clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

118 Years of History Through the Lens of Shelter Magazines

New, 2 comments

Shelter magazines are more than just bound pages of pretty homes. By flipping through the pages of publications like House Beautiful, Architectural Digest, and Dwell, we can observe how America has changed.

Though shelter magazines could be considered light reading when compared to many news and political publications (see articles like "The Power of Color" and "138 Fun Ways to Spend $50 (or less!)"), they have historically illustrated broad cultural shifts. Open any World War II-era shelter magazine, and you'll see articles reflecting the changing roles of women in American society. In the early 1980s, magazines like House & Garden and Metropolitan Home chronicled Baby Boomers and Masters of the Universe. Today's shelter magazines reveal our increasingly digital and global lives.

The history of shelter magazines has closely mirrored our nation's economy, with hard times hurting the category, and flush times boosting it up. Our financial health has also been reflected in the magazines' pages.

Newell Turner, editorial director of the Hearst Design Group, points out that global politics can also be seen in the pages of shelter magazines. He cites as an example House Beautiful's August and September issues in 1960, now known as the "shibui issues," which were devoted entirely to Japanese interiors and the concept of shibui design. Both issues were the result of editor Elizabeth Gordon's interest in the Japanese objects brought home by Americans who had spent time in Japan during the occupation. The shibui issues of House Beautiful in turn opened Americans' eyes to the culture of Japan that had been ignored in the post-War years. (The issues, which sold for fifty cents, sold out—and then sold for ten dollars on the black market!)

The Birth of Shelter Magazines

The first shelter magazines in America were introduced at the end of the 19th century, when consumer magazines became widely available thanks to the steam-powered rotary printing press.

It wouldn't be until the mid-20th century that the category of "shelter magazine" was specifically defined by the industry. Among the earliest shelter magazines were House Beautiful (1896), House & Garden (1901), and Architectural Digest (1920). All three began as architectural journals and gradually evolved into more consumer-friendly decorating titles. For example, in 1915, Condé Nast acquired House & Garden. Nast biographer Caroline Seebohm notes that House & Garden was meant to do for interiors what Condé Nast had done for fashion: Help the socially insecure, including the wives of railroad barons "who had huge houses on Fifth Avenue and didn't know what to do with them."

The changing household labor force can be observed in shelter magazines and women's magazines of the early 20th century. Prior to WWI, if a woman was depicted doing household chores in magazine illustrations, she was almost always a servant. But after the war, servants vanished from magazine illustrations, just as they had disappeared from most households. Without domestic servants, women suddenly had to do their own housekeeping, and magazines like Better Homes & Gardens, Good Housekeeping and House Beautiful stepped in with articles to educate them about domestic sciences.

Penny Pinching and Democratic Design

The stock market crash of 1929 hit magazines hard, but many of them were able to hold on through the rocky financial years. As the country struggled financially, the pages of shelter magazines reflected the ways Americans were making do with less. In 1931, House & Garden hired an architect to design a small house that could "grow" (easily be added on to later), and offered free blueprints to anyone who would begin construction that year. A brand of modernism that academic Kristina Wilson coined "livable modernism" also emerged and made its way into the pages of shelter magazines during the Depression. This iteration of the modernist movement was intended for the middle class—not the rich—and was a precursor to the mid-century design that would follow.

Rationing and Victory Gardens

Changes to shelter magazines during World War II were a response to scarcity, too—in this case, the scarcity of materials. Publishers printed smaller issues on coarser paper. Glossy publications like House & Garden wrote about "victory gardens" and canning. And designers responded to the scarcity of materials in innovative ways: Charles and Ray Eames's plastic, resin, and plywood designs from the 1940s are an example of now-classic designs that were born from the era's constraints. On the advertising pages, rationing was also apparent (and cleverly side-stepped) in "dream ads," which showcased appliances and other household goods that would not be available until after the war.

The Reign of the Ranch House

The years following WWII were an affluent time for America as a whole. The country experienced a building spree as young soldiers returned from overseas, and shelter magazines were there to offer advice for their new domestic lives. House Beautiful ran articles with titles like "What the G.I. Wants in his Post-War House" (August 1944) and "Home Should be EVEN MORE WONDERFUL Than He Remembers It" (January 1945). A 1955 issue of House & Garden was dedicated to the "over 1,600,000 young couples," who would marry and start their first homes together.

As young people moved to the suburbs, their new ranch-style homes filled the pages of shelter magazines. The ranch house became the preferred style of the day not only because it took on these young families' needs, but also because it represented an all-American aesthetic and lifestyle. The kitchen, rarely a subject for the pages of shelter magazines before, began to appear in magazines in the 1950s. Describing their 1953 "House of Ideas," House & Garden editors wrote, "In these informal and servantless times, [the kitchen] is the housewife's living room, the hub of the house for the entire family and the room everybody seems to gravitate toward during a party."

It's a Small World

The 1960s were a time of upheaval in America as the women's rights and civil rights movements dominated the culture.

Young adults who were unwilling to be drafted journeyed to other countries, and even those who remained at home found themselves in an increasingly globalized world. 1962 was the first year of transcontinental television broadcasts. Arthur Frommer's famous Europe on 5 Dollars a Day inspired trips across the Atlantic. This international influence was obvious in the pages of shelter magazines, from the Marimekko textiles first introduced to Americans through Design Research stores to the hand-dyed fabrics and saris of India that returned to the US with these young travelers.

Rachel Carson's famous environmental call-to-arms Silent Spring appeared in 1962, and Americans were awakened to environmental issues, an awareness that was in turn reflected in the pages of shelter magazines. Better Homes & Gardens, House Beautiful, and House & Garden all placed new emphasis on conservation, both catering to and raising readers' awareness of environmental issues—not to mention an increased interest in houseplants (hello, spider plants!).

Making a Lamp Out of Anything

As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, shelter magazines were filled with practical how-to stories, and the ultimate do-it-yourself publication—Apartment Life—was born. Aimed at Baby Boomers, Apartment Life launched as an offshoot of Better Homes & Gardens and was originally titled Apartment Ideas. The young editors lived the lifestyle they touted in their pages. There was even a column called "How to Make A Lamp Out of Anything."

The easy-living spirit of the day appeared in the homes featured in magazines. In the bedroom, duvets replaced neatly made beds with hospital-cornered blankets. Sir Terrence Conran once posited that consumers' embrace of the duvet mirrored their increasingly relaxed attitudes toward sex. "I thought [the duvet] was all part of the mood of the time—liberated sex and easy living. It was wonderful that when you came to make your bed, it was just a couple of shakes," he told a reporter from The Independent about the European bedding that he is credited with popularizing.

Industrial materials also began to appear in 1970s shelter magazines. (More than one editor interviewed for this piece referenced a now infamous dining table made from upturned trash cans as an example of the spirit of the day.) Simultaneously, Deconstructivism was born when Frank Gehry renovated his Santa Monica house. Describing the trend toward deconstruction and industrialism, Dorothy Kalins wrote in Newsweek, "Those ideas rippled across the country, inspiring a trend of raw construction materials: walls of stripped lath, corrugated metal, chain link. Humble, gutsy, butch."

Baby Boomers Nesting

In the 1980s, shelter magazines shifted away from the DIY spirit of the 70s and became more voyeuristic. Articles showcased the homes and lives of the maturing Baby Boomer generation, the "Masters of the Universe," as Tom Wolfe christened them. In 1981, Apartment Living made a major turn from its DIY roots and was renamed Metropolitan Home, as its readers reached middle age and moved into larger spaces.

Throughout the 1970s, House & Garden became a very democratic publication with more grown-up versions of Apartment Living's content, including articles like, "How to Decorate and Build for the Good Family Life" and "Make Over Ideas to Give You and Your House a Lift." But in 1981, when Louis Oliver Gropp took over as editor, that began to change. Condé Nast re-jiggered its goals for the publication, focusing on higher-end décor and less on how-to content; at the time, the Times dubbed the shift as one from "moderate mass to extreme class."

The publication that perhaps best personifies the period is Architectural Digest, edited by Paige Rense. "Architectural Digest was always consistent and true to its mission," says Steven Wagner, a former editor at Apartment Life (and later Metropolitan Home). "Of its kind, it was the best. It wanted to document the homes of the rich and famous done by the top decorators in the world."

By 1986, things were even more luxurious in the culture at large, and Metropolitan Home followed its readers' lead by investing in fancier paper and increasing the magazine's page size. An article from that year was titled, "10 Years After: From 1970s Radical to 1980 Refined, Two Funky Artists Settle In—Without Selling Out," says much about how the magazine's readers had changed. In 1987, House & Garden underwent an even greater transformation into a chic lifestyle book, rebranded as HG and edited by none other than a young Anna Wintour. (Critics referred to the transformed title as "House & Garment.") Then, in October 1987, the stock market crashed, and the decade of décor excess began to come to an end.

Recession Readjustments

As the economy slumped into recession in the early 90s, the shelter magazine category took a hit, with ad pages dropping and one venerable title closing. The glitz of the 80s suddenly seemed suddenly excessive. Writing of the shift in interiors at the time, Marian McEvoy, the editor-in-chief of Elle Décor, noted that magazines were "featuring exteriors and interiors that evoke heartfelt style and a certain calm sense of quality. Whether thoughtfully minimal or bravely festooned, a house is not a home if it looks like there's too much money involved. Those who cling to their gold-plated bathroom fixtures and wall-to-wall pile shags probably think it's still O. K. to smoke in an oxygen tent."

As shelter magazines shifted away from those gold-plated fixtures, they moved back to how-to stories. Martha Stewart Living, which launched in 1990, embodied the renewed interest in a more humble home with content that was both inspirational and informational.

Even high-end publications like Metropolitan Home shifted their tone slightly to showcase more affordable ideas. "Met Home always did high-low," says freelance writer and former Metropolitan Home editor Arlene Hirst, "It was a way of addressing a lot of [the recession]. The magazine tried to do more affordable ideas, but the interiors always had to be aspirational." Meanwhile, HG struggled: In the late 80s and early 90s the magazine lost many of its readers, and in 1993 Condé Nast acquired Architectural Digest, which was the leading shelter magazine in terms of ad pages; just a few months later, HG was folded.

But by the end of the decade things were looking up for the shelter category and the economy as a whole (thank you, Bill Clinton and declining oil prices!). All four of the top décor magazines (Architectural Digest, Elle Décor, House Beautiful, and Metropolitan Home) were making money. In 1996, HG/House & Garden was resurrected, returning to its original title: House & Garden. Condé Nast set its sights not only on the Boomers who had read the magazine in its previous incarnation, but on a younger audience, as well. "All these baby boomers, and also people younger than the classic baby boomer demographic were buying homes, having children, and spending more and more time in their homes, and more time doing things like gardening and really enjoying their homes," Steve Florio, then the president of Condé Nast, told the Times.

Boom, Bust, and Blog

The early aughts were a busy period for the shelter category, with seemingly every major publisher waiting to get into the game. Several shelter magazines were launched in the early half of the decade, and publishers tested issues of many others that never received a full launch. Meanwhile, the advance of the internet began to present competition to the category.

When Lucky launched in 2000, it was a game changer for the entire magazine industry. The shopping-focused fashion magazine was criticized by many, including media critic Simon Dumenco, who referred to the new breed of shopping-focused magazines as the "soul death of our culture." But consumers loved Lucky: In just three years, the magazine's circulation was approaching 1 million, and in 2002 its ad pages increased 38 percent, topping 1,000 pages. In the fall of 2003, Lucky was named Advertising Age's Magazine of the Year. "Lucky created panic everywhere," says Hirst. "Suddenly, magazines wanted to be more user-friendly, and that not only applied to the fashion books, but the home books, too."

Lucky's success gave Condé Nast the confidence to try expanding the "magalog" concept, with a men's version of Lucky (Cargo), and a home-centric version: Domino. "Domino was a catalyst for change in an industry that resisted change," says Beth Fuchs Brenner, Chief Revenue Officer of the newly re-launched Domino and former publisher of the original Domino.

Almost immediately, shelter magazines began to copy Domino's editorial style. Amanda Dameron, editor-in-chief of Dwell, who began her career at Architectural Digest, remembers the editorial team's decision to begin including pricing right on the pages of Architectural Digest. Hearst's response to Lucky, a title called SHOP Etc., featured home products on its pages, though it notably did not feature any real homes.

It was one of the old-guard shelter magazines that was among first to embrace the new world of design bloggers. Dominique Browning of House & Garden magazine approached Grace Bonney, the founder of Design*Sponge, to blog for House & Garden. "Dominique Browning was incredibly supportive and open minded about working with bloggers—a rare thing for magazines at the time," says Bonney. The lines between print and digital began to blur as magazines began to produce content specifically for the web.

The Great Recession of 2008 and 2009 was a deadly period for shelter magazines: Many shuttered their doors, including category favorites like Cottage Living, Domino, and Metropolitan Home and staffs were slashed dramatically to keep costs down.

Everybody's A Design Expert

After some difficult years for magazines and the economy at large, the remaining shelter magazines limped into the aughts. Digital magazines like Lonny and Rue were born, and print publications like Traditional Home dabbled in the new medium. Traditional shelter magazines also reflect the digital sphere's impact on print publications: The text in magazines is shrinking—significantly. "People have less patience for reading," says Hirst. "They want the facts, they want the pictures."

Meanwhile, our increasingly digital world has changed the homes we see in shelter magazines. Digital advances have made it easier to cover the shelter category on a global scale. "We have the ability to find more spaces outside of our own backyard," says Dameron.

"Lucky created panic everywhere. Suddenly, magazines wanted to be more user-friendly, and that not only applied to the fashion books, but the home books, too."—Arlene Hirst, former editor, Metropolitan Home

In the new millenium, magazines are no longer just magazines—they are media businesses. Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia may sound like the name of an evil empire in a Hollywood thriller, but it's an accurate description of what Stewart's magazine has become: a media company that prints magazines, produces radio and television programs, publishes books, sends newsletters, offers multiple web and social media channels, and also licenses its name to hundreds of products from hams at Costco to sheets at Macy's. Dwell, another independently published shelter title, has taken the same course. "Dwell is not a magazine, it's a media company," says Dameron, adding, "That's what allows us to stay nimble." The brand now hosts conferences, retails directly to consumers through an e-commerce platform, and sells pre-fab house plans. It's not just the independent publications that have broadened their scope. Turner echoes Dameron, saying, "We're not just a magazine anymore." Better Homes & Gardens sells products at Wal-Mart and has lent its name to everything from a national real estate network to a line of flower arrangements at FTD.

By expanding their brands, magazines have expanded their roles as the gatekeepers of good design. Almost all of the editors interviewed for this article pointed out that today's shelter magazine reader knows a whole lot more about design than her predecessors, and with the advent of the internet, they have access to resources and information that were once available only to design professionals. Turner notes that design's prevalence in the culture at-large has raised awareness and expectations, but he says, "It's made our jobs even more interesting than ever." A reproduction Eames lounger may be just a click away, but the consumer still needs a reliable source to document trends and provide inspiration. "The word curator is overused, but we are really curators," says Turner of himself and his fellow editors. That is what keeps shelter magazines relevant in a digital world: the editor's eye.

· Shelter Media coverage [Curbed]
· Back Issues [Curbed]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]