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Taking stock of Martha Stewart

COMMENTARY

The style maven could be sent away for a spell, but her influence will remain omnipresent.

March 08, 2004|Regina Schrambling | Special to The Times

Whatever happens to Martha Stewart in real life, her influence on everyday style can be summed up with a line out of Monty Python's "Holy Grail": "I'm not dead yet."

Judging by her record since the 1982 breakthrough cookbook "Entertaining," chefs, stylists, decorators, gardeners, magazine editors, book publishers, television hosts, retail behemoths and other autocrats of American taste will still be engaging in grand larceny of the lifestyle variety. Whether you like her or hate her, the path Martha Stewart blazed into this country's aesthetic consciousness is not going to fade away, let alone get overgrown by the likes of Katie Brown or other Martha-wannabe weeds.

She has and will probably remain the richest of source material for mid-level American tastes (despite the wardrobe malfunction at the courthouse, where she made a rare misstep by wearing fur on an unnaturally warm Manhattan day in front of cloth-coat jurors apparently convinced she was the new Queen of Mean).

Try to find a food-and-home magazine on the newsstand that does not have contents seemingly ripped right out of Martha Stewart Living. Real Simple would be just a gleam in a Container Store addict's eye if not for Stewart's vision of how a magazine should look (clean) and read (direct). Gourmet appears to be such an homage to Living these days that the two magazines' pages could have been separated at press. Even venerable Sunset just underwent something of a Martha makeover. (Credit Stewart for not outsourcing too: Magazine editors looking for inspiration used to filch from Australian Vogue, since the inverse seasons gave them a six-month lead. Martha Stewart saved them the inflated cover price.)

Her influence on food is just as unmistakable. "Entertaining" may look a little dated these days, but it remains vibrant and usable 20-some years after she taught Des Moines housewives that there were more flavor combinations than canned soup and ground beef and more to presentation than a clump of parsley on a plate.

When "Entertaining" came out, "serious" cooks everywhere were outraged that its author had built a bestseller out of allegedly purloined recipes. All I know is that I cooked Chinese shrimp toasts from it for the first time, and I never would have thought of trying them for a party otherwise. Stewart simply provided the stepladder to a higher plane: She put herself in the picture, infusing vinegars with herbs or berries and showing myriad ways to fold a napkin and freezing bottles of vodka in blocks of ice embedded with flowers and generally making Connecticut elitism seem like an everyday possibility.

And speaking of everyday, there was the discount bravery. Tastemakers were shocked -- shocked! -- when Martha Stewart cut her deal in 1987 with the lowest of the low, designing sheets and cookware and planters for Kmart. But look at the hordes of brand names cluttering Target and Wal-Mart today, from Michael Graves to Isaac Mizrahi. Thanks to her, there's no longer a stigma to looking for high profits in low places.

Beyond all that, seemingly half the catalogs that come in the mail are knockoffs of Martha's. Would there be a Hold Everything chain if not for a visionary who preached the value of a decorative place for everything?

There are days when it's hard to imagine a Food Network if not for Martha the model-turned-domestic-goddess, who understood right down to her cheekbones the power of shots of her hoeing her garden or setting violets onto a multitiered wedding cake. Nigella Lawson, call Stewart's agent and thank him.

And that, in the end, is what is not going to fade away as the world's most famous felon contemplates sheets for her single bunk bed and a couple of yards of wallpaper for her possible new lodgings. This is a woman who has weathered attacks that would have sent any other style maven back to her cluttered broom closet -- not just the tempest in the "Entertaining" teapot but a tell-all biography that dug up more dirt than her aggressive landscapers ever did.

What she accomplished was the glorification of reality. American idols of the female persuasion, the ones she herself grew up with, used to be figments of corporate imagination, like Betty Crocker and Betsy McCall. In her own uptight, intimidating way, Martha Stewart has always been the real deal.

And that means she will not have to rely only on her dedicated and surprisingly loyal crew to keep Martha Stewart Omnimedia gobbling up every marketable tidbit of lifestyle business. Hordes of imitators will still be out there, ensuring she moves beyond the Fritz Lang script for "Metropolis" (blond woman must burn) and back to Monty Python. It's her world. We just shop in it.

New York-based Regina Schrambling writes about food for the Los Angeles Times, Metropolitan Home and Saveur.

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