Design Observer

About
Books
Job Board
Newsletters
Archive
Contact



Observatory

About
Resources
Submissions
Contact


Featured Writers

Michael Bierut
William Drenttel
John Foster
Jessica Helfand
Alexandra Lange
Mark Lamster
Paul Polak
Rick Poynor
John Thackara
Rob Walker


Departments

Advertisement
Audio
Books
Collections
Dear Bonnie
Dialogues
Essays
Events
Foster Column
From Our Archive
Gallery
Interviews
Miscellaneous
Opinions
Partner News
Photos
Poetry
Primary Sources
Projects
Report
Reviews
Slideshows
The Academy
Today Column
Unusual Suspects
Video


Topics

Advertising
Architecture
Art
Books
Branding
Business
Cities / Places
Community
Craft
Culture
Design History
Design Practice
Development
Disaster Relief
Ecology
Economy
Education
Energy
Environment
Fashion
Film / Video
Food/Agriculture
Geography
Global / Local
Graphic Design
Health / Safety
History
Housing
Ideas
Illustration
India
Industry
Info Design
Infrastructure
Interaction Design
Internet / Blogs
Journalism
Landscape
Literature
Magazines
Media
Museums
Music
Nature
Obituary
Other
Peace
Philanthropy
Photography
Planning
Poetry
Politics / Policy
Popular Culture
Poverty
Preservation
Product Design
Public / Private
Public Art
Religion
Reputations
Science
Shelter
Social Enterprise
Sports
Sustainability
Technology
Theory/Criticism
Transportation
TV / Radio
Typography
Urbanism
Water


Comments Posted 03.05.06 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Rob Walker

Original Tastemaker


Last year, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia announced what sounds like the ultimate option for those who take their lifestyle cues from the domestic-arts celebrity: a 650-home community near Raleigh, N.C., designed and built in a collaboration between Stewart and KB Home, a builder of residential houses. Reportedly priced at roughly $200,000 to $400,000, the houses will "reflect places that are very special to me — my very own homes," Stewart said. This certainly sounds like a new frontier in tastemaker power. Yet peddling a vision of the good and proper home (and life) to the masses predates Martha: Edward Bok may not have her Q rating today, but as the editor of Ladies' Home Journal a century ago, his influence was Stewart-size or greater.

Bok had headed the Journal for about six years when, in 1895, the magazine published its first model-house design, including floor plans by the Philadelphia architect William L. Price, titled "A $3,500 Suburban House." Such designs became a regular feature, and readers could buy complete sets of plans from the magazine. Bok kept this up until 1919, covering an era when a new and expanding middle-class America was taking shape, with growing numbers of people who could afford to worry about modernity and taste but who could not afford to hire an architect. Leland M. Roth, a professor of architecture at the University of Oregon, dug through years of back issues while researching an article on Ladies' Home Journal houses for a 1991 issue of the journal Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture. Although Bok's magazine was not the only source of architectural inspiration for the aspiring homeowner, Roth wrote that it was "perhaps the single most effective agent in disseminating ideas regarding improvement in home planning and decoration."

The concept of houses being based on published designs dates back to the Italian Renaissance, according to Daniel D. Reiff, author of the comprehensive "Houses From Books." Pattern books for designers became more common after about 1750, and collections of mail-order plans aimed at consumers were well established by the late 1890's, when Ladies' Home Journal added plans to its pages and published its own books. (The next iteration would be the prefabricated "kit house," with companies like Sears selling not just the plans but also all the precut lumber and other materials.)

Ladies' Home Journal had a huge circulation (1.6 million in 1915), and while it's hard to nail down a number, people did build the houses. Roth recounts examples that the Journal itself publicized; in 1916, for instance, the magazine ran a four-page spread of photographs of Journal houses and claimed 30,000 existed. Among the contributing architects was Frank Lloyd Wright; his design for "A Home in a Prairie Town" appeared in the February 1901 issue and has been credited as the starting point of "the prairie style."

While Bok never seemed to have come up with an umbrella description for his enterprises quite as frightening as "Omnimedia," he was not shy about his ambitions or influence. (His autobiography includes a scene in which President Theodore Roosevelt tells him, "Bok, I envy you your power with your public." ) At its core, his magazine sought to tackle the same questions of taste and respectability that many consumers face today. In the 1996 book "Selling Culture," Richard Ohmann, a professor of English at Wesleyan, included Ladies' Home Journal as an example of a type of magazine that came about at the turn of the 20th century, with a lower cover price, a reliance on advertising and an unprecedented readership. The underlying strategy, Ohmann wrote, was "a formula of elegant simplicity: identify a large audience that is not hereditarily affluent or elite, but that is getting on well enough, and that has cultural aspirations."

Like the supposedly new "mass class" consumer of today who wants to trade up but could use a little guidance in how to do it, readers of the Journal were looking for answers, and Bok was happy to supply them: he published all manner of advice, including pictures of rooms decorated in his view of exemplary fashion. The only thing he didn't do was brand everything he offered as an answer to those questions. Today's lifestyle mavens have, of course, figured that out. 


This essay was originally published in The New York Times Magazine, March 5, 2006.  

|
Share This Story

Comments

Design Observer encourages comments to be short and to the point; as a general rule, they should not run longer than the original post. Comments should show a courteous regard for the presence of other voices in the discussion. We reserve the right to edit or delete comments that do not adhere to this standard.
Read Complete Comments Policy >>


Name             

Email address 




Please type the text shown in the graphic.


|
Share This Story



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rob Walker is a technology/culture columnist for Yahoo News. He is the former Consumed columnist for The New York Times Magazine, and has contributed to many publications. He is co-editor (with Joshua Glenn) of the book Significant Objects: 100 Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things, and author of Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are
More Bio >>

DESIGN OBSERVER JOBS









RELATED POSTS


Lucia Eames, 1930-2014
An appreciation of Lucia Eames (1930-2014).

The Astrodome and the Challenges of Preservation
The Astrodome and the future of preservation.

Not Afraid of Noise: Mexico City Stories
A photographic tour of Mexico City, house by house, wall by wall.

Genzken and the City
A review of Isa Genzken's current retrospective on view at the MOMA.

Premature Demolition
The Folk Art Museum, David Adjaye's market hall, and the first addition to the Morgan Library. If three makes a trend, then premature demolition qualifies.