I think it makes more sense now than it did before. Visionaire offers a total experience, and you cannot understand or appreciate it by looking at it online. You have to physically interact with the issues – you have to smell it, taste it, touch it, you have to play a record, you have to take it out into the sun and see it change colours. Plus they’re limited, they’re expensive, so it’s something that people buy and they keep. They share it with friends and have it on their coffee tables. It has a life of its own, instead of being tossed into the recycling bin.

You mentioned that you can’t experience Visionaire online, and at the same time, there’s this idea that the first issue especially was a sort of proto-Instagram. Are these two trains of thought incompatible?

In a funny way, we were kind of like a printed version of Instagram; a place where artists could share images. But, in another sense, we’re the antithesis to online, but in a good way – in a complementary way.


If you were beginning Visionaire now, what do you think the first issue would look like?

If I were like fresh out of school, I wouldn’t start it now; I think I’d probably end up going straight into online or film or TV. You know, starting a business always requires a certain amount of naiveté, and it’s hard for me to put myself back in my head of 25 years ago.

People should start something while they’re in school – whatever tickles them. Start something and you’ll figure it out along the way.  I don’t believe in ‘focus groups’ to figure out what is missing ‘in the market place.’ You need to do what you want to do, and if there’s an audience, that audience will appear. And if there’s no audience, that’s okay, you’ve done it for yourself. A lot of people think they need a business plan and investors, and you can’t get into that mindset or you just won’t ever do anything.

We had no money when we started Visionaire. We went to the printer ourselves, which we found in the Yellow Pages (that’s a printed phone book which probably doesn’t exist anymore), and there was remnant paper that was cheap because they couldn’t use it, so we did. And that’s why the first issue is made from different papers – it wasn’t some grand plan. We were very conscious of what artworks we were going to print on what paper, so it all looked good. And it’s loose partly because we couldn’t afford binding. We came from a culture of looking at magazines, tearing images out and putting them on the wall, so that was the story we told. You have to use all of the challenges and problems and roadblocks as a way to do something even better. There’s always a solution, you just have to find it.

Along those lines, what is some other advice you can share?

You have to know your history. I love our interns, but we do weekly brainstorms and they’ll suggest a certain artist or format, and we’re like, “That’s so old.” I teach a course at Parsons in publication design and I always tell students to bring in their source material and to not sit in their rooms and try to conjure up a layout. You need to look at things and copy, and eventually, you’ll massage it into your own. But you can’t do it with your peers. So if you want to do a magazine layout, you should not be looking at Vogue and copying that; you should be looking at a medical journal or an Ikea catalogue. Then it becomes interesting. You can talk about whether it works or doesn’t work, but there’s a dialogue to be had, and I think that’s really important to students.

One of my mantras – and I don’t know where it came from but it’s apropos to this generation – is do not e-mail anything that you would not mind being on the front page of The New York Times. I’ve lived by that since e-mail existed. Sometimes I’ll get upset about something and I’ll pound out an e-mail, but then I rewrite it in a constructive way, and I’ll ask myself, “If this were on the cover of The New York Times, how would I feel?” “Okay, I’d stand by it.” If you have to say something negative, you either have a meeting or you pick up the phone.

What fashion magazines do you read?

I don’t.

What do you read, then? What does your cultural consumption look like?

Books, as much as I can. I like to read The New Yorker – although it comes weekly so that’s too much reading for me. I read the Sunday New York Times, and I still get the physical newspaper delivered to my house. I skim WWD and Business of Fashion. I’m watching a lot of films and TV at the moment, because that skews more toward our interest as Visionaire evolves; we started VisionaireFILM a couple of years ago.

It’s interesting to watch things when you have an agenda in the back of your mind, because instead of watching for purely entertainment purposes, you’re trying to analyse it – why did that work? Why did I like this and why am I not liking this? I like miniseries; there’s “True Detective,” for instance. You have incredible movie actors and Cary Fukunaga, who’s a movie director. TV is now on par with film, which it wasn’t before. TV was the kid sibling, but Netflix and Amazon, and HBO and Showtime and AMC, they’re taking the TV genre into another sphere – and unlike a film, where you have two hours to get through everything, in a series, you have hours to develop characters and the plot and to set up scenes. You’re not racing against the clock.

Are there any editors that you look up to or looked up to?

Not really, I don’t think of myself as an editor. For the layman, it’s hard to understand what James Kaliardos and I do. I don’t know what the title would be, but editor seems so limiting – that means you get in a bunch of images and you’re editing them, picking the ones you like and the ones you don’t like. But we come up with concepts and then pair them with artists, get the artists on board, brainstorm with them, figure how to best present the images, what format is the physical manifestation of the theme, what is the experience.

In this new landscape, there are new roles, and I don’t know how these new jobs correspond to the titles out there. Young people are so obsessed with titles and I don’t know why. We never have been. I don’t care what anyone calls me; I know what I do.


How much freedom do you give to the artists you work with?

With the contributors, we try to give them something of a carte blanche, but there are always some parameters. If you say to someone, “You can do anything you want,” that’s actually very difficult because that person has nowhere to start from. For example, we have an issue that’s coming out that’s sculptural, so there are certain things they can’t do size-wise, but they also can’t do something super spindly. So then, I try to think of an artist who would get into that – maybe a pure photographer doesn’t get the sculptural thing, and I could go to a sculptor but that could be too literal – so I cast a wide net and see who comes forth. And, then, sometimes they’re inspired to participate and sometimes they’re not feeling it, so I whittle it down.

The issue that’s out now is called “Free”. It’s three sets of 12 posters that we’re giving away at public installations, so the parameters are dimensions, but also subject-wise, since these are public, we had to be a bit more conservative – no nudity, no illegal activities, no nefarious acts. You know, “You are a huge artist, you command hundreds of thousands of dollars for your artwork and you have an opportunity to give something to someone who would never be able to have one of your pieces, and we hope they’ll look up your name and learn about you and go down the rabbit-hole of art and change their life.” That could totally happen.

I think another thing that has separated Visionaire in the industry, from the beginning, is that we’ve always put photography on par with art. For us, it’s all strong imagery, but I think in the art world, photography is still considered a lesser format. Regardless, if people participate in Visionaire, it’s not because they’re getting paid oodles of money, it’s because there’s something in them that they want to share with our audience and in a way that they haven’t been able to share elsewhere. The challenge on our side is to come up with opportunities that they can’t say no to.

In terms of text, what is compelling to you?

We’re not really text people. It’s not our field of expertise. We had essays and poetry in Visionaire 38 (LOVE) that Christopher Bollen curated for us, since he is a novelist, so that made sense.  And our issue Visionaire 37 (Vreeland Memos) was a collection of Diana Vreeland’s memos when she was at Vogue. They’re very entertaining, but that was a body of work. Other than that, we don’t have much writing. We’re practically purely visual.


How important is your physical presence? How important is a strong look?

I don’t think it has anything to do with the job at hand, and if anything, we try to always push the name Visionaire, since it’s a team effort. I’m just out and about and I like nice clothes so I get photographed – and that’s great, it gets Visionaire out there even more. But I don’t think it’s a requirement in any way, and I certainly wouldn’t want a budding editor to think it’s somehow important. You can have a look, and that’s great, but if you don’t have the substance behind it, you’re not going to excel. No one’s going to care what you look like if you’re not doing anything relevant.

What motivates you to keep going?

At the end of the day, we wind up with a product that we’re really happy with. It’s funny because others see the product and think it’s so great, but we know what it should have been – like, it’s already been compromised so many times from the original vision, but it’s still better than anything that’s out there. I’m so confident with our issues. I think our issues are radical. No one has ever done anything that rivals Visionaire.