“God, have you ever walked into a meeting and thought, This is not going to go well?” Code and Theory founder and creative director Brandon Ralph moaned. “That’s what it was like when we went to pitch to The Daily Beast.”
Sitting with him in his 5th floor SoHo offices, it was easy to imagine what the handsome and lanky 33-year-old was talking about. The Observer had come in to meet with the man who had been hand-picked by Tina Brown, Anna Wintour, Peter Brant, and Jason Binn to create their online platforms. With long, dark, wavy hair; leather bracelets; and a penchant for John Varvatos; Mr. Ralph looked more the part of a hip New York restaurateur.
He was quite press-shy: his only major interview since he co-founded his company in 2001 was with Ad Week, and he obliquely referred to not being happy with the results. In addition, some recent layoffs at Code and Theory had attracted unwanted attention by MediaBistro’s Agency Spy, leading Mr. Ralph to be even more reticent in front of a recorder than usual. So yeah, after five minutes in Mr. Ralph’s office, we actually could visualize a meeting that wasn’t going well.
“They were trying out four different design teams, and I think we were the fifth,” Mr. Ralph told The Observer of his first meeting with Ms. Brown’s staff. “We only had two days to prepare specs, and the whole presentation, people were just checking their watches.”
As they were about to be ushered out, a deus ex machina descended in the form of a bomb threat, forcing the whole building to evacuate. Somehow, Mr. Ralph and Ms. Brown were separated from the rest of their respective teams, and ended up at Cookshop on 10th Avenue, where they drank coffee and connected.
“We just sat at a coffee table, talking about designs and different approaches to the site,” Mr Ralph told The Observer, still incredulous over the series of events. “People kept asking how it went. I told everyone it was ‘very strange, but then very intimate.’”
“Twenty minutes later, we got a phone call telling us we were hired.”
But Ms. Brown and Mr. Ralph didn’t immediately see eye to eye on how to approach the digital news site’s layout. When Code and Theory presented a mock-up using gibberish—a standard design practice—the Newsweek editor demanded to see actual content in its place.
“We ended up having to create a new site mock-up every single day through the launch,” He grimaced. What he learned from the exercise was that his design couldn’t rest on sexy photos; it had to have energy even on a slow news day.
Ms. Brown remembered her first scuffles with Mr. Ralph as well. “He wasn’t used to clients saying they were coming down to the studio to sit in front of the screen and try stuff out,” she told The Observer. “He freaked out at first, then realized how fun it is to marry news adrenaline and digital design.”
Ms. Brown and Mr. Ralph still keep in touch. He refers to the media mogul as one of his greatest teachers. She, meanwhile, gushes about some of Mr. Ralph’s other impressive qualities.
“Brandon’s a heartthrob,” she told The Observer. “Every single woman in the office is a bit in love with him.”
Tina Brown’s colleagues aren’t the only ones vulnerable to Mr. Ralph’s charms. He and Lenny Kravitz became close personal friends after Code and Theory redesigned his web site and filmed and edited two of Mr. Kravitz’s music videos.
“I invited him and his wife down to New Orleans to visit me,” Mr. Kravitz told The Observer. “He’s brilliant designer and a great thinker and a great friend. He’s inspiring. We’re constantly emailing each other things, like photos of camera gear, architecture, art. We like to bounce things to each other. He’s got this amazing eye, for photography and design and everything.”
Mr. Ralph’s LennyKravitz.com is a fresh-looking aggregator of web content about the artist, one that employs bold hieroglyphics and symbols where there otherwise would be titles. Such a heavily accessorized look is risky these days, but somehow, it works—especially considering the rock personality it reflects.