"The House & Garden Blues" by Joan Kron, ©1975, reprinted here with the kind permission of the author:
“Come the decorating revolution, the first big furniture-mover to “get it” might be Mary Jane Pool. The radical unchic will break down her eight-foot high office door, lacquered mercury gray (Benjamin Moore); put their feet on her gray (Formica) Parsons table (custom made); defoliate the Reigar begonias (Jean-Jacques Bloos); empty the wicker hampers (imported from Colombia); dump the potpourri (imported from San Francisco) on the gray wall-to-wall; scribble “Down With Ambience” on the mirrored screen (Sutton Glass); and detain this curly-headed (Kenneth) \ pen pal of the National Association of Manufacturers in a lock-up with old plumbing and a view of a trailer camp.
But the editor-in-chief of House & Garden will not live decoratively impoverished for long. If Mary Jane Pool could survive working under Diana Vreeland at Vogue, she can make over a jail. Before you can say “the positive power of color,” it will be “pretty, pretty, pretty.” Cells will become “living-baths”; beds will become “banquettes”; floors will be stenciled with bitter coffee; cracked plaster walls will be called “the timeless art of pargeting”; everything in sight will be slipcovered somehow; trees will be grown indoors; and classes will be given in basket-weaving.
When the transformation is complete, she will make a deal (her specialty) to have Horst (her favorite photographer) take pictures. And as always, he will keep taking them until Mary Jane Pool says they are right. Then, to avoid a fate worse than death (letting the pictures fall into the hands of House Beautiful, the New York Times Sunday magazine, or Architectural Digest), she will escape down a rope of flowered sheets (smuggled in by her average readers-38.3-year-old suburban women) and hurry back to her office, because as anyone in or out of Conde Nast can tell you, Mary Jane Pool doesn’t trust anyone else at House & Garden to decide which of the 400 photos to use.
Welcome to fantasyland. The tasteful, wasteful, wonderful, knife-in-the-back-page world of the shelter magazines. Perhaps you’d recognize them if I called them decorating magazines, since they’re devoted (in the religious sense of the word) to the aesthetics of the home. How to decorate your lean-to by emulating the palace of Versailles.”
“I’m not laughing at the shelter magazines. I’m laughing at myself for loving them so. Other people have their detective stories, sci-fi, or skin magazines. I prefer a penthouse to Penthouse. My favorite escapist literature is a shelter book. But I’m particular — I like to look at high-priced spreads. That’s why the “mass” shelter books, like 60-cent Better Homes and Gardens (circulation 8 million), 60-cent American Home (circulation 2.6 million), 75-cent Sunset (circulation 1.3 million) and 95-cent Apartment Life (circulation 550,000) don’t grab me. They are too affordable.
Give me the “class shelters”: $1 House Beautiful (circulation 871,000), $1 House & Garden (circulation 1.1 million), and the even classier, rejuvenated Architectural Digest (circulation 150,000), which is so toney it costs $2.95 and is sold only in high rent districts.
My shelter magazines and I have been through twenty-odd years of trends together: dark green walls, beige wall-to-wall, earth tones; Shibui; Frank Lloyd Wright; Robsjohn-Gibbings; the living kitchen; pattern-on-pattern, super graphics; family rooms; dining areas; his-and-her baths; and innumerable how-to’s that I still don’t know how-to. And now I am preparing to integrate the Bicentennial look into my all-white banquetted living room.
A prurient interest in decorating is called “nesting voyeurism” by anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell. He uses about ten shelter magazines in his course at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. “We analyze houses,” Birdwhistell says. “If there’s anything important in the species, it’s nest building. Even if it’s fantasy. Most of the houses in those [decorating] magazines are no more for people than the clothes in Harper’s Bazaar. They’re metahouses. Not real. It’s folklore, like Emily Post.”
I’d better not seat Birdwhistell next to House & Garden editor-in-chief Mary Jane Pool at a dinner party. “We at House & Garden are reporting about living in America. Living, living, living,” she says.
Nor will I seat her next to an important decorator who says, “The shelter magazines are managed fantasy.” But it’s no figment of anyone’s imagination that Americans spend $21 billion a year on furniture and appliances. And they buy more than basic survival furnishings. They buy, or try to buy, what sociologists call “impression management.” Status. Each according to her insecurity — often above her means. Keeping up with the Armstrong-Joneses.
To integrate all these purchases into our lives, we need decorating advice. “The houses in the $1-and-up decorating magazines,” says Birdwhistell, “are for the insecure upper-middle class who have never learned to nest, just to live on a stage. They have departed so far from the original nest that now nesting is almost by prescription.”
And the prescriptions are being written by the editors’ of the decorating magazines.”
“Missouri’s Mary Jane Pool rules the roost at Conde Nast’s’ House & Garden. Forty-five and holding, she looks a bit like Elsa Lanchester. Small boned and fair skinned, she’s up to the minute, as her Elsa Peretti belt buckle and curly hair prove. She understudied for years at Vogue (also a Conde Nast publication), where she started in 1946 after being runner-up in Vogue’s Prix de Paris. She went from art to merchandising to promotion director to executive editor.
Pool-watchers say her executive style is in the tradition of Vogue-the Queen Bee school. “She goes to the furniture markets like the goose with seven goslings behind her… she’s insecure. She wants no identification for her editors. House & Garden is one of the few books that don’t use by-lines on decorating features. She doesn’t want any of her people to have clout in the market. She makes every decision. The editors are always saying, ‘I’ll have to ask Mary Jane.’ She hires talented people and locks them up. She wastes them because she’s afraid of competition.”
To her credit, it’s said that when she came to House & Garden in the late sixties, she uncluttered the look of the rooms in its pages. “In those days,” said one shelter buff, “the look in decorating was pattern-an-pattern. There was so much of it, you could have slashed your wrists.”
Nowadays, H. & G. is strong on decorating, food, entertaining, and how-to. And of course, since 1946 it’s had its House & Garden color program which ties in with hundreds of manufacturers. Get ready for the pale look. It’s on its way, says Mary Jane Pool.
Ms. Pool is known to be extra opinionated about more than color. “She has a fetish about banquette living,” says one Pool knowledgeable. “She was instrumental in promoting slipcovers. She also likes diagonal furniture arrangements, fat pillows that match the sofa, baskets, purple, and cool, crisp cottons. Which isn’t bad,” says the informer. “It’s just not the only look.”
But it’s come to be called the House & Garden look. “There is no such thing as the House & Garden look,” says Ms. Pool. “For years we’ve been telling people to do their own thing, and now they’re doing it.”
House & Garden has more opportunities to editorialize (“We don’t preach”) about design because it has its own photo studio (unlike House Beautiful and Architectural Digest). Editors do room mock-ups to push merchandise tie-ins with manufacturers. Freed from the constraints of real homes done by idiosyncratic decorators, the H. & G. decorating squad can synthesize ideas that they’ve picked up from the professionals. The end result is a book that holds together graphically, but it might be compared to eating chicken a la king four days out of seven. H. & G.’s studio rooms are often soft, puffy, and pale, or one color. The same favored accessories are used over and over. H.& G. comments on art by what it leaves out. You’ll see more pictureless walls in its pages than in any other decorating magazine. (Behind the art policy is Conde Nast’s Alex Liberman.)”
“House Beautiful is a Hearst publication. Editor Wallace Guenther is a 45 year-old Hugh Hefner look-alike. But he’s very cordial. A sophisticated hayseed, he runs the H.B. show from behind a cluttered Herman Miller desk. Guenther calls himself “a beige person.” He took over the 79-year-old magazine in 1969. He came direct from Los Angeles, where his career progressed from copyboy to sports writer at the Los Angeles Daily News, and, at the Los Angeles Times, from copy editor to editor of the Sunday Home magazine.
“People care about religion, politics, and decorating,” says Guenther. So these days H.B. is stressing decorating, remodeling, and table settings. Under his leadership, H.B. has retired pattern-an-pattern (“The readers told us they didn’t like it”). Instead, he’s giving them Eclectic (“which people can’t pronounce”), renamed “The Mix” (which they can), The New Romanticism, and Country Chic.
It’s hard to figure out what H.B. is against decoratively. It shows the work of more designers than H. & G., especially the lesser knowns. This contributes to the generally fluctuating level of taste in the book. Shelter-watchers define H. & G. as society-oriented and H.B. as celebrity-oriented.
Architectural Digest is both. A typical A.D. mix might include a baroque castle, an Italian palazzo, a few fabulous penthouses, some celebrity digs — recent choices were the Robert Redfords and Barbara Walters. “Your name keeps coming up,” I told 41-year-old A.D. editor Paige Rense. “Yes, I know, we’re the hot one.” Fifty-five-year-old Architectural Digest, a bimonthly, has put heavy emphasis on interiors for the last twelve years.
“When I was growing up at Hollywood High,” says the vivacious Ms. Rense, “Billy Baldwin was my hero instead of Alan Ladd.” Rense did her basic training in advertising, public relations, and freelance writing. When she came to the Los Angeles-based A.D. five years ago, she was considered just a “little editor,” until she started biting into the other shelter magazines’ readership and pushed circulation from 55,000 to today’s 150,000. Its readers, “an affluential audience,” have a median income of S37,970 a year. A.D. is so toney, editor Rense calls H.B. and H. & G. “mass” magazines.
“Our objectives are different from theirs,” she says. “My aim is to be like a European art book, like Connaissance des Arts. We don’t do how-to stories, or predict trends. No Architectural Digest blue this month. We show what the top designers in the world are doing.”
And they’re not doing budget jobs for the most part, although, Rense says, “We won’t show houses just because they’re expensive. I turned down about twenty million-dollar houses in the past year.” But no matter who the celebrity or how expensive the decor, Rense, like Pool, has pet hates. “I’ve seen all the Boston ferns I care to see. I won’t show leopards on the floor. But I can’t fight the zebras, there are too many of them. My most hated color is bilious green. I won’t run shag rugs, and I crop out all little white ceramic frogs, porcelain cheetahs, and acoustical ceilings. One got in once, but it won’t happen again. We’ve changed art directors since then.”
You can’t be too demanding in this business. Well-designed houses are to shelter magazines what blood is to vampires. “The magazines,” says one shelter-watcher, “are as empty as paper bags looking for something to put inside.”
“But special is hard to find. “I rejected five or six hundred homes last year,” says Paige Rense. If decorating magazines reject so many homes, how do they find the right places? Generally, the magazines find houses before they’re finished, via word of mouth and scouts.
House Beautiful and House & Garden, which are edited in New York, have scouts all over the country. Architectural Digest has six scouts in New York-photographers, writers, social butterflies, architects, and designers. And just to make sure she’s not missing out, Rense comes east herself two or three times a year to pop in on the “New York interior-design who’s who”; they give her guided tours of their latest work. “I prefer the resident not to be home when I come looking,” she says. “It’s ghastly when the owner is there with the tea and cakes and you can see it means so much to them.”
Mary Jane Pool makes European and cross-country tours as well. Like Paige Rense, she inspects homes that have been staked out by scouts beforehand. But you don’t need 007 to tell you that when Pool heads west, she heads for San Francisco designer Michael Taylor.
“House & Garden seems to have the Michael Taylor franchise,” Paige Rense says. “But there’s enough of his work to go around.” Let’s hope so, because to make matters more’ complicated, you’ll never see the same house in two shelter magazines if the editor can help it. Getting the best house is paramount, and virginity is a prerequisite. “We like fresh material,” says H. & G.’s Mary Jane Pool. “Our policy,” says H.B.’s Guenther, “is, we don’t want any other decorating magazine to have the rooms first.” A.D.’s Rense says, “We must be the first in the world to show it.”
The exceptions to that rule are Interiors and Interior Design magazines, small-circulation trade publications. Another exception, under certain circumstances, is the New York Times Sunday magazine, which publishes two pages of “Design” each week. “I can’t take those two black-and-white pages in the Times seriously,” says A.D.’s Paige Rense. But she won’t use anything that was shown first in the Times’s once-a-year decorating supplement. H.B. and H. & G. have similar attitudes.
Vogue and Town & Country compete too; both show expensive residences in their pages. And the shelter magazines forbid previous publication of their homes in these magazines as well. It’s enough to make a designer a nervous wreck.
The interaction involved in placing a home in the shelters takes the footwork of Fred Astaire. Then why suffer?
Because there is no better way to certify your taste and acquire status than by getting your home published in one of the shelters. Especially for decorators and designers. With designers, it’s publish or perish. They need the certification more than the clients. Even Mrs. Onassis allowed her den to be published for the sake of her designer, Harrison Cultra.
So why not your house?
Let’s say you just completed your living room. It’s divine, if you say so yourself. All your friends say it’s pretty enough to be in House Beautiful. Unless you were born with a dramatic imagination or have hired one, your chances of getting your house published are slim. The rule is, don’t call us, we’ll call you. But if it’s really good, they’ll all call. Then you have to choose just one magazine.
Okay, the match is made. If the house is promised to Architectural Digest, the designer or owner has to pay for the pictures himself and supervise the shooting with an A.D.-approved photographer. (They pick up the tab, however, on celebrity homes.) But if it’s going into H. & G. or H.B., the publication sends the photographer and foots the bill. (With the Times it depends.)
If the house is promised to House & Garden, there may be some changes made-just a little artistic license. First, enough plants and flowers to open a florist’s are brought in. Then some throw pillows .are added; napkins enough for a year of dinner parties; assorted coffee-table knickknacks; some paintings, preferably abstract; and no fewer baskets than the gross national product of some emerging nation. Somehow, when H. & G. gets done, it has its look.
“Do you make major changes in a room when you photograph it?” I asked Ms. Pool. “Very seldom,” she said without batting an eyelash.
House & Garden is not the only magazine that pins leaves on trees-it’s standard procedure. But the consensus is that House & Garden has raised the practice to an art.
Now they’ve taken the H.B., A.D., or H. & G. picture. The famous approved photographer has spent the day, or two or three, shooting from every angle. The fact that a hole has been burned in the carpet is quel dommage.
You’ve survived the photo. You sit back and wait impatiently for the issue. Let’s say you gave your house to House & Garden. Chances are they’ll be back to rephotograph. Mary Jane Pool has a reputation for finding something very small in the corner of the picture that turns her off. It’s often the flowers. “She used to love amaryllis,” insiders say. But one day, the story goes, the amaryllis in the photo was listing to the side. “Amaryllis is supposed to stand up,” she reportedly said. “Reshoot it with narcissus.”
But even· if Ms. Pool approves the flowers, H. & G. could still stage a comeback. Maybe editorial director Alex Liberman nixes the art. So they reshoot the picture with a new painting. And another truckload of fresh flowers, etc. Again you wait for the issue. Actually, they were never crazy about your house, but they didn’t want anyone else to have it. Or maybe the interior designer has fallen from grace. Who knows? You’re still waiting.
Even when the shelter magazines do print the pictures, there are complaints. “They reduce your work too much or just use part of it” is the standard cry. That’s why so many people want to get into Architectural Digest, where each home gets star treatment. A.D. won’t run just one room.
Graphically, each magazine has its own style too. Graphic designer Milton Glaser describes A.D. as “discreet … no excess … like an art book. I’d like to read it.” Glaser says House Beautiful’s layout is “busy, cluttered, confused. One picture is mortised into the corner of another. Words are overprinted on photos. Confusing change of typefaces. Shopping information is separated from the pictures, making it virtually unavailable. Hard to read.”
And ditto for House & Garden, he says. He’s equally unsparing of the covers. “A disaster.”
But Mary Jane Pool is not worried about her covers. What she’s worried about is Architectural Digest. According to the grapevine, House & Garden is about to get a major overhaul by Alex Liberman. It’s not that sales are slipping. It’s not that ads are slipping. What’s slipping are the best houses — into the hands of Paige Rense and the pages of Architectural Digest. Now the knock-out Firestone house by designers Easton and LaRocca is going to A .D., and that’s the last straw basket.
There is one way for Mary Jane Pool to get even. Paige Rense wants any of Truman Capote’s houses more than anything in the world. Will Mary Jane beat her to it? Tune in for the next twelve months.”