It has been five years in the making. Architectural Digest’s May “Design Makes a Difference” issue hits shelves and screens today and reveals a massive design project that is both tragic and uplifting, but most importantly shows the power within the design community to transform the lives of people in need.
In 2017 Amy Astley, AD’s current Global Editorial Director and U.S. Editor in Chief, was introduced to New Story, a nonprofit that fights homelessness by building homes for the most vulnerable populations around the world. Together, the team identified Haiti as a country with a significant need as many of its citizens were left homeless and vulnerable after the 2010 earthquake.
“When I took this job, I felt strongly that AD had to expand the dream and comfort of ‘home’ to more people than just the fortunate ones in our magazine,” says Astley. “I really wanted AD’s brand, our name, our power and our sweat to get behind something – not just taking a table at a gala.”
The goal? To raise $650,000 to build 100 homes in the rural village of Titanyen, a poor, isolated community about an hour north of Haiti’s capital. Astley and her team tapped their network of readers, architects and designers to raise the funds. Using local materials and artisans – providing a much-needed boost to the local economy – and withstanding a presidential assassination, social unrest, natural disasters and Covid, the team triumphed. Five years after first announcing the initiative, AD has officially introduced the AD Village, providing about 500 previously underhoused Haitians with a permanent roof over their heads.
The team consulted with locals to best understand their lifestyles and needs. Each 500 square foot home is built to code and gives families direct access to water, sanitation, and electricity. Furthermore, each home accommodates multiple generations, has a bathroom (which is rare), offers communal outdoor cooking areas (many cook with charcoal) and provides privacy, safety and protection from the elements.
“We do share the fantasy of incredible homes with our readers and it’s fun – it’s worthwhile on so many levels,” says Astley. “But I wanted AD to be a little bit more – we have to share the wealth. We can’t change the world, but we can house 500 people and that’s impactful.”
Architectural Digest – The Modern Grand Dame
Astley’s push toward more philanthropic work fits into her overall strategy of modernizing the iconic brand. “The brand is now over 100 years old. It is stately and elegant. It does show the best in design globally. But it can be more than that. It can be for young people, it can be philanthropic, it can be fun. It has the gravitas to be more than just the stately Grand Dame. I wanted to young it up a bit.”
And “young it up” she did. Astley has made significant changes to the brand since she arrived in 2016, including:
Making AD part of the cultural zeitgeist – Astley believes it’s important that AD be part of the cultural buzz and that its content be relevant. Last month’s cover featured Shonda Rhimes and her Open Door tour, which coincided with the release of the second season of Rhimes’ hit series Bridgerton. “I want our content to be relevant to a broader group of people, not just an industry portfolio.”
Increasing the digital footprint – When Astley arrived at AD, the brand didn’t have much of a digital presence. “We didn’t make videos; we didn’t have the Open Door video franchise and we only had a tiny social media footprint. Now we have a fun social media footprint that drives traffic to our website and drives ecommerce. Our digital presence modernizes the brand and allows us to reach more people.”
Providing content that facilitates a modern lifestyle – Astley believes that the pandemic has made us all “house obsessed.” People want to know how best to work from home, teach school from home, workout from home and entertain at home. And she is committed to providing content that helps her readers do just that. Her number one tip? Plants. “I acknowledge that most readers can’t afford the homes in AD, but there are easy and affordable ways to bring your space to life – like plants. And plant content is all over the AD site.” She calls them affordable luxuries and says plants, and paint, are the two most widely searched terms on the AD site.
Appealing to a broader audience – In 2020 AD relaunched Clever, a digitally-native offshoot of the brand that appeals to a younger, design savvy audience. The newer brand shares real life design tips, has a more instructional vibe and has a major focus on ecommerce.
AD’s newly revealed village in Haiti isn’t AD’s first foray into using design to make a difference – the brand previously remodeled the dancers’ lounge at the American Ballet Theater in New York City. Nor will the AD village in Haiti be their last. “We’re zeroing in on our next project – but we’re not quite ready to announce it yet,” says Astley. “It’s part of the same strategy of design doing good, of design making a difference in communities. Next time will just be a different community with different needs.”
Of this new Haitian community, Astley couldn’t be prouder. “For me to see that AD actually did this – outside of our day jobs of producing content – is so meaningful. It just makes me joyful.”