Dobrow Is Nesting, Turns to Home Mags for Help

Media Reviews for Media People: Architectural Digest, House Beautiful

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I moved last week for the first time in more than five years, an experience that left me with scrapes all over my body and deep concern about the future of customer service. For the last 12 days, I've been swimming in a sea of masking tape and Styrofoam, my every gyration set to a soundtrack of puncturing bubble-wrap. Living out of boxes was much more enchanting right after college.

House Beautiful

My new roommate -- who, as it turns out, prefers "love of my life" or "the reason I hope to continue taking in oxygen for many years to come" to "roommate" -- broke it to me gently that we wouldn't be bringing any of my functional if not particularly comely furniture with us. So after nagging her into tolerating my awesomely ugly armchair, I set about giving away most of my possessions to Housing Works and on Craigslist. On moving day, I showed up at the new digs with nothing other than a pile of yellow-pitted running shirts and tens of Springsteen bootlegs.

Which meant one thing: There was an apartment to be filled and decorated within an inch of its being. Happily, the roommate/personal Jesus has taste and class in abundance, which meant she'd take the lead on all purchases. But I still wanted to contribute, because I felt that my dogs-playing-poker decorative inclinations should be validated on a grander scale. O, sweet new preferred provider of printed-and-bound periodicals on the corner: Whatcha got for me?

There aren't many dapper home-decorating magazines left. Domino recently left the building and took with it its stash of too-cute tchotchkes. Blueprint, a title aimed at young-minded dwellers and catering to their love of sanitized quirk, was euthanized before it could gain traction.

After ducking the counterman's recommendation of six mags with "Country" in their moniker, I snared the July issues of coffee-table mainstays Architectural Digest and House Beautiful. I expected that the roommate/enormously tolerant soul would appreciate the initiative I took. Instead, she patted me on the head and pointed me toward the TV.

Four days later, I emerged from the couch and checked out my purchases. It goes without saying that neither Architectural Digest nor House Beautiful is aimed toward youngish city dwellers, at least not in a practical sense. In an aspirational one, sure. But otherwise, I expected that these magazines would cater exclusively to individuals who can afford to drop 30 grand on duvet covers.

I was only half right. Architectural Digest, to me, is a magazine designed to be displayed rather than perused. Placing it in a spot of prominence says to visitors, "The owner of this magazine, and thus this abode, appreciates the finer things in life, especially ones that announce his/her good taste and lofty social standing."

Architectural Digest

Which is fine -- whatever floats your boat, man. My issue with the issue, though, is that none of the residences depicted therein look remotely livable. They more closely resemble museum displays or high-end-furniture showrooms than actual living quarters; they should come annotated with a warning, a la "Good luck achieving this on your own."

Whether they showcase a seaside Hamptons palace or a West Palm Beach plantation/college library amalgam, the AD spreads are uniformly beautiful. The mag does a wonderful job of explaining why the designer made the decisions that he/she did; the story that accompanies the pix of a California canyon abode almost makes sense out of the enormo scissors perched over an otherwise ordinary fireplace.

I wish AD ran more features like the "Motoring By Design" spread, which takes readers inside a Mercedes-Benz design complex. Instead, the mag wastes space on four separate "Discoveries By Designers" showcases -- can any David Yurman watch really be considered a "discovery"? -- and a fawning, ohmigodthismagazinestirssomethingdeepinmysoul letters page. Ultimately, poring through Architectural Digest is like poring through a Sotheby's catalog: It's lovely enough to look at, but utterly impractical.

House Beautiful works better because it sweats the details. The July issue highlights 50 wastebaskets over two pages and features 60 small, captioned pix detailing a "one-day makeover" of a room in a high-end apartment. It surveys crowns, outdoor rugs and beanbag chairs, a few of which have landed on my lobby-the-roommate/object-of-my-intense-affection list. It's the rare home-design publication that users across the socioeconomic spectrum -- fine, across the middle and higher ranges of the socioeconomic spectrum -- will find themselves eagerly dog-earing. Its ideas are workable and, even to my slobbo eye, pretty darn neat-looking.

I also like the text that accompanies the photo spreads. Rather than windy appreciations featuring writing that would prompt a professor to cast a would-be English major out of the liberal-arts womb (from AD: "a sculptural white cube floating on thin pilotis, the building possesses a practically unbearable lightness of being"), HB runs terse, informative Q&As with the designers involved. Many such magazines don't bother with the "why"; they're so sure that readers will be dazzled by the photos that they present them without explanation. While I don't quite understand the brief foray into cupcake recipes, otherwise House Beautiful makes magic out of the mundane.

Perhaps it's worth noting that the aforementioned cupcake celebration sits across the fold from a Hellman's ad. Indeed, unlike many home-design publications, HB nets more than its share of non-endemic marketers. While the July issue of Architectural Digest boasts a thimbleful of luxury brands (Acura and Cartier, plus a bizarre "special advertising section" for American Airlines' in-flight meals), House Beautiful snares Pantene, Olay, Cuisinart, Stacy's Simply Naked pita chips and Toshiba (for an anti-clutter pitch, but still).

The overall effect: that Architectural Digest is for show, and House Beautiful is for function. But we already knew that.

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