In Memoriam: Rick Staehling, Groundbreaking Art Director and a Gem of a Human

I’ve been with Western Living magazine since 2003 (and Vancouver magazine since 2016), and the magazine has gone through a lot of redesigns and changes since I started as a junior editor. It’s fairly standard in this industry that the team refreshes or redesigns the brand every few years. One thing that didn’t change for over 20 years? WL‘s logo—and that was the gift of former art director Rick Staehling.

Rick passed away from lung cancer this past weekend at the far too young age of 73. 

The longevity of that logo was a testament to his talent. When we decided to go with the WL moniker a few years ago, we quietly retired it, but looking at it now, it still feels relevant and enduring. That’s Rick.

He had two tours with Western Living and Vancouver magazines, from 1974 to 1982, and again from 1987 to 1994. He’d also pinch hit for us over the years, when an art director was on a training session in NYC, and another was on medical leave. And he was incredibly gracious each time—despite having many decades’ more experience than the staff he was working with, he insisted he was there to support them however they needed it. “I was really struck by his generous spirit,” says WL‘s former associate art director Marilee Breitkreutz. “And how he made all work seem effortless.” 

“We always knew there was an issue that needed our attention (or a film that needed to be discussed) when he’d come down that little hallway and take his glasses off—it was a silent cue,” says former associate editor Lila MacLellan, who’s now a reporter with Quartz in NYC. “Now that I’ve worked at so many offices, I realize how lucky I was to have that WL and VanMag experience with people like Rick.”

A film that needed to be discussed—that was a prevailing passion for Rick. “I remember when [former editor] Carolann, on Rick’s recommendation, had been watching all the old Douglas Sirk films,” says Bruce Grierson, former writer and editor with WL. “Rick called her into his office. And I heard him say, very seriously: ‘I think you’re ready for Otto Preminger.’ That became a catchphrase in our household, for whenever someone’s ready for the next stage of development. ‘I think you’re ready for Otto Preminger.'”

“To an impressionable young rookie, Rick embodied a sort of old school art director persona, one who wore neckties to work, would peek over his tortoise shell readers, always with a pencil tucked behind his ear, and an amazing jazz playlist as his soundtrack,” said former art director Paul Roelofs, who overlapped with Rick in the late ’80s and early ’90s. “He had a commanding but kind presence, and always approached his role with incredible thoughtfulness and consideration, resulting in years of stunning and relevant work.”

When Vancouver magazine celebrated its 50th anniversary a couple of years ago, I reached out to him to share one of his favourite memories. He directed us to this photo spread from September 1987.

“’Hot Shots’ was an 18-page photo essay that celebrated famous Vancouver landmarks by shooting them from unusual angles,” he told me. “The design of the story was easy—just run the photos as big as possible—but assigning and coordinating each shoot was tougher. Alex Waterhouse-Hayward was the photo wrangler and took some of the pictures, including the jaw-dropping cover image of Squamish rock climber Kevin McLane on top of the old Woodward’s sign. That image was secured with permission and permits while others, including a revealing aerial of Wreck Beach that irked Transport Canada, were not. Craziest of all was the photo session atop the Lions Gate Bridge. On the afternoon of the scheduled shoot (and two days before we went to press), our photographer refused to climb the bridge’s inner ladder. So editor Mac Parry hurriedly left our Richards Street office, drove to Stanley Park and the bridge, and took the shot himself. It’s a beauty and ended up opening the story.”

Many Vancouverites would know Rick from his Friday movie review, which he broadcast on CBC Radio 1 for three decades. I saw him shortly after he’d first retired from that gig, and when I asked how it felt moving on, he laughed about how relieved he was not have to deal with Oscar season again. 

But film remained a passion for him, and while he continued to work a designer—creating book covers, magazine consults and more—he became a film lecturer for luxury cruise lines around the world, often travelling with his wife, Lori. “Film was his passion, and he was such a natural teacher and mentor,” says former managing editor Sue Dritmanis, who was a longtime friend of Rick’s and is now with the School of Communications at Capilano University. “He shared his expertise and passion for magazine art direction and photography with hundreds of Capilano U. students over the years. I was also lucky to work with him at Vancouver, Western Living and Travel Etc., and luckier still to call him a friend. Which meant I enjoyed free press screenings, and there was nothing better than sitting down in an empty theatre with him in the middle of a week day, a big bag of popcorn on his lap, and his fellow local film critics scattered around, all trading insults. He was often approached, when we went out for lunch, by his CBC Radio fans who overheard our conversation and recognized his gritty, suffer-no-fools Michigan accent.

“I will miss him dearly.”