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One evening in Hawaii in 2009, a lanky young man named Nathan Williams led his girlfriend Katie into a forest near the beach. They were both students at the nearby Honolulu campus of Brigham Young University, and unbeknownst to Katie, that morning Nathan had come across a cozy bower and worked with a few friends to string up 200 battery-powered tea lights in the branches of a tree. After leading Katie into the clearing, Nathan proposed to her. She said yes, and then the two sat down to a picnic of “brie and crackers and cute little food,” Katie later recalled.
Two years later, Nathan and Katie, along with another Brigham Young couple named Doug and Paige Bischoff, founded Kinfolk, an $18 minimalist print quarterly that has become the go-to lifestyle magazine for a certain type of pour-over-loving millennial. Despite a relatively small circulation of 85,000 (for comparison, The Atlantic boasts 486,000; the New Yorker, 1,055,542; and Cosmopolitan, 3,015,858), Kinfolk can feel surprisingly omnipresent.
Walk into a tasteful design store, carefully curated fashion boutique, or immaculate Airbnb loft anywhere in the world, and you're likely to find its pristine pages laying in wait, the way bibles nestle in hotel drawers to comfort sinners. All the ideals that now make the publication so instantly recognizable were already present in Nathan's fairy-tale proposal: close friends, home-cooked meals, and a nostalgia for a simpler way of life.
Over the past five years, Kinfolk's signature aesthetic has birthed a sprawling empire. Its umbrella includes translated international editions, clothing lines, a boutique creative agency, and a new print title launching later this year, as well as two books, The Kinfolk Table and The Kinfolk Home, that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The last lifestyle magazine to arrive before multimedia social networks truly took hold, it's equally relevant in print and on-screen. On Instagram, #kinfolk and related hashtags like #liveauthentic collect millions of posts from loyal fans who style their own lives in the magazine's image.
It all inspires a certain mania. Mark Costello, a 28-year-old theater set designer in Baltimore, explained how he once bought The Kinfolk Table as a Christmas gift for his roommate, but in an O. Henry twist, the roommate had bought the same book for him. "We're Kinfolk addicts," Costello said. "It's important to have something to aspire to." But the magazine also incites derision. "How can anyone want to see so many pictures of Mormons eating in the woods over and over again?" one commenter on the blogger forum GOMI asked in 2012. An anonymous internet satirist made wypipo.com — phonetic for "white people" — forward to Kinfolk's website as a pointed joke.
Yet for all its ubiquity, the magazine retains a central air of mystery. Even regular readers are often unaware of its origins, and its editor-in-chief is all but publicly invisible. Which is why I went on a pilgrimage to Kinfolk's offices in Copenhagen to find Nathan Williams and figure out how an almost painfully reserved 29-year-old ex-Mormon from rural Canada bucked the slow death of print to create the lifestyle magazine of the decade, not just for Brooklyn or the United States, but the entire world.
Reading a lifestyle magazine is a way to learn about a particular way of life and participate in it at the same time.
It’s difficult to define a lifestyle magazine, but like pornography, you know it when you see it. The term "means everything and nothing at all," says Kai Brach, the founder of Offscreen, which might be described as a lifestyle magazine for technology workers, though Brach disagrees with that characterization.
Even Rosa Park, the founder and editor of Cereal, a Bristol, U.K.-based travel magazine launched in 2012 that's often mistaken for Kinfolk, explains the idea recursively. "They're suggesting a particular lifestyle to live by," she tells me. These guidelines exist in both content and form: reading a lifestyle magazine is a way to learn about a particular way of life and participate in it at the same time.
Some of history's earliest magazines might fall under the nebulous category. The Gentleman's Magazine, the first publication to call itself a magazine, was founded by the English printer Edward Cave in 1731. What set Cave's monthly apart from other publications of its day was its editorial scope: not just news, but also essays, book excerpts, Latin poetry, and profiles of secretive social clubs.
Unlike reading a newspaper, reading a lifestyle magazine is more an aesthetic than functional choice, a way of pursuing higher, or at least less immediate, interests like art, fashion, food, and good manners. A magazine's editors lead this aspirational pursuit and the readers never quite catch up. Even the image of a grand castle, Cave's home, on the cover of The Gentleman's Magazine seemed to hint at the rarified knowledge contained within. If you read this, you could live here.
Similar magazines spread across the newly independent United States, often bringing together wealthy professional communities like that of merchants and doctors, according to Heather Haveman, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley and the author of Magazines and the Making of America. "These people aren't going to meet face to face because they're geographically scattered, but they recognize when they're reading an issue, someone else like themselves is also reading the magazine," Haveman says. "It made them aware that they were not just in their own locality. They had an imagined sense of themselves in a community that was big."
Lifestyle magazines are treated as light fare, but they fulfill the deeper purpose of helping us define ourselves. A publication like Godey's Lady's Book, founded by Louis A. Godey in Philadelphia in 1830, included fiction and poetry, as well as recipes and how-to guides outlining a "moral, maternal lifestyle — this is how women should be," Haveman says. Editors published letters from loyal readers, and a consensus about how to live a particular kind of life formed over time.
What separates true lifestyle magazines from the likes of Harper's, the New Yorker, or even N+1, which might obliquely define certain ways of life, is the sense of commodified identity that can be found in a publication like Cosmopolitan, described by founding editor Paul Schlicht as a "family magazine" when it launched in 1886.
The lifestyle magazine demonstrates what to consume as well as how to behave, and this ethos has informed how newspapers define their lifestyle content as well. In the 1950s, the New York Times summarized its women's pages as "Food, Fashion, Family, and Furnishings." Jacqui Shine's comprehensive essay on The Awl shows how the women's pages gradually evolved into a "Living Style" section that the Times launched in 1978, now known simply as Styles, with its signature "ambiguous variety of cultural reporting and criticism," as Shine writes, a mix that continues to define lifestyle editorial today.
It's worth noting that many popular lifestyle entities were, and continue to be, directed at women; the relationship to the domestic often means that the term itself is unfairly gendered. However, it is in fact an equal opportunity genre. GQ and Esquire became the dominant lifestyle magazines for men during the later 20th century, with "lad mags" like Maxim and FHM flaring up in the '90s. Still more titles are unisex.
The category might be best summed up by what Adam Moss called the New York Times Magazine's iconic front-of-book section under his editorship in the 1990s: "The Way We Live Now." (Though the Times Magazine isn't a lifestyle magazine, Moss's FOB section as well as his current domain, New York magazine, reflect an aspirational urban mode of living.) The successful lifestyle magazine is a mirror that reflects the trends of our times back at us, only a little prettier, more polished, and less complicated. It is "designed to either turn one's life's preferences into cliches, or turn cliches into your life preferences," says Mental Floss executive editor Foster Kamer — often both at the same time.
In 2007, Tyler Brûlé, a former war correspondent and founder of the cult design magazine Wallpaper, launched a new publication called Monocle, Kinfolk's direct predecessor in both business model and influence. Brûlé realized that a lifestyle could be projected not just to a limited regional community, but to a global audience that would identify with his magazine (its current circulation is around 80,000). A wan hybrid of Vanity Fair, Foreign Policy, and a Hammacher Schlemmer catalog for the children of diplomats, Monocle espouses a masculine-leaning, jet-setting, connoisseurial lifestyle epitomized by its creator. Brûlé has also launched Monocle-branded cafes, bookstores, travel accessories, and clothing lines. "There is a sort of clubbiness to it," he recently told Nieman Lab.
By the mid-2000s, lifestyle magazines had become multi-platform lifestyle brands, moving from providing readers a sense of intangible community to creating the non-editorial products readers actually consume in order to solidify that sense of belonging. You can now buy a Monocle cardigan or croissant, or live in a pre-fab home designed by the shelter magazine Dwell. Print may have become less relevant with the advent of the internet, but businesses pushing aesthetically-conscious consumption are even more relevant as we document our every move on Snapchat and Instagram.
In the context of the magazines that came before it, Kinfolk's editorial format isn't particularly unique, with the standard essays, profiles, and interviews haphazardly arranged into categories like ‘Community,' ‘Work,' and ‘Play.' Its writing is also largely unremarkable, characterized by a certain gloomy woodenness that is at odds with its playful imagery.
But it's meant to be looked at more than read. The magazine's large format, embossed serif logo, striking covers, and heavy stock have come to define the latest generation of lifestyle magazines. It's now possible to find Kinfolk clones covering everything from mountain climbing to fatherhood to the joys of dog ownership. The copycats only serve to magnify the sense that Kinfolk really is everywhere.
Kinfolk itself is content with staying mysterious; it's part of the brand. The company doesn't release news about itself, and its websites are comically light on background information. After a month's worth of emails, however, Nathan Williams agrees to meet for lunch near the magazine's new headquarters in Copenhagen. (Still under renovation, the office is not yet "a comprehensive representation of the brand," the communications director Jessica Gray warns me.) I book a flight departing a few days later and land in a wintry city, the sky flat and gray like matte paper.
The next morning, I leave my hotel, a department store converted into lofts near the central train station, and walk along Copenhagen's winding streets. Kinfolk's aesthetic has long been associated with Portland, Oregon, where it was based until 2015, but if anything it's closer to the Danish city, with its quiet sense of history and emphasis on design. I'm not surprised to see the most recent issue of Kinfolk on prominent display in the window of a basement-level bookstore. It looks perfectly at home.
I meet Williams at Europa, a bustling restaurant that he suggested on Strøget, the pedestrian street that forms an outdoor mall running through downtown. I first recognize him in the square outside, a tall, strawberry-blond man dressed entirely in black (Japanese-looking slip-on shoes included), save for the white collar peeking out from his sweater. He looks like a particularly cosmopolitan prior.
We choose a table next to the window. Williams settles in his chair, crossing one leg over the other, his blue eyes staring directly into mine from beneath a high forehead and single perfect swoop of hair, and proceeds to move barely an inch for the next hour. I order a cappuccino, he a green tea, and then we look at the menu on the table, which is in Danish. "I don't speak Danish at all," he says. After requesting an English version, he eventually decides on minestrone soup, and I order something called "Nordic brunch," which I came to regret.
Williams was born in Magrath, a tiny town south of Calgary with a population of 2,300 where the principle local attraction is a grain elevator. Magrath was founded in 1899 by settlers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; they were recruited by the Alberta railway company to build an irrigation system in the area using expertise they developed in Utah and Idaho. The settlers were rewarded with the land for the town. "It was fine while I was there, I liked it," he says. "But I'll never go back."
Williams's careful posture and soft voice seem of a piece with his upbringing. He often pauses to think about or check on his words. During these pauses, he purses his mouth, glances into the distance, and then soldiers on, having confirmed the proper valence of his sentence, often murmuring "yeah" in agreement with himself.
The late aughts could be considered an apogee for lifestyle blogging, a more diaristic and less nakedly monetized medium than its print equivalent, and Mormons led the charge.
As a teenager, the editor wrote proposals to convince his parents to let him do things he thought they may not approve of, like drive before it was entirely legal for him to do so or reconfigure the wooden beams in the family's attic to make more space. Time floated around the house, but his favorite magazine as a teenager, he admits with a pained, self-aware grin, was Adbusters, a raucous anti-consumerist journal that might just be the polar opposite of Kinfolk. "I wasn't a rebellious kid," he says. "Maybe it satisfied a very small need for me to feel like a rebel. Reading Adbusters was as extreme as it got."
Beyond its Mormon credo, Williams chose BYU Hawaii for its strong international business program, helped along by a scholarship offer. There, Williams studied economics in the footsteps of his father, an economics professor, "but I knew that I wasn't really going to find something in that field I would enjoy."
Instead, he threw his energy into photography, working for the university newspaper and starting a now-defunct personal blog called Hearblack in 2008. Like Williams's candlelit forest rendezvous, Hearblack's Flickr archive displays a proto-Kinfolk visual vocabulary of portraits set against monochrome backdrops, pictures of Katie flitting like a sprite through the Hawaiian wilderness, and images of the driftwood assemblages the couple sold on Etsy. Through the blog, Williams came into contact with an online community of photographers and writers that shared his sensibilities, and sometimes his background as well.
The late aughts could be considered an apogee for lifestyle blogging, a more diaristic and less nakedly monetized medium than its print equivalent, and Mormons led the charge. That was when Dooce and its proprietor Heather Armstrong, "queen of the mommy bloggers," as the New York Times described her, hit peak popularity; Armstrong had attended Brigham Young University in Utah, but left the church before turning to blogging.
Around her were whole constellations of Mormon bloggers, mostly women, writing about their lives, all united by an austere, homespun-yet-elegant aesthetic. One Mormon design blogger attributed the craze to the religion's 13th Article of Faith: "If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things." It's a religious dictum of aspiration, but there was also a whitewashed quality to the enterprise, and not just because the bloggers were largely white: "Mormons are highly invested in preserving their image as wholesome, happy, and productive," as Armstrong once explained.
Mormon lifestyle blogging also intersected with the peak of flanneled artisanal hipsterdom that occurred around the same time. A 2012 article in Trinity College's Religion in the News chalked this up to the recession. Without money to spend, "millennials have begun to look towards social gratification as a means of self-worth," doubling down on close circles of friends and shopping at thrift stores for retro fashion.
In 2011, near the end of their time at BYU, Nathan, Katie, and their friends began discussing what sort of larger project they could undertake to fulfill their creative urges. They saw an opening for a Martha Stewart Living for twentysomethings, with a deeper dimension of lifestyle guidance than most younger-skewing magazines delivered. Popular titles "assume that a 22-year-old only wants to read about sex and music and whatever," Williams explains. "The idea was to create a title that did talk about things we thought were important, a focus on community, slowing down, quality of life."
Mormonism wasn't a direct influence, according to Williams. "The core values of the magazine are universal," he says. But also: "Any Christian upbringing would offer a similar background for those values."
The trademark Kinfolk aesthetic came from Williams's blogger milieu, a community that no other print magazine had captured at the time. "It looked like a lifestyle blog on paper, and people love lifestyle blogs," he continues. Many of the couple's blogger friends contributed essays and photography. Amanda Jane Jones, a fellow BYU alumnus who Williams discovered online, came on board to lead design. "It was just Nathan and I sending the files back and forth until it was launch time," Jones tells me.
"The core values of the magazine are universal. Any Christian upbringing would offer a similar background for those values."
The group created a website that went modestly viral, racking up over six million pageviews in a month, and signed with a San Francisco publisher, Weldon Owen, that advanced the printing costs and paid the company royalties based on sales. The model was nontraditional for a magazine, but it meant that Kinfolk was distributed through Simon & Schuster's book trade rather than newsstands, leading to its heavy presence in book stores.
"Most sales are still through book trade, maybe 60 percent, then 30 percent newsstand and 10 percent subscribers," Williams says. McNally Jackson, a popular indie bookstore in Manhattan, sells up to 200 copies of every Kinfolk issue. "It's definitely one of our customers' favorites," says the store's magazine buyer Courtney Kavanagh.
By the time Kinfolk's first issue came together, Williams had already graduated and was staying in New York City for an orientation at Goldman Sachs, with an accounting job waiting for him in Salt Lake City. "I really didn't like the work or the position," he says. "New York terrified me." Realizing his nascent publishing career would conflict with brutal first-year finance hours, he quit to concentrate on the magazine full-time and headed back to Honolulu.
The first issue of Kinfolk was published in July 2011 with the tagline, "a guide for small gatherings." It featured an epigraph from Walden and mantras like, "I want the fabled peace and serenity of being alone, rather than the constant hunger for action." Almost every person pictured in the issue is well-groomed, white, and statuesquely androgynous. They bake muffins, jot ideas in notebooks, frolic with their dogs in fields, and take trips to their cabins. It's Edenic, if your idea of paradise comes from a particularly antiseptic young adult novel.
The magazine shipped a few thousand copies at first, then more each successive issue. Feeling the restrictions of working from Hawaii, Nathan and Katie moved to Lincoln City on the Oregon coast near Katie's parents. Their BYU friends Doug and Paige Bischoff followed, living in the basement of the house the other couple had rented. "At the time we were extremely poor," Doug recalls to me over the phone. "I figured I was young, didn't have much to lose."
With issue sales mounting into the tens of thousands, the team moved to Portland in September 2012, where they brought their staff up to a dozen and launched an event series that saw official Kinfolk dinner parties hosted all over the world. These were documented in easily parodied videos in which, for example, a picnic table perfectly set for 12 suddenly appears atop a picturesque cliff that the attractive diners later leap off of into the ocean.
Kinfolk hit a cultural nerve that went far beyond the print magazine. "I don't think we created anything new, maybe it's just collected in a certain spot and presented in a certain way," Williams says. "How many people post and share Kinfolk on Instagram, it's kind of bizarre. It turned into its own beast that we have no control over." Williams doesn't have a personal Instagram and the official magazine account only posts once or twice a week, but #kinfolk is used about once a minute.
Of course, with popularity also came detractors. "When Kinfolk first started out, I was excited about it because I thought it would elucidate a lot on food culture but in a more social way," says Jenny Hong, a spirits buyer in New York City. "But it became this lifestyle magazine that motions to nothing."
Its signature aesthetic turned into a cliche. Blogger Summer Allen launched a Tumblr called The Kinspiracy to gather evidence of Kinfolk devotees posting photos of the same objects — lattes, boots, glasses, bikes, the magazine itself — on Instagram over and over again. "It's a cult," Allen wrote on Gawker. The description for the Tumblr reads, "Kinfolk Magazine: Making white people feel artistic since 2011."
"They've asked me to shoot for them before, and I've said no because I hate them so much. It's only for white people, only for this certain privileged class of people that do these things."
"They've asked me to shoot for them before, and I've said no because I hate them so much," says Atlanta-based photographer Andrew Lee. He posits that the lifestyle symbols that Kinfolk emphasizes are blatantly exclusive: "It's only for white people, only for this certain privileged class of people that do these things."
The magazine's oppressive neatness also seemed like a mold followers had to fit into, performing for the sake of an Instagram photo. "Everyone feels like every little part of their life has to be perfect. Nothing looks real anymore," he continues. "You spend 20 minutes setting up your morning coffee with a copy of Kinfolk on a marble countertop."
At Europa the food arrives, and the dish the waitress sets in front of me is like a piscine amusement park, with rolls of smoked fish, bright-orange roe, pâté, and little pastries. It was something a lifestyle blogger might treasure, but its intricacy renders it impossible to eat. I saw away at the various assemblages and feel increasingly embarrassed with the resulting mess on my plate as Williams neatly spoons his minestrone. "That looks fun," he says.
The editor is acutely aware of his magazine's reputation. "We have our haters. There's definitely a misconception that Kinfolk is more of an aesthetic and less of a," Williams pauses at length before continuing, "company, or publication with at least some substance. The idea that some folks think it's full of editorials of girls running through daisy fields with flower crowns, which, it's not. God, no."
Kinfolk's editorial mission has morphed into a larger pursuit of what Williams calls "intentionality": "figuring out what's most important to us and then finding a way to actually spend our time and energy on those things." As Doug Bischoff puts it, "It's kind of self-help content, but done in a way that appeals to our readership, paired with interesting writing and art direction."
The magazine confronts our never-ending search for authentic connection, particularly in the internet era. "We're on our laptops, on our phones all the time, that in itself is fine," Williams says. "But the flip side is that it does create an appetite for real life, for relationships, for genuine bonds with the people around us. Kinfolk leverages that appetite." For the duration of our lunch, Williams's out-of-date iPhone doesn't emerge from his pocket once.
This notion of authenticity has resonated around the world. Sales were strong in Japan even from the initial issues, and media companies there as well as in China, Korea, and Russia eventually inked syndication deals to translate and produce their own editions of Kinfolk, with careful oversight from the Portland team. Through an agent in Japan, the company hooked up with the local brand Actus to produce a line of clothing, austere outfits that a friend of mine visiting Tokyo described as "a cross between Muji and Everlane," as well as a series of ascetic housewares, both under the label Ouur Collection. With the name "Ouur," "the idea is we're bringing together likeminded designs and ideas," Williams says. But the significance of the name "just kind of turned into bogus."
When I ask him why he thinks Kinfolk has such a broad appeal in so many forms, Williams is split between the magazine's message and its image: "Since the beginning of Kinfolk, a lot of it is take a break, think about what you're doing, do you actually want to be living the life that you're living? But it could be the trendy Instagram photos that makes it sell in Korea. That would be disappointing."
"It could be the trendy Instagram photos that makes it sell in Korea. That would be disappointing."
Like Monocle before it, Kinfolk's brand has become its core product. To manage its magazine, clothing, and creative agency businesses, Monocle created an umbrella corporation with the Bond villain-worthy name of Winkorp. In 2013, Williams launched Ouur Media, a "lifestyle publisher and agency creating print and digital media for a young creative audience."
"There are things we wanted to do that didn't make sense under Kinfolk," says Williams. "We wanted to keep it at least somewhat independent, so we created the parent company."
Ouur Studio is the company's breadwinning commercial agency, which leverages the aesthetic of the magazine to produce publications, videos, and installations for companies ranging from West Elm, Zara, and LG to condo developers in Hong Kong. Brands want to buy the Kinfolk sheen, and as with any modern magazine, it's for sale. "There's that symbiotic relationship, the quality of our publishing projects is going to send more clients our way," Williams says.
To that end, Ouur is also working to launch its second print title, an interiors magazine. Other new titles around themes like travel and entrepreneurship will follow over the next few years, all targeted to the 25-35 age demographic.
Since it never took outside investment, Ouur has no public valuation as a business, and there are few comparable media companies so small and yet with such a large purview. Monocle is valued at over $115 million, given a $5 million-plus investment from the Japanese media company Nikkei in 2014 (it was profitable to the tune of $800,000 before that, in 2013), but Kinfolk features less advertising than Monocle and Ouur Studio so far lacks the scale of Monocle's partner Winkreative, which caters to large clients like newly-launched airlines and the city-state of Singapore. Sumeet Shah, a senior associate at Brand Foundry Ventures, a firm that works with retail and media startups, puts Ouur conservatively at $75 million, a figure echoed by other industry experts. And remember: Williams and his friends own all of it.
Ouur is modeling itself on businesses like BuzzFeed, Vice, and Vox (parent company to Racked), among many other media companies subsidizing their original editorial content with creative studio branches. While they might not all be classified under lifestyle media, these companies' publications both create an aspirational editorial outlook for their readers and sell that back to brands, which increasingly resemble media companies themselves — a trend that has peaked with businesses like mattress maker Casper and razor startup Dollar Shave Club launching their own lifestyle publications. For both brands and media companies, identity is becoming the product, and Kinfolk has created a tighter sense of identity than most ever could.
Williams's magazine is an international powerhouse. "We could easily be just fine with Kinfolk, have one or two employees," Bischoff tells me. "Nathan's extremely humble, but he doesn't stop." With the growth, Portland started to get claustrophobic. The community didn't feel supportive of Ouur's success; "I was in kind of a rut for a while," Williams admits. Last summer, the team chose Copenhagen as its new home, over alternatives like San Francisco and London (Williams still hates New York).
There was the business to think about. "Before we were here, probably three-quarters of the shoots and work we were producing was between Copenhagen and Stockholm and London," he explains.
The lifestyle was better in Denmark, too. As Kinfolk might also imagine its readers, the Danes perennially rank among the happiest people in the world. "The work-life balance, it's definitely a good fit for that. Most Danes don't work past 3," Williams says. Alongside the Danish emphasis on family, which Bischoff appreciates as he and his wife raise their two small children, there's a "borderline laziness," he says, then stops short. "I shouldn't say that. They know how to spend their time wisely."
"Even their 'Imperfect' issue was perfect in every way, shape, and form."
Williams changed along with his company. As recently as 2012, he identified with Mormonism, but no longer does, nor does Katie (Doug and Paige Bischoff are the only two Mormons left on staff, Williams later writes over email). When I ask him to elaborate, he declines, preferring to leave religion out of the conversation. It's clear, however, that Kinfolk has also become more inclusive.
These days, its models are much more diverse, surpassing many other lifestyle magazines when it comes to casting for editorials. Its content has evolved, expanding further into design, fashion, and the nebulous concept of "creativity." It's a magazine for the international culture producer that Williams has become. The new iteration of Kinfolk is "more adult, more moneyed. It feels older, as often happens when the editor grows up a bit," says Lia Ronnen, the editor of the magazine's two books with the publisher Artisan.
I ask Williams if these editorial shifts were an intentional effort to change the magazine's early notoriety as a bastion of white hipsterdom. "The first few issues it was really just an oversight," he says. "If 90 percent of our shoots are happening in Copenhagen, Stockholm, Portland, I know people don't like to hear it, but they're actually not very diverse communities. That's no excuse. You make it work, you figure out how to properly represent your readership. That's what we're doing now."
Yet there remains a sanctimoniousness to Kinfolk. It portrays a right way of doing things set against an invisible wrong, packaging anxieties over topics like family, friendship, and connection in the guise of rustic tablescapes and drapey garments. Even if its models are more diverse, the magazine still has a pervasive air of whiteness about it, in the overall aesthetic homogeneity and the quest for a self-professed "purity." As photographer Andrew Lee notes, "even their ‘Imperfect' issue was perfect in every way, shape, and form."
Kinfolk still offers a one-size-fits-all-who-seek-it lifestyle solution with little tolerance for mess. The increasingly rarified image of luxurious simplicity that it projects is far from possible, desirable, or even recognizable for everyone.
After we finish eating, Williams leads me to the nearby Ouur office on the second floor of a centuries-old building surrounded by electronics, clothing, and design stores, including the stylish Danish housewares brand Hay (Vice also keeps an office down the street).
It's mostly empty, with a few white desks grouped in a narrow central area between a front gallery, rear kitchen, and conference rooms on the side. Williams introduces me, and the staff cheerfully says hello in unison; Katie sits at one desk with a laptop. The office's blank walls are painted a nameless mottled gray-brown. Like a cocoon, the monochrome feels claustrophobic.
A few days after meeting Williams, I moved from my hotel into an apartment in Nørrebro, a hip neighborhood across the river from downtown Copenhagen. An open studio with tall ceilings and expansive windows, it's described as "Boheme New Yorker style" on Airbnb. As I wandered across Copenhagen from artisanal coffee shop to curated bookstore, I thought about why I want the things I want: an industrial loft apartment, a precisely poured cortado, intimate dinner parties — all things that show up in Kinfolk.
I learned these aspirations through magazines, novels, television shows, and the tastes of my friends. Lined up, they seem like the punchline of a joke at my own expense, the reduction of an identity to a few arbitrary objects, and yet I feel an unjustifiable loyalty to them as mine.
Lined up, they seem like the punchline of a joke at my own expense, the reduction of an identity to a few arbitrary objects, and yet I feel an unjustifiable loyalty to them as mine.
I stop in Atelier September, a cafe and furniture boutique in a stately old storefront. With soft lighting, mid-century modern designs, and marble countertops, it exudes characteristically Danish hygge, the trendy term for coziness. But my mind kept wandering back to Kinfolk, which had become a kind of scrim warping everything in its own image.
From a beatific barista I order avocado toast, a culinary trope of the magazine's audience. It had a local twist, the avocado shellacked like fish scales on dark Danish rye bread, and tasted transcendentally good. Maybe it was the jet lag, but bathed in the mild light of the gray day falling on the marble, I momentarily felt like a better person, or at least more like myself. Then I Instagrammed my cappuccino and it shot past 30 likes, a personal hit.
A lifestyle is made up of a shared vernacular. My Instagram was so popular because my friends recognized a quiet coffee in a foreign city as a badge of the lifestyle that we aspire to. Perhaps these days we demonstrate our mutual recognition by exchanging likes rather than buying magazine subscriptions. Aspiration is mediated by digital technology rather than print. We model our lifestyle goals in Instagram photos because the medium is so accessible. We can publicly participate in our chosen lifestyles all the time, constantly signaling our belonging and getting affirmation in return, creating our own communities rather than waiting for the directions of an editor.
This is ultimately why Kinfolk worked so well. It created a lifestyle with familiar, do-it-yourself tokens — the unfinished wood tables and mason jars and dinner parties — fit for a world in recession, and subsumed them within an iconic visual style that was equally easy to participate in through social media. Kinfolk also came into existence just as we started using platforms like Instagram aspirationally, translating the aesthetics of the glossy print page onto the even glossier screen and making them our own in the process. As Williams admits, he lost control of what "Kinfolk" communicated. It means more to people as a label than as a substantive movement or even a magazine.
The #Kinfolk community is united less by particular ideas about how to live than a superficial visual style. It enforces monotony rather than embracing differences of identity. The same emblems of aspiration can now be found in Brooklyn or Copenhagen as easily as Tokyo, Lisbon, London, or Istanbul, and Kinfolk is always there to provide them, piggybacking on the meme it has become.
The challenge that Williams and Ouur face is how to reclaim an image of self-affirming authenticity when the perspective that once made them unique is now universal. It's the hipster paradox: you can't be both nonconformist and part of a massive, global group.
"Convergence is possible only at the price of shedding identity," architect Rem Koolhaas wrote in his 1995 book, The Generic City. "Identity is like a mousetrap in which more and more mice have to share the original bait, and which, on closer inspection, may have been empty for centuries."
There's a kind of schadenfreude to watching the meaning drain from a lifestyle aesthetic, in the fading relevance of latte art and avocado toast. Lifestyle is like high fashion — you can only chase it in its wake, catching fleeting moments. I started to wonder what Williams himself was chasing, so I met him again one night at his office.
On my way over at 6 p.m., night had already fallen and I walked against a tide of Danes biking home from work. The office was empty; Williams showed me to a back room and brought in two stoneware mugs of herbal tea. He had just returned from representing Ouur at Maison Objet, a Paris fair dedicated to "the art of living," and wore the same white-on-black outfit as before, but seemed more relaxed, reclining in his chair.
I asked if Kinfolk still represented a personal ideal. "A lot of the stories or a lot of the ideas that we run are still very aspirational for me. It would be really pretentious of me to think that I represented it," he said. "But every issue of the magazine from the early ones until now is very much in line with my preferences, my style, the people I'm interested in."
The editor doesn't live an immaculate Kinfolk life. Williams watches Seinfeld at home after work and follows along with the latest potboiler TV: The Good Wife, The Black List. Rather than novels, he reads the usual business books on entrepreneurship, leadership, and running a creative team. But he still has to determine how Ouur will direct the Kinfolk-y aspirations of its audience, present and future. The vision of a lifestyle must constantly be refined, made to appear effortless, timely, authentic, and unaware of its own artificiality. To better explain his goals, Williams shared a moment of clarity he had experienced earlier that day.
"I was sitting in a cafe in Paris this morning, and it was just perfect. They didn't try; it wasn't an interior designer who created the space. It's been there for 50 years, the waiters were all men in their 50s, they've been doing it forever. The guy next to me is a screenwriter or something. There's a little dog over there," Williams said, eyes glowing in the dark office and a rare smile coming to his face. "A moment like that, soaking it in, that's perfect. I think every experience like that helps us define what the brand is that we're creating. Not just the look, but the lifestyle, the quality of the values. It'll be a while before I don't feel like there's aspiration and inspiration here."
Kyle Chayka is a writer living in Brooklyn.
Editor: Julia Rubin
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Summer Anne Burton launched the Kinspiracy Tumblr. We have updated the piece to reflect it was Summer Allen.