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Knock, Knock

Who's there? If you're one of America's top decorators, it's probably an editor asking--pleading even--to showcase your fabulous work in her magazine. With more and more 'shelter books' on newsstands, including the revived House & Garden, designers are calling the shots.

August 05, 1996|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — First, Marian McEvoy dropped by.

Tom Scheerer hadn't even peeled the old paper off the walls before the editor in chief of Elle Decor was traipsing through his home in historic Charleston, S.C.

Later, McEvoy wrote a gushy note to Scheerer, a successful New York decorator, about how much she loved the house and how much she'd love to showcase it in her magazine. The same week he heard the same pitch from an editor of Conde Nast House & Garden, which returns this week after a three-year hiatus. She too had to have it.

And so the courting of Tom Scheerer began.

As he knocked down walls and used simple white linen in ways that might surprise formal Charleston, Scheerer was being romanced by editor after editor, all of them calling from high above Manhattan, in corner offices decorated with blond furniture and fresh flowers.

McEvoy sent word through a friend of Scheerer's that the decorator's house could appear on Elle Decor's cover. In a high-circulation fall issue. Whenever and whatever he wanted.

House & Garden, meanwhile, sent another envoy: Senga Mortimer, the legendary garden editor, literally knocked on his door. "She was very flattering," Scheerer recalls.

Finally, he had to decide and he went with . . . House & Garden.

"I love Marian," he says, "but I felt all the eyes of the world would be on the first few issues of House & Garden and it would be a feather in my cap to appear."

If the competition for the best houses and advertisers and readers and chic new ways to paint floors and redo patios has been fierce among glossy magazines up until now, it just became a lot fiercer with a revived House & Garden.

The combination of baby boomers burrowing even deeper into their nests and a rebounding economy has given publishers new confidence to start "shelter books"--the peculiar name given by the industry to 90 or so interior design magazines.

In 1995 alone, 30 new titles appeared, mostly in the how-to category, allowing a man who wants to replaster the bathroom and the mother who wants to glitter her little girl's curtains to each find advice in specialized books.

Certainly, healthy revenues and increased ad pages in the upscale decorator-driven version of these magazines have set the stage for the reentry of House & Garden, with its more cerebral approach to the home, say Conde Nast executives.

What has kept their hopes high over the last year? Probably that in 1995, Hachette Filapacchi's Elle Decor was up 35% in ad pages; Conde Nast's Architectural Digest, the grand dame of this category, was up 11%. And for the first half of this year, as most American magazines suffered through a mini-slump, Martha Stewart Living--with a circulation that soared from 250,000 to 1,449,744 in four years--saw its ad revenues jump 35.1% over last year. House & Garden's relaunch drew a record 207 ad pages; the next few issues are expected to have 100 each.

During an interview in her office, replete with three vases of red roses and half a dozen gondola mooring poles covered in rich fabrics, McEvoy seems to relish the intensified competition, even if it meant losing the Scheerer house. "We'll get the next one," she promises.

"Let's get real," she adds, smiling through ruby-red lips. "Dominique is going after our writers, our editors, our decorators, our readers. But she edits from a vastly different point of view and that's what makes this interesting."

What McEvoy and every shelter book groupie in New York has been hearing since last year's announcement of House & Garden's revival is that its new editor, Dominique Browning, is positioning herself as a sort of intellectual Martha Stewart. With her background as executive editor of Texas Monthly, literary editor of Esquire and features czarina of Newsweek, Browning has vowed to inject more "journalism" and more "intensive knowledge" into this photo-dominated genre.

"I think an intellectual take is limited," huffs McEvoy, 47, who comes out of fashion magazines. "That's not why people pick up these magazines."

But Browning believes that it's an insult to the reader--the savvy, 30-, 40- or 50-year-old woman who enjoys her "pleasure" reading but also expects real information, even if it's about hardware.

"Reporting about everyday life doesn't have to be superficial and dumb," she says, citing the many Newsweek cover stories on lifestyle she marshaled. "I think shelter magazines are about visuals, but they're also about writing and thinking and there is nothing incompatible about that."

*

The new House & Garden's first issue includes an essay by John Updike about Jasper Johns, a column by former Harper's Editor Michael Pollan about windows, and an ode to the ladle: "I came late to the ladle," Cynthia Ozick writes. "For years it lay in a kitchen drawer, a practical cousin's practical gift, for which I felt no gratitude."

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