IN A SMOOTHLY understated corner office on the 30th floor of the Mutual Life building on Wilshire Boulevard, Paige Rense, editor-in-chief of Architectural Digest for 16 years--and godmother of Interior Obsession--surveys the possibilities. Each year Rense selects a choice few hundred homes from among the 4,000 submissions that pour into A.D.'s offices; once every two weeks, the quietly efficient staff lays out the latest photographs and drawings and architectural renderings, and Rense works her way down the line--no, no, yes, no--as the staff just as efficiently removes the rejects from her sight. Meanwhile, there are the phone calls, streaming in daily from a far-flung intelligence network of designers and decorators, socialites and hangers-on, photographers and writers, all offering tips and suggestions and news of who's done what house, which is just not to be missed. Eventually, the editor-in-chief makes a personal tour of inspection, looking for that "something of special interest . . . for our readers."
She has trained herself to be ruthless in her judgments. "You know, no matter how long you look at a room, it isn't going to change," she says, all practicality. "Except for the fact that it would be rude, I can be in and out in five minutes; I usually take 15. The trick is never to sit down."
A diminutive 5-foot, 2-inches tall, her blue eyes shielded by lavender-tinted glasses, the 54-year-old Rense does not immediately reveal the tenacious competitiveness that she has channeled into her magazine, making Architectural Digest (stacked on that just-right coffee table) virtually synonymous with tastefully conspicuous consumption. Once the upstart in its field, it's now a showplace for the design establishment--A.D. treats interior designers as stars.
In the trade, they refer to her as the Queen, or, even more grandly, the Empress, or Madame, with just the cattiest edge of malice in their voices. But to hear her tell it, she's just a working girl made good, a no-nonsense reporter who brought a touch of journalistic common sense into the fantasy land of million-dollar decorating schemes.
When she first met with A.D.'s owner Bud Knapp, back in 1970, to interview for a job as associate editor, there was certainly little in her resume to hint at her future success. Born in Des Moines, she had moved at the age of 12 with her adoptive parents to Los Angeles, attended Hollywood High and then Cal State L.A., where she graduated with a degree in English. A patchwork of jobs followed, from typist to publicity director at Cole of California. When Knapp asked her what she thought of the magazine, the applicant launched into a detailed critique. "She really began the interview by telling me what was wrong with the magazine," recalls Knapp, who hired her anyway. Two years later, on the death of A.D.'s editor Bradley Little, Knapp pondered whether or not to bring in someone established, but instead promoted Rense to the top spot.
Rense can still enumerate her impressions of the magazine she inherited. "The magazine," she remembers, "had beautiful paper, and it was the right size, but there wasn't much color in it at the time and it was published quarterly. It was mostly local. There were lots of mirrors with gold veins in it. And when it did show something of real interest, it was always the fourth time that house had been shown." Although a relative neophyte to the subtleties of interior design, she decided to use that to her advantage. "There wasn't any budget, and I didn't know what I was doing," she concedes. "But when I saw a beautiful house, I was fascinated with the question of how it all happened. It seemed to me that people would be fascinated with decorators, and the relationship between the designer and the client."
She first romanced West Coast designers tired of being ignored by the New York-based magazines. Then she went to work on New York. "It was sort of a military strategy," she explains. "I knew if I could get one major (New York) designer, the others would come along." Finally, in the late Angelo Donghia, who's best known for his overstuffed styles, she found a responsive audience. "We were friends the moment we met. I knew he trusted me, and he had every reason to trust me." In November, 1973, Donghia, spurning requests from several other magazines, decided to show his Manhattan townhouse in Architectural Digest. Rense and A.D. had made it to the majors.