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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, November 5, 2002

Cheap chic home decor

By Linda Hales
Washington Post

An article in the first issue of Living Room highlights furnishings selected for their room-improving quotient and low price tag, all less than $50. Items include a silk lampshade, glass vase, wooden rice bowls, Venetian mirrored frame and a straw mat. Below is a pink rubber Tykho alarm clock, $39.95, and a silk tuffet, $18. The magazine has been designed for women younger than 40 with a strong fashion sense.
Perhaps it was the sight of the Mistress Lay selling off the decorative accessories that Enron's bogus boom had bought. Perhaps it was news of the $6,000 shower curtain purchased by Tyco's embattled corporate chieftain, Dennis Kozlowski, in his glory days. Perhaps it is the powerful post-9/11 desire to nurture loved ones in a secure, comfortable nest.

Whatever the flashpoint, a new decorating magazine is passing up the opportunity to ogle homes of the rich and famous. This lifestyle-cum-design book promises to reveal not how the other half furnishes, but where readers can get flashy goods for their own digs, and exactly how much they will cost.

Voyeurism is out. Getting is in. Just buy it.

Old-guard glossies such as Conde Nast's Architectural Digest still offer glimpses of fabulous fringe and hammered-nailhead trim. The economy may falter, but House & Garden, Conde Nast's other crown jewel, can be counted on for a third annual "Luxury" issue, which takes readers to an incomparable Tuscan villa.

But a change of editors at Hearst's House Beautiful is widely expected to tone down that magazine's high-society gloss. (After two years, fashion-forward Marian McEvoy, who left Elle Decor to take the job, was replaced by Mark Mayfield from soothing Traditional Home and Southern Accents.) A spokesman for Hearst indicated that House Beautiful would like to become a favorite in the hinterlands.

The pursuit of the perfect room — and the most expensive furnishings — has also been dismissed in one established magazine. In the August-September Elle Decor, editor Margaret Russell writes, "If there were a rehab program for recovering perfectionists, I'd be first in line." She goes on to advise that "rooms need imperfection before they can become truly interesting and engaging." And in this month's issue, Russell praises the decidedly populist chain store Target (which advertises its housewares, available online at www.target.com, in the magazine) for its use of designers such as Michael Graves, Todd Oldham and Philippe Starck.

That would be a perfect introduction for the new magazine Living Room, from Meredith Corp. Living Room has been designed for women ages 25 to 39 with a strong fashion sense, $60,000 or more in household income and first homes of their own.

To take the angst out of decorating, Living Room's editors have downsized the goal from a flawless room to one great plate.

The first issue's cover image isn't a gorgeous salon, but jeans-clad Molly Sims, host of MTV's "House of Style," in an apartment pulled together in a week.

One cover title actually celebrates "The Art of Doing Nothing."

Prices in every caption suggest that shopping buys instant gratification, though any decorator knows that spending money does not guarantee style.

Meredith is best known for its 7.6 million-circulation flagship, Better Homes & Gardens, which Living Room's readers might find on their mothers' bedside tables. Meredith's focus groups revealed that the target audience was reading Lucky and Marie Claire for fashion counsel and dipping into catalogs for design ideas.

"There are a million shelter magazines," says publisher Michael Brownstein. Without Living Room, "women migrating from hip, fun, trendy, sexy magazines are suddenly going to find themselves in a more conservative world."

He proposes to make "dressing a home as much fun as getting dressed." A special feature asks, "Does Your Home Make You Look Gorgeous?" (The right wall color supposedly can make hair look shinier.) A regular column goes by the name of Room Candy.

The test issue may determine whether editors Myrna Blyth and Jeannie Pyun are right in thinking some women "love throw pillows even more than shoes."

Newsstand rivals are on the real-world bandwagon.

For two years, Dwell magazine has successfully canvassed the country for down-to-earth projects and straight talk about prices. Last month's cover boasts "the perfect $120,000 home."

A recent issue of Elle Decor advocates "Laid-Back Decorating." This month's issue touts "Hip & Classic," a collection of Danish modern furniture and pop art, but also honors Philippe Starck, who designs "affordable, democratic consumer goods" for (here it is again) Target.

Metropolitan Home touts "Amazing Ideas for Miraculous Makeovers" but tempers notions of extreme spending by presenting editor in chief Donna Warner sitting on an icon of cheap chic: Heller's $80 plastic Bellini chair. In a letter to readers, Warner writes of helping a daughter furnish a first home.

The availability of good design at retail is why the competition cometh. But how well shopping guides fare may depend on whether they can sustain the spirit.

Home has always been a state of mind, to be cherished as well as furnished. Decorating magazines have flourished for more than 100 years because their editors never forgot the essential role of fantasy and dreams. And that includes dreaming about how the other half lives.