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AAH...Domestic Bliss : We CAN do it. We CAN turn our home and garden into a sanctuary, a refuge, a thing of beauty. Just subscribe to the hottest shelter magazines.

June 17, 1995|CHRISTA WORTHINGTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In soft focus, Sears appliances pose like film stars on the pages of shelter, or interior, magazines--glamorous, nearly erotic, bordering on the lurid. If they were female, they'd lick their lips; if they were Mick Jagger, they'd be making kissy face to the camera.

What used to be a job for Mr. Clean or cookie-cutter homemakers in aprons has become an opportunity for sensual epiphany.

In the '90s, it seems, homemaking is next to godliness.

Chronicling it all--from the nubby nap of a sisal carpet to the snap of white sheets drying on the line--are a cluster of upscale magazines hoping to cash in on the $260 billion spent annually in and around the home.

Conde Nast recently announced that it will revive House & Garden magazine in September, 1996. Last month, Time Inc. published a 500,000-copy test run of a magazine based on "This Old House," the 16-year-old PBS television show. Ad pages and circulation have doubled for Hachette Filipacchi's youthful, irreverent design magazine Elle Decor.

Then there's the most spectacular success of all: Martha Stewart Living, whose circulation rose from 250,000 to 1.2 million in four years.

The success of Martha Stewart Living, insiders say, is what prompted Conde Nast to revive House & Garden, with former Mirabella Editor Dominique Browning at the helm.

"I hope this doesn't sound too airy," Browning says, but "the urge to create a home and a garden is an urge toward serenity and beauty and security and a nurturing of the soul. It's a refuge--a house equally with a garden--and has been from biblical times. It's the subject of great works of poetry through the centuries."

But do people in real life have enough time, energy or financial resources to revel in house and garden?

"Women have never worked harder or longer in the history of the Earth, American women, specifically," says Marian McEvoy, editor in chief of Elle Decor. "It's such a pleasure to not be in a subway or an airplane, but to be at home. The home has become more magic and more rare. Their homes have become sanctuaries."

Martha Stewart is the woman whom most people credit with fueling this domestic love affair. But more than objects or $110 gallons of Martha Stewart paint (colored to match eggs laid by her chickens), Stewart is selling ideas, confidence, self-image.

"In our educational way, we are making people realize that they do have a sense of aesthetic," says Stewart, fresh from winning two Emmy Awards for the television version of Martha Stewart Living magazine. "That's why our appeal is so broad. It's for people with lots of money and not so much money."

This inner "interiors" market has forged a new advertising base. Shelter magazines now carry ads for auto manufacturers, cosmetics, fragrances, home technology and computers as well as home furnishings. Stewart says the home-furnishings industry has had a "very, very bad time" in the recession and magazines like hers haven't relied solely on advertising from the industry for the last five years.

"The retail markets are soft, and they say it's the weather," she says. But it's not bad weather that keeps people from shopping, she argues. "People don't want 15 suits. They want three good ones. The interest in high quality, good quality and lasting quality is what has spurred this tremendous interest in living. People want quality in their lives."

Does that mean they think they don't have much "quality" in their lives? "That's too depressing a way to put it," Stewart says.

According to recent polls, 76% of people in America would like to be more creative. Magazines and other media that focus on the home are tapping into that desire. Interior design has made room for the personal touch in recent years with a new loosened-up aesthetic of eclecticism and what Louis Oliver Gropp, editor of House Beautiful, calls the "new simplicity."

But filling a clean, stark room with unrelated pieces takes more sophistication than matching bedroom suites of old.

"That [matching suites] is over and out," McEvoy says.

Elle Decor transforms home interiors into building blocks--on which it focuses pictorially. The point is to turn readers into able decorators, who are less likely to be cowed by licensed professionals and more open to humor and fancy.

"My readers are the daughters of women who used to decorate with chintz," McEvoy says. Their median age is 39.

"Martha Stewart has made our job easier," she says. "By the time they get to [Elle Decor], they're a more visually astute group of people if they've been with Martha."

(As evidence of their synchronicity, Elle Decor has first dibs on photographing Martha Stewart's new $3-million modernist home by architect Gordon Bunshaft on Long Island.)

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