clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

From 'Stripes With Plaids' to 'Unmade Beds': Major Players Talk 25 Years of Elle Decor

New, 3 comments

This month, heavyweight home magazine Elle Decor celebrates its 25th year of existence, fêting a quarter century of grand celebrity home tours, burgeoning design talent, and spaces as diverse and idiosyncratic as the lives that circulate within them. From its inception, Elle Decor, an offshoot of France's Elle Décoration, which launched in 1987, played to the strengths of its namesake. In ED decor equated with style: as personality-filled and inexact as fashion.

Its philosophical emphasis on personal style saturates every spread, but the most explicit link between fashion and the home is found in its bread-and-butter: looking at the highly decorated homes of creative people, most notably fashion designers. Proof: home of Giorgio Armani in March 1990, Yves Saint Lauren in June/July 1998, and Elie Saab in 2004. ED has offered readers a peek into Donatella Versace's beacon of opulence (April 2006), let Ralph Lauren show how all-American can translate to gleam and glamour (July/Aug. 2005), and showed off the sunny delight of Trina Turk's L.A. abode. The list goes on: Diane Von Furstenberg, Roberto Cavalli, Reed Krakoff, and more.

And there's no signs of slowing down: in the anniversary issue, editor-in-chief Michael Boodro insists "We are not merely hanging on—we are thriving."

In honor of the magazine's birthday, Curbed chatted with the personalities that motored Elle Decor over the decades, from its founding editor Barbara Dixon to longtime editor (and current editor-in-chief of Arch Digest) Margaret Russell to designers like Kelly Wearstler—who said ED was "my favorite magazine" at the onset of her career, and not just because it featured the Spanish-style house she decorated for the man who would become her future husband—Robert Couturier, and Miles Redd.

ELLE DECOR'S PHILOSOPHY

When it was just a twinkle in founding editor Barbara Dixon's eye, Elle Decor laid its foundations: striking spaces with an emphasis on personal style, attainability, and, well, just a bit of reality.


Barbara Dixon: They basically hired me and said, "Can you go away and put your thoughts on the North American version, and what you would do?" So I thought: Elle was not about price point, but about style. […] We wanted Elle Decor to look very approachable in the same way. When we shot our interiors, we wanted the feeling that someone had just gotten up and left the room. We wanted there to be an unmade bed.

The books had been, for the longest time, "look, but don't touch." And then all of a sudden, we were like, "look, touch, feel, and experience." We wanted to bring the viewer and the reader in to experience it, to be much more hands-on.

Margaret Russell: We were really lead by Regis Pagniez, who started Elle in the United States. As Elle was at that time, Elle Decor was a very different kind of magazine: very bold. Very, very strong sense of graphic design. You know, the text was secondary, used often as a graphic element. Big picture, full bleed, big headline, just caption—like a fashion spread.

Barbara Dixon: It was the whole thing with Elle, throwing on your jeans with a blazer from St. Laurent.

Steven Gambrel: Stylish, yes, as long as stylish doesn't imply that it doesn't have longevity. It's more of a way of expressing what's happening now—which of course implies style, what's happening now is the style of the moment—but it could be a more traditional spin, or something very modern. They are style editors, for sure, because they make choices that establish the way we see the present.

SETTING ITSELF APART

In 1989, the magazine became the new kid in a town already populated by decor publishing giants. Its first order of business? Separate itself from the grand dames: House Beautiful, Architectural Digest, and House and Garden.


Barbara Dixon: Why one more book? Because we were showing things that weren't in the marketplace—and we were doing product stories that were really important for being attainable. Everything was resourced within an inch of its life.

Miles Redd: It was very lifestyle-ish, which seemed at the time incredibly new. Not only was it interiors, but people living in the interiors and experiencing the interiors. [It showed] people's lives and personality behind the interior. Before, it was magazines like Architectural Digest or House Beautiful or House and Garden, things were drier, more rigid, more academic, in a weird way.

LEADING UP TO THE LAUNCH

There were only five months between Dixon's appointment as editor and the launch date. In those five months, Dixon had to form a team, craft a publication philosophy, dig up inaugural projects, and edit the product itself—all using this bizarre new system called "desktop publishing." If she was lucky, she got sleep a couple of hours each night, too.


Barbara Dixon: We were like the step-child. When we first started, I had the old accounting offices of Elle—just one big room and my office. We were all there together, working around the clock. Sometimes we would only know that it was the next day because I would order cappuccinos from downstairs. It was crazy, but the enthusiasm was great. They hired me in April, and by October we had launched. It was fast. It was very fast.

It meant all-nighters. When I hired people, I said it would be like running a marathon, and it was. We would break at dinner. I would go and have a shiatsu [massage] and come back and grab something to eat from the Korean market downstairs. We would call the car service at two in the morning and all pile into one car and drop everybody off. I would go home and be on the phone to France, sometimes at five in the morning. The car service would come pick me up at six and I would go to the gym to workout to try and get revived, and be in the office by eight.

We all lived in leggings and our Elle t-shirts, with our fancier clothes on the back of the door. I kept a bottle of balsamic vinegar underneath my desk because I was always eating veggies with tofu. I'm sure the cleaning lady always thought I was hitting the bottle.

Margaret Russell:There were a lot of last-minute decisions being made. A lot of the meetings were done in French (I spoke much better French then than I do now) with people that would speak English but pretended they didn't. People would come and go all the time. All of a sudden there's a new intern and she's the niece of someone in Paris.

It was also one of the first magazines to be produced with desktop publishing. […] Our Macs had a screen that were, like, the size of a magazine. They were archaic. Faxes were new—I'm embarrassed to tell anyone that now. FedEx was new. There were still typewriters in the room, to be honest.

THE EARLY YEARS

Designers and editors took note of the first issue.


Barbara Dixon: There was a lot of buzz about what it was. I think that people really liked that it was different.

Margaret Russell: The look of the magazine was more simple and sort of in-your-face—and it meant to be.

Michael Boodro: When it came out [Boodro was at Vogue], we all paid attention to it, because it was something very different. It embraced fashion, it was more youthful, it was more energetic. I actually thought that some of what Anna [Wintour, editor of Vogue and former editor of House & Garden] had done with House & Garden was a little ahead of its time, and Elle Decor picked up on it. Not so much initially in the first few issues, but when Marian [McEvoy] came in, that accelerated that a little bit.

Shopping was a huge focus at the ED of the early '90s. Product spreads related to the featured interiors could be found after three or four well stories in a single issue.

Margaret Russell: The idea was that Elle Decor would be about inspiration and then attainment, so you would see a house in Île de Ré, France—actually the French magazine shot it, it wasn't an American story, there was a lot of picking up of French stories at the very beginning—and then we'd follow it with what we'd call a shopping story. We'd do two or three spreads of all sorts of different white things that would fit in with the look of those.

[For example,] there was a story on photographer Oliviero Toscani's house (↑) in Tuscany—very woody and Shaker-inspired, even though it was in Italy. So we went to Shaker Village in Hancock, Massachusetts and shot there and then did studio shots of shaker products that you could buy. It was that type of thing, really bringing the rooms alive by showing things you could purchase. The magazine does far less of that now.

There were a lot of things like finding out Friday at 5 o'clock that I had to go to shoot something in Connecticut the next day. You know you just figured out how to do it. You'd just say OK. It was kind of crazy, but was exciting and it was fun. There was a great deal of creative freedom.

At the beginning the covers (↑) were beautiful girl with chair. Or beautiful girl in front of a blue wall. Or beautiful girl in a garden. The first issue without a model on the cover was November 1990. […] There was a lot of back and forth, not really a power struggle but a discussion, about how the magazine was being run. I think that it was decided that they had made the statement that it was fashion for the home and setting an identity, and now it was time to focus more on what was really home.

'A LITTLE BIT FREER'

In its formative years, ED published the Park Avenue apartment of Vanity Fair's Amy Fine Collins. In many ways, this project by French designer Robert Couturier illustrated the theoretical framework established by its founding editors.


Robert Couturier: [Collins] is herself an incredibly stylish person. The apartment (↑) was all about her, which is the way it should be. It had very bright, strange colors—very particular colors, colors that she liked. The apartment was very stylized, and I think quite beautiful. Elle Decor seemed to be a little freer than the other magazines. It was always a little bit hipper.

Most of the people that they showed were young or young-ish people, with sort of stylized lifestyle. [In] apartments [featured in other magazines] you knew that only people with massive staff could live in them. Elle Decor was not about that. […] It was not as much about money as it was about style. The editor then was Marian McEvoy, who was much more about style than she was about fortune.

Marian McEvoy became editor-in-chief in 1991, a transplant from Elle. Every designer I talked to mentioned her by name, praising her spirit, her high-flying fashion, and her warmth. During her years at ED, McEvoy (who now spends her time largely in her beautifully quirky country house) embodied the undefinable, covetable confidence of the magazine she eased into adolescence and adulthood—all the while nurturing nascent design talent.

Miles Redd: The first project I had published in Elle Decor was a mountain house I had done for my parents in North Carolina (↑). Actually, it was my own apartment on 14th Street that Marian first published in Elle Decor. It was an apartment that I lived in on 14th Street between Avenue B and Avenue C, a tenement walk-up. It was the apartment I lived in in college, but it was highly decorated. I think that's what appealed to Marian, the personality and curiosity of this young kid living in ostensibly a tenement apartment, stylishly done, that appealed to her and appealed to her readers. It wasn't just rich people decorating.

I was working for Bunny Williams at the time. I remember we had just finished a large apartment on Park Avenue that was running in Elle Decor. It was back in the day where Marian showed up to the shoots and looked around. Even though she was the editor-in-chief, she would come by the shoots. I remember working with her and styling things, then she asked me: "What is your apartment like?" And I was like, "Well, I'll send you some pictures." I think of her as helping to launch my career because she was an early champion.

She was the last of a certain type of editor. The kind of Diana Vreeland madcap, the highly creative and highly glamorous. I think Marian ran Elle Decor on a rather tight budget, but she managed to make everything seem glamorous and expensive. She is just a wonderfully creative, stylish person. That kind of madcap zaniness captivated my young imagination. I thought she was the most dazzling thing I had ever seen.

Style is a curious thing. It can be very brittle and very exclusive. She was always the opposite of that to me: warm and inclusive. And that was another reason why I really love her.

THE 'EUROPEAN EDGE'

Particularly in the early years, the magazine's success was siphoned from designers and creatives whose homes were cultivated yet casual. In other words, ED was stylish in the way only a young thing from France could be.


Barbara Dixon: We definitely had a European edge. When Europeans dress, they don't think about what they're putting on. They're stylish, but they'll throw things on and not worry about it. Anything goes. It wasn't a tried and true way.

Good design is not just about a designer coming in and doing, but a designer coming in and distilling what you love and translating that, helping you with your vision, whether you need to crystallize your thoughts about it or making it come to life. When you're doing things like we were with Elle Decor, I think it excites the designer. I think designers […] get bored with the sameness too. They want to be challenged, they want to see what else is out there. When you come in and start showing things in a different way, it stimulates them as well. [...] They were excited that we weren't precious.

THE MODERN HOME

Elle Decor maintained a freshness that made readers "feel excited about being right now."

Steven Gambrel: It always felt fresh, like it has a motor. It's nice to see something that is more about the language of how we really live, versus more aspirational things about how we used to live or want to live. I like it because it feels like you understand what people are doing. It feels more current. You're able to look in and see what's happening now. It's the same way I might pick up Vanity Fair to understand what's happening in the world now, or Travel and Leisure to try and understand where to go now—not ten years ago.

There was never any pretense to it. It's not about going back to the classics—or, in that case, the classic old guard established firms. It was more about who is creating things now that make us feel excited about being right now. I'm never really sure what I'm going to see. […] They choose things that establish a young version of what's happening now. When I say young, I mean you could be 80 and create a young version of what's happening now. It's that feeling of looking into the lifestyle of what's really happening, not something that feels studied.

THE IDIOSYNCRATIC

As the years stacked, the magazine never stopped showcasing rooms with personal panache—maybe it wasn't everybody's taste, but each project quenched a thirst for originality.


Michael Boodro: [Before Elle Decor,] it always seemed like decorating was grand houses, and decorators had to wear navy blazers with brass buttons. You put the Majolica ashtray in one spot and it didn't get moved. They'd take pictures and show the cleaning lady: this is where the ashtray goes, and this is where the crystal box goes, and this is where the obelisk goes, and nothing was to be moved, everything was to be put back in the same place. That's how you lived. I know nobody really lived that way other than those women and society people, but there was this idea that you should try and live that way. Elle Decor said, "No! Nobody lives that way, and you don't need to live that way. It's fun. Have fun in your home."

Marian would get out a glue gun and put shells all over her desk. I'm not doing that, but it's great that she did. I don't understand people who send in letters, "I don't like this house on page such-and-such. How could you ever publish this?" If you don't like it, turn the page. We're not saying this is for you. We're just saying this is kind of wonderful. I don't want to live in every house that I publish, but I think that every house that I publish is wonderful.

Kelly Wearstler: They embrace people that have a distinctive voice and style. Not only does the designer bring their own point of view, but the clients as well have an incredible sense of style.

Michael Boodro: I don't like houses that look like everybody else's houses. I tell that to designers when I give talks. They say, what are you looking for, I say, "When you get the great client that will let you do things that your other clients won't do, that's the project I want to publish."

Barbara Dixon: It was just a little bit edgier. It wasn't the sameness. The things were still beautiful, but it wasn't just about being pretty. Does that make sense?

OF THE NOW

"Put a stripe with a plaid, no one's going to die."


Michael Boodro: I think it's about this idea that design is there to make your life better. You're not a servant of design, design should be working for you. We've always had an appreciation for design history and touting the talents of the past, [but] this is for continuity—we're not providing seminars here, we're providing a fun take on things. One of the things I think Elle Decor has always celebrated is lots of color. Lots of different patterns. The idea that there are no rules, per se. Put a stripe with a plaid, no one's going to die.

[But] one of the things that happens when you're a young upstart like Elle Decor is eventually the world catches up with you. I don't think that we're the outsider in the way that we used to be. [...] A lot of what Marian was preaching and showing at the beginning has now become accepted. You have to evolve, you can't keep fighting the battle once you've won it.

Amy Preiser: The biggest thing that's changed in the last few years is that our website went from one that serves as a mirror reflection of the magazine to what we have and what we push toward today: a site that serves our specific web audience and not just what we assume our print subscribers need.

The columns and covers have been redefined, context and competition have been upturned by digital media, but the DNA of the magazine hasn't changed.

Michael Boodro: Maybe I'm naive in this way, but I do think print is not dying. I think there will be a magazine 25 years from now. I do think magazines are becoming more luxury objects, so I think it will be a little more expensive. Hopefully it will be printed on better paper. I think it'll be not a rarified object, but something that really passionate people get.

· All Elle Decor coverage [Curbed National]
· All The Printed Page posts [Curbed National]
· Ten Amazing and Marvelous Vintage Elle Decor Covers [Curbed National]
· Inside the Country Home of Shelter Doyenne Marian McEvoy [Curbed National]