In the mid-1980s, the Canadian design landscape was relatively barren – not in talent, but in media infrastructure. A newly trained crop of talented interdisciplinary designers, many of whom had graduated into a lingering recession, had few opportunities to showcase their ideas. For many of them, that would soon change when Nelda Rodger, working with her partner Sergio Sgaramella, co-founded Azure magazine in 1985. When Ms. Rodger died on Jan. 4 at age 70, after a lengthy illness, the magazine had become her legacy, and a major component of the Canadian design ecosystem.
“They had this impossibly optimistic goal to put Canadian design on the map, to make a magazine that could compete with any design magazine in the world,” Toronto industrial designer Miles Keller recalls. And yet within a few years, that’s exactly what Ms. Rodger and her partner were able to do.
For Mr. Keller and other emerging designers, including Helen Kerr, Scot Laughton, George Yabu, Glenn Pushelberg and Karim Rashid, all of whom would later build international careers and reputations, Azure was a godsend.
“She gave us a voice and forced us to take ourselves more seriously,” Mr. Keller says.
Ms. Kerr, now the principal of Toronto-based KerrSmith Design, notes that Ms. Rodger helped the wider community recognize the functional and economic importance of design: “Business people read Azure and learn that making a successful project is more complex than hiring somebody cheap to copy a product that somebody else made.”
Nelda Rodger was born in Sault Ste. Marie on Jan. 28, 1952. After studying English literature at York University in Toronto, she began a career in fashion, importing clothing from Italy. As her interest in design deepened, she moved to Milan to attend the Istituto Marangoni, where she learned to make patterns for clothing. It was there that she met a young Italian freelance journalist, Mr. Sgaramella, who would soon become both her life and business partner. In 1983, they welcomed their son Francesco, moved to Canada, and soon afterward began gestating the future magazine. It was two-year-old Francesco who suggested “Azzurro”– the title of a Paolo Conte song – as the name for their new journal.
In 1985, the couple launched Azure as a simple 11-by-17-inch broadsheet, written and edited from their home in Toronto’s Corso Italia district while they juggled part-time jobs and, in 1987, the arrival of their second son, Matteo. “It was not heroic to us, just what and where we could do,” Mr. Sgaramella recalls. They brought the finished artwork to a nearby print shop on Vaughan Road, and then drove around the city into their Renault 5 to distribute the journal to the post office and select outlets.
With Azure, Ms. Rodger worked to present a comprehensive view of all design disciplines – interior, fashion, furniture, industrial, architectural and graphic. She and Mr. Sgaramella also aspired to reach a much broader readership, beyond the design professions and beyond the Canadian border. At design conferences and trade shows, she was easily spotted in the crowd by her hair, a storm of auburn waves that became a kind of logo exemplifying “the roar of Nelda,” as Mr. Pushelberg puts it. “She was like a lion, and her hair was like a lion’s mane.” Her willful hair became a signifier of her position in the design world: not a fashion-conscious stylist but a hard-driving thinker.
By the late 1990s, Ms. Rodger had evolved the once-humble broadsheet into a sleek magazine with a full editorial staff, an international roster of freelance contributors (including, for several years, this reporter), a downtown headquarters, and an audited circulation of 15,000. Azure was named Magazine of the Year in 2000 by the National Magazine Awards Foundation.
She worked intensely – sometimes mercurially, losing the occasional staffer in the process – but her headstrong determination paid off.
“Year after year, [the magazine] became more professional, and began to connect Canada to the rest of the world,” says Karim Rashid, one of earliest subjects of Ms. Rodger’s editorial attention. Mr. Rashid evolved into one of the highest-profile designers in the world, working around the globe and designing everything from hotels to hand soap (among much else, all those curvilinear plastic bottles of Method brand soap). He credits Ms. Rodger’s early coverage for helping bring him and his work to the attention of the international community.
In addition to industrial and interior design, Ms. Rodger steered Azure into the social arena of our broader manner of living. “She spearheaded issues on themes like water and food, areas that were not really considered to be within the scope of design,” at the time, notes Azure’s current editor-in-chief, Elizabeth Pagliacolo. Sustainable design, urban farming and 3D manufacturing received extensive coverage on her watch, long before the subjects became ubiquitous in other publications.
“She loved big ideas,” adds Jessica Johnson, who worked as Ms. Rodger’s senior editor for a year before spending over five years as editor-in-chief of The Walrus magazine. “She wanted to get conversations going about the future: how we live now and how we should live.”
Ms. Rodger saw herself as a peer, not a publicist, to celebrated designers, many of whom are as famous for their egos as for their output, and she wasn’t afraid to call them out on occasion. “She was a provocateur,” says Mr. Rashid, who was admonished by Ms. Rodger when he published his 2001 monograph, grandly titled I Want to Change the World.
“She told me that the title of my book was arrogant,” Mr. Rashid recalls, “but I like people provoking me, because it makes me think.”
By the turn of the millennium, Ms. Rodger was already calibrating the precarious future of print magazines, and strategically expanded the product range of Azure Publishing Inc. to include a digital format of the magazine and a quarterly guidebook, Designlines. In 2011, she launched the AZ Awards, an international competition open to architects, landscape architects, designers, students, and manufacturers around the world. Both brought in crucial revenues while entrenching Azure’s status as an international entity. By 2016, the company was flush enough to move its headquarters into a renovated 5,600-square-foot brick warehouse in the city’s Lower Junction Triangle.
“For anyone to have any success in this world, it comes from passion,” Mr. Rashid says. “When you’re deeply involved and passionate about a subject, you can create something truly meaningful. And Nelda was so passionate about it all.”