A mention of Playboy, for many, still conjures images of Hugh Hefner smugly swanning about in a silk burgundy smoking jacket; bunny-eared women with gravity-defying breasts; and that little bow-tied rabbit logo (created by designer Art Paul for issue two in 1954, and unchanged since).
Yet for all its now-outdated connotations of paraded “curves,” let’s not forget that the mag has boasted some serious journalistic pedigree: Alex Haley’s 1965 Martin Luther King Jr. interview was the longest the civil rights leader ever gave a publication. Steve Jobs was interviewed in 1985, way before he (and Apple) became such staples of the tech lexicon. And in 1956, Hefner hired Playboy’s first literary editor, Auguste Comte Spectorsky, who went on to solicit fiction and non fiction from the likes of Haruki Murakami, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Margaret Atwood, Roald Dahl, Joyce Carol Oates, and Truman Capote.
Today, the magazine is published around the world, thanks to the fact the Playboy name is sold as a license to different publishers in different regions. Each edition, in turn, has a separate design team. Which, for the French edition means that the aesthetic is that of a high-end arts publication, rather than a salacious “gentleman’s” magazine. And that’s all thanks to Parisian studio République.
A flip through Playboy France reveals experimental layouts, an innovative use of (often never-before-seen) typefaces, and, overall, a design direction that can absolutely be described as “tasteful.” Rigorous journalism is still at the fore, augmented by a design approach that looks to push the idea of what Playboy is, who it’s for, and what it looks like both on the shelf and between the pages.
République brought that considered and bold approach to Playboy’s design in mid-2018, when the team, helmed by founder Tom Uferas, was invited to pitch against to other studios to take over the magazine’s design from Bureau Parade. The Playboy gang was impressed with République’s work for the soccer magazine France Football, which took a far more artsy approach than the sweat, turf, and goals-dominated look of other sports publications.
According to Uferas, the previous designs were more influenced by Playboy France’s American counterpart (though they are two completely different entities). By contrast, the proposals that République put forward deliberately looked to wipe the slate clean and take an entirely fresh and “more premium” approach.
“We wanted it to be elegant, and without the same references to the American version—something really different,” says Uferas. “[Playboy France] also has a different positioning in terms of the subjects it talks about and the angles they’re taking.”
Uferas says that his team was given a lot of free rein in the direction it could take—“it was more, ‘you know how to do it, do it well, here’s the key to the house,’” says Uferas, who, until his studio won the pitch, had never actually bought an issue of Playboy in his life.
While in early 2016 the American Playboy launched the first of its issues that experimented with a “no-nudity” policy (this has since been scrapped), the new French designs have never shown much nudity, says Uferas. “That was very much the DNA of the magazine in the U.S., but in France the magazine is much more linked to titles like GQ,” he says. “It’s very open to feminism and women in general. Maybe it’s because [the magazine team] didn’t just want to make a magazine for men, but for women, too.”
With each of the quarterly issues, République creates an entirely new design concept—rethinking layout, typefaces, and the photographers and illustrators that are commissioned. Typography is central to the approach. The first issue of Playboy that République designed, issue seven, used Beausite by Fatype alongside classic 18th century serif Caslon. Issue eight uses Glossy by Bold Decisions and Lausanne by Nizar Kazan. Meanwhile, issue nine features Dinamo’s Ginto with Schick Toikka’s Noe Display. “With every issue, we see it as a kind of game,” says Uferas. “We like to use type that hasn’t been seen so much in the design arena yet, so we try to work with typefaces that haven’t been released and type designers who aren’t as well-known. We’ve got a lot of friends and collaborators who sometimes send us typefaces to try out on magazines, so it’s a win-win situation. For them, it’s a good way to promote their typefaces, and for us, we get to use these great new typefaces.”
While Playboy’s French design seems as much about type as the title’s legacy is about tits, I’m intrigued to know how Uferas weighs up the magazine’s history of objectifying women alongside its longstanding support of meatier journalism. “It’s obviously a very touchy subject, with the #metoo movement, Weinstein and those things,” he says. “We’re very invested in feminism, and that’s something we have in mind with the subjects Playboy talks about. The direction we’re going for is that there should be no difference for men and women in reading it.” Part of this direction involves actively commissioning female photographers to shoot the women featured in the magazine.
“When I said to my grandparents that we were working on the art direction of Playboy they thought ‘Oh my god, naked women,’” says Uferas. “But today, [print] people aren’t as interested in nudity. They can just go on the internet, they don’t need a magazine for that.”