The end of 2020 and the prospect of widespread vaccinations has turned the calendar page away from abject fear. We know 2021 will be like no other year we have experienced simply because 2020 was uniquely awful. But one particular era certainly came to a symbolic conclusion when Paige Rense, the editor who transformed Architectural Digest, died at the age of 91, right at the end of our plague year.
That magazine made the careers of many outstanding architects and designers, such as Shope Reno Wharton, Ike Kligerman Barkley, Dennis Wedlick and Mario Buatta, and photographers like Durston Saylor. AD sanctified the more famous as well, anointing Robert A.M. Stern, Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, and Bunny Williams, among many others.
Celebrity was Rense’s coin of the realm. If Jane Fonda and Ted Turner had a house, we all wanted to see it. And if their home had a “name” designer attached, even better. From about 1975 until she left publishing in 2010, her magazine fed a cultural fantasy. An entire generation of Baby Boomers saw where they wanted to be—better than their parents, rich, famous even—in the pages of Architectural Digest. Rense’s pages.
Like few other editors, Rense was her magazine. She was the Hugh Hefner of Home Media. The AD 100 sanctified the “correct” architects and designers, for those wealthy enough to believe that their home was an extension of their personal brand. That aspiration, the print equivalent of the hit TV show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, was bankable.
Mark Branch recalls, “Stern would say, ‘When I’m published in Digest, I get 10 new clients. When I’m published in P/A, I get a hundred letters from students looking for a job.’”
During Rense’s heyday, I worked at Breakfast Woodworks, making many of the kitchens, furniture, and millwork that appeared on those pages. And I knew a bunch of her favorite designers as well. It was a magic connection. She demanded exclusive publication rights, and she got it. Denigrated as a “decorating magazine” by serious architects, there was no doubt that publication in AD had real pull and power. Additional work inevitably flowed. “When I was at P/A [Progressive Architecture], one of our editors was always trying to get Stern’s latest house, only to be told it was going to Digest,” recalls Mark Branch. “Stern would say, ‘When I’m published in Digest, I get 10 new clients. When I’m published in P/A, I get a hundred letters from students looking for a job.’”
At the turn of the 21st century, digital technology began to steadily erode the power of print and its dominance as the only way for architects to promote their work. Of course magazines (including AD) and books remain today, but none without internet manifestations that reach far more readers than the paper versions now do.
The demise of print also ended the highly controlled anointing of “correct” designers. I was anointed in 1994 when the Home Section of the New York Times ran a feature on my work: one article produced 700 calls (no emails then) over a decade, garnering 40 projects, which in turn begat a great many more. In that world’s last gasp, the one house that in any way could overcome my lack of fame was offered to Rense. It was on a fantastic site in Greenwich, with a great interior designer, Ray Forehand, and a suburb photographer, Durston Saylor.
This was long before the internet. There were gatekeepers. You either had what they wanted, or you didn’t exist.
According to those who were there, she looked at the house and instantly said, “There is no one here I want to publish.” The clients were not famous. Ray and I had been published a lot, but never in AD; even one of their favored photographers, Saylor, could not overcome our infamy. This was long before the internet. There were gatekeepers. You either had what they wanted, or you did not exist.
Then the internet happened. Sites like Houzz launched and made top-down publishing somewhat obsolete. If you had the money to promote it, you got placement of your work before millions of viewers. So the print engine of fame that floated the boat of architectural journalism since World War 2 ended in a one-two punch of economic crash and internet revolution. But the star system lingers on. ArchDaily, Archinect, and The Architect’s Newspaper regularly feature scores of projects without the previous costs of paper, binding, and mailing. But there is no longer a “100” that has meaning. There are now hundreds of competition winners. Editors that once anointed stardom have been replaced by editors that facilitate page views. AD has been replaced by Houzz, Dwell, Pinterest, even HomeAdviser..
The third knock-out punch to the 20th century mode of architectural sanctification may be the excruciating year we just finished. Besides economics and technology, humans have had a pretty distinct aspiration since the dawn of the Industrial Age: success in worldly terms. “He who has the most toys wins.” Having what everyone wants was the key to why we wanted things. Now, after a year of discovering that we could not have what we really wanted most—human connection—life has fundamentally changed for the first time since World War 2.
We’re shifting from a culture obsessed with outcomes. Thirty years ago, what we wanted was presented to us on the pages of AD as a sort of high-end architectural pornographic fantasy. Houzz, the present-day vehicle for home-design voyeurs, may come to focus beyond the seemingly quaint goal of “Having it all.”
The new year begins a time of introspection, when we think of motivations rather than outcomes. Architectural Digest’s fantasies, killed by the internet, a burst bubble, and now a pandemic, have been buried by the recognition that our lives mean more than fantasies. They are about connection. This week I start on homes in Croatia and Massachusetts that are 21st century Waldens—not for the rich and famous, but for those same Boomers who rushed to see who was on the cover of AD. Today their children are hiring architects, contemplating careers without offices or commuting, with children at home, and education becoming personal.
2020 might have, finally, killed the 20th century. It also saw the natural end to a long and successful 91 years. But Paige Rense’s world changed 10 years ago, after leaving AD. “When I quit working, I lost all sense of identity in about fifteen minutes,” she said. Rense lost hers then. Maybe we are finding ours now.
Featured image via Architectural Digest Archive.