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THE SUNDAY PROFILE

A Life By Design

Paige Rense has guided Architectural Digest with a firm and steady hand. Her vision--and her sometimes unyielding will--have taken the magazine to the glossy pinnacle of interior design coverage.

September 07, 1997|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Paige Rense is in her office and on the phone, which is precisely placed on a simple green trestle table that, against the odds, doesn't have drawers. "I thought it would be good discipline for me," says the longtime editor of Architectural Digest.

On a shelf behind her sits a miniature French house from the '30s, as well as a small antique horse-drawn circus wagon toting a tiny giraffe. "I didn't want it to be cutesy country," Rense says of her distinctive environment, "but I wanted the things I liked in it, and I like very simple things."

Which is why she nudged the planners of Architectural Digest's Wilshire Boulevard offices into dispensing with nutty colors. "I said, 'Simple, clean, plain vanilla. It's a functional office. No design statements. Comfortable. Lots of light. Everybody happy.' So we got them in touch with reality."

Of course, reality is not necessarily where admirers of one of the country's most successful interior design magazines care to dwell. For Rense, reality is a vacation from fantasy, which informs the spectacular environments AD brings to the coffee tables of its 835,000 subscribers.

The monthly has been very much her creation during the quarter century she has ushered it from a 50,000-circulation building trades magazine to the glossy pinnacle of interior design journalism. Her career, among the more extraordinary in magazines, has all the makings of a potboiler--elements of which did in fact find their way into her recent mystery, "Manor House" (Doubleday).

From Horatio Alger-esque beginnings, the former high school dropout climbed to the top of a glamorous field. Even more remarkable, she has stayed there, enjoying longevity in a field known for quick exits, joining the ranks of such legendary long-lived editors as Helen Gurley Brown and William Shawn. She rules today amid a healed economy that has revived people's interest in feathering their nests and burnished competition among shelter magazines. Recent competitors include a burgeoning Martha Stewart Living and a revived House & Garden, which had been earlier bruised by the battle for primacy with AD.

Rense is unfazed. "There isn't a magazine in the field that's a problem in any way," she says in her disarmingly girlish wisp of a voice. Indeed, September's AD, featuring the ever-popular designers' homes, has the most ads of any issue yet. Advertising pages through November this year are at 1,207, an annual increase of 12%, the magazine reports.

En route to the top, Rense has pumped up the fantasy with peeks behind the decorated doors of celebrities from John Wayne to Cher. The unabashed glitz factor and reluctance to embrace startling new design have exposed her to some sniping, but she says the homes featured don't necessarily reflect her personal taste.

"I think about the reader and is this good for the reader," says Rense, who is there somewhere behind big glasses and a Connie Stevens pouf of blondness. "When any of us looks at photographs of someone's home, we think, 'Oh, I'd never live there,' or 'I'd love to live there.'

"So I show homes that I wouldn't live in, but I think that apartment is a really wonderful example of whatever. The readers pay $5 on the newsstand for each issue, and we try to give them a book with a wide variety of things--something special, unusual, bizarre, whimsical. It can be stark and contemporary, although I don't show a lot of that unless it has some warmth or some great drama. It's not a design contest. It's not a who-has-the-most-expensive house contest."

And it certainly isn't a decorate-like-Paige contest. Oddly enough, the grande dame of the gracious home lives in hotels--the Bel-Air when she's in Los Angeles and the Carlyle in New York. "George Bernard Shaw once said, 'We're all caught up in the life stream,' and a hotel is constant life stream," she says. "It's like living in the middle of theater. You're never ever lonely in a hotel."

*

Rense's home is in Vermont, which she shares with the prominent color-field painter Kenneth Noland, her husband of more than three years. (She is the widow of journalist Arthur Rense, whom she married twice.) She spends long weekends there, where Noland has a home and studio. "He's brilliant, funny and very romantic," she says. "We have a lot in common. I was a great fan of his work before I met him. And it's fascinating to live with a really great artist."

Rense still returns to L.A. each month for a working week but spends more time working out of the Noland-adjacent New York office. There she can also keep on eye on the competition--particularly House & Garden, which Conde Nast revived a year ago--and the design world, of which New York is the capital. Her staff, nearly 50 strong, is still based in L.A., communicating with Rense by fax, phone and FedEx.

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