Fleur Cowles, founder and editor of Flair magazine

This story is part of our Weekend Reads series, where we highlight a story we love from the archives. It was originally published in issue #4 of Eye on Design magazine.

“Most women married to rich men hope for a yacht or racehorses or more jewels,” the legendary editor Fleur Cowles, then 88 years old, wrote in her 1996 memoir, She Made Friends and Kept Them. “But what I secretly longed for was the opportunity to create a ‘magazine-jewel’ which would reflect the real me.”

Cowles wrote those words from the tony Albany apartment complex near London’s Piccadilly Circus, where she lived in lavish style from 1955 until she died in 2009 at age 101. As her memoir title suggests, Cowles knew everybody. She was friends with diplomats, movie stars, and the Queen Mother, for whom she threw an annual birthday bash. She was a wealthy, worldly bon vivant with a bob the color of beachwood (in her earlier years it was the hue of clarified butter) and a trademark pair of oversized, tinted glasses, like she was keeping her eyes at all times protected behind the windows of a private limousine. She relocated from New York to England to be closer to her fourth husband, Tom Montague Meyer, who had made a fortune selling timber, and then she never left, spending the last half of her life serving on government committees and creating the American Studies department at Oxford University when she wasn’t hosting dinner fêtes for dignitaries.

Cover of Flair, All Male Issue, July 1950. Image courtesy of the Herb Lubalin Study Center.

But in 1996, Cowles was feeling nostalgic, and she spent much of it writing two books looking back at, analyzing, and commemorating a single year in her life: 1950, the year she created and edited a magazine called Flair. In addition to publishing her memoir, Cowles spent the year putting together a hulking, cherry-red coffee table tome called The Best of Flair, which rounded up all of her favorite spreads from the magazine. She always believed that Flair was her crown jewel, the project that would serve as a shorthand for her maximalist, sumptuous worldview. She called The Best of Flair her “longed-for ‘obit’”—if anyone was going to remember her, she wanted it to be through those pages.

She always believed that Flair was her crown jewel, the project that would serve as a shorthand for her maximalist, sumptuous worldview.”

In many ways, she’s gotten her wish; Flair is now something of a mythological talisman among writers and designers. Copies often appear for exorbitant prices on eBay, only to be snatched up by rabid bidders. People want to get their hands on the magazine itself, because it almost feels like it doesn’t really exist; it’s too fanciful, too playful. But seeing is believing: Flair was real, if only for an ephemeral, glamorous year.

Cover of Flair, August 1950. Image courtesy of the Herb Lubalin Study Center.

The magazine was remarkably innovative, and not just for 1950; Cowles wanted to make an object that was, above all things, tactile and surprising, like a children’s book for adults. The pages of the magazine had cut-out trap doors, pamphlet inserts, photo spreads with a flip-book full of captions running underneath the central image. The pages did not come in a single stock, but instead Cowles was known to pepper several types of paper throughout a single issue; the reader could flip from heavy cardstock to flimsy, onionskin newsprint to high-gloss fashion pages that felt almost slick to the touch. Over half of the 12 covers featured complicated cut-out overlays. The spring issue, which featured a painting of a rose on its cover (in her later years, Cowles would come to be associated with the flower), was particularly opulent: every single page smelled like tea roses. Cowles held nothing back when creating Flair: it was a sensory feast. You could touch it, smell it, marvel at its art direction, down to the carefully placed advertisements. If the technology had existed in 1950 for lickable paper, Cowles likely would have made the magazine edible, too.

“It was a sensory feast.”

Alexander Tochilovsky, the curator of the Herb Lubalin Study Center at Cooper Union, an archive devoted to iconic typographic and magazine design, keeps all 12 copies of Flair in the library, along with the Flair Annual, a hulking 1953 coffee table book that attempted to re-capture some of the magic of the magazine after its untimely death. He delights in showing off Cowles’ short-lived oeuvre to students. It breaks them out of their Helvetica ruts, he said, out of their constant worship of minimal, white space.

Spread from Flair, The Paris Issue, April 1950. Image courtesy of the Herb Lubalin Study Center.

Instead, Flair is an elegant cacophony, a jumble of color and ideas that worked due to the sheer intensity of Cowles’ vision. She was so hands-on that she oversaw every ad page in the magazine, often convincing companies to tailor their spreads to the editorial content inside. In the final issue, published in January 1951, she declared that the fashionable color of the season was “white wine,” an ivory shade with a slight yellow tint, like barrel-aged Chardonnay. Cowles, in a move that foreshadowed today’s magazine “advertorials,” urged several advertisers to subtly integrate the “white wine” concept into their printed material. The issue includes dozens of Chablis-tinged ads, like one for Warumba Cashmere, which encourages customers to pick up wooly sweaters in “sparkling, new Not Quite White,” or the Fouke Fur Co., which touted an Alaskan sealskin coat as “your white wine costume.” These almost subliminal messages lent Flair a sense of seamlessness; the ads were as whimsical as the papercuts and the surprise pamphlets, allowing the reader to experience the magazine as a holistic, unbroken fantasy.

Advert from Flair for white wine. Image courtesy of the Herb Lubalin Study Center.

Cowles launched Flair after convincing her third husband, Gardner “Mike” Cowles Jr., scion of the Cowles Media dynasty (which owned the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and the Des Moines Register at the time, as well as several national magazines) to hire her to work for Look, a general interest magazine that heavily featured photography in an attempt to compete with LIFE. Fleur Cowles, understanding that women were often the people purchasing general interest magazines (and by extension, the products advertised in them), infused Look with more fashion, cooking, and home decor content, which brought in a new audience and, according to one Vanity Fair report, increased the circulation to 310,000. This success allowed Cowles to ask her husband for what she really wanted: the capital to start her own publication, which she called “a class magazine,” a book that would be more aspirational than relatable for the typical housewife. She was tired of spreads about the best linoleum; she wanted to do an entire issue on Paris, or hire Ernest Hemingway to write a travel essay, or commission Colette to gossip about her love affairs. She wanted her magazine jewel.

And for one year, she had it. But outside forces wanted to see her fail. Editors at rival magazines tried to convince advertisers to stay away from Flair, threatened by the new, sumptuous, seemingly budgetless book in town. And pressures came from inside, too: some executives at Cowles Media felt that Fleur was exploiting her husband and siphoning off too much money from the company to feed her vanity project. According to Vanity Fair, by the time the magazine closed, Flair’s “before-tax losses had mounted to $2,485,000—averaging out to a 75-cent loss on each copy sold” (adjusted for inflation, that would be $24,972,560 in 2019). The profit loss led Mike to kill off Fleur’s beloved magazine. That, and the fact that Fleur soon found out that he was keeping a mistress, was the death knell for the Cowles’ marriage. Fleur tried briefly to revive Flair as a book series, but she could never rekindle the capricious alchemy that made the publication so singular in 1950, when she was taking wild risks with a blank checkbook.

Fleur Cowles with her husband Mike Cowles. Image courtesy of the Herb Lubalin Study Center.

These days, as printed matter grows more and more rarefied, Flair’s mythos looms ever larger. It was a marvel, even during a time when magazines were abundant. No one else was hiring Jean Cocteau to write a miniature book about Americans in Paris, or commissioning a series of irreverent Saul Steinberg portraits. No one else was perfuming their pages, or slicing them in half, or folding them into an accordion. No one else was cutting chunks out of their covers, or hiring Simone de Beauvoir to write a personal essay about the value of women’s time, or showcasing the work of emerging couture illustrators like René Gruau by inserting their body of work into the fashion well in the form of a removable portfolio.

In the battledome that is the attention economy, Flair still stands out like a peacock.”

Cowles’ work was so tactile, it feels distant from our world, but it also feels, in a way, like it was made for Instagram 75 years too early. In the battledome that is the attention economy, Flair still stands out like a peacock every time I see one of its covers or iconic spreads zoom past my eyes on social media. It still shimmers, with all the glamour and iridescence that Fleur Cowles longed to infuse into the world.

Cover of Flair, The Paris Issue, 1950. Image courtesy of the Herb Lubalin Study Center.