A Fantasy Crashes

Walls embalmed in 18 coats of lacquer. Chintz here, there and everywhere. Curtains with enough fabric to make dresses for Scarlett O'Hara and half the women in Georgia. Those were the interior-design emblems of the '80s, and the statement they made was intentionally blunt: we've got money to burn. The pinnacle for many designers and owners was a spread in Architectural Digest (AD to aficionados), HG and Metropolitan Home. Their influence was so great that even after the stock market and real-estate prices crashed in the late '80s, readers were loyal.

But now, even the dream books have had to wake up to the penny-pinching '90s. After expanding dramatically in the past decade, with many new titles, the field is now feeling the squeeze. In November, Metropolitan Home was sold and scaled back to six issues a year. In March, Conde Nast, publisher of HG, bought Architectural Digest, and last month it announced that the new kid had beaten out the old; HG's July issue will be its last.

In the world of decorating magazines, these were major renovations. And not welcome ones. HG's demise in particular is "a great loss to coverage of design and decoration," says Louis Oliver Gropp, who ran HG from 1981 to 1987 and is now editor in chief of the rival House Beautiful. But, Gropp says, "the '90s are a time of extraordinary change" in design magazines. He cites his own as an example. House Beautiful (circulation: 1,002,458) spent much of the '80s in upscale mode. Now, while there are still plenty of picture-perfect domestic landscapes, elements of social consciousness have been slowly creeping in. In the October issue the magazine's editors decorated an apartment for a homeless woman, a pregnant single mother with three young children. Throughout the magazine, rooms are simpler and quieter: eccentric personal collections of pottery rather than old masters, ethnic embroidery instead of brocade.

Of the three, HG had the hardest time finding an identity in the '80s. During Gropp's tenure it was still called House & Garden and catered to an upscale readership. But in 1987 Conde Nast installed British editor Anna Wintour, who rechristened it HG and started featuring so many fashion celebrities that some critics thought a better new name might be "House & Garment." Even worse, ads dropped. Wintour moved on to Vogue in 1988, and Nancy Novogrod, the current editor in chief, tried to push the magazine back to a more traditional formula, with pieces on country gardens and Manhattan apartments. While that's been popular with readers (circulation: 695,958), the recession made it hard for HG-and all other high-end decorating titles-to attract ads.

If HG's territory was old money and Park Avenue, rival AD (circulation: 653,648) was nouveau riche and Beverly Hills. It's definitely not for the do-it-yourselfer. The May issue, for example, features what is billed as "a rare excursion inside the Art Deco realm of the Last Great Indian Palace." Touches include armchairs upholstered in velvet and faux leopard, along with a ceiling adorned with gold leaf. When the company bought AD, says Bernard H. Leser, president of Conde Nast Publications, it intended to keep HG going, too. But once the purchase was completed, Conde Nast decided to back AD because in terms of ad pages, he says, it's "the leader in the field." Ads were the key factor. A decade ago furniture and home-furnishing manufacturers routinely purchased multipage promotions. The recession has meant drastic ad-budget cuts, Leser says; he wouldn't give out profitability numbers.

AD may be the survivor, but some observers think it needs a little updating. "It seems to be, in many ways, a formula whose time has gone," says Dorothy Kalins, former editor in chief of Metropolitan Home. She thinks the magazine should find a new set of trendier subjects to profile but should still retain its voyeuristic appeal. "People love to see how other people live."

Kalins's reign over Metropolitan Home was a publishing success story. The magazine started out more than 20 years ago as Apartment Life, little more than a guide to brick-and-board bookcases in 1,000 square feet. But as its readers, primarily baby boomers, grew up and started making down payments, the magazine metamorphosed into a glossy book touting what Kalins calls "good style and how to get it." The rooms were sleek but not completely out of the average Yuppie's reach. In 1989, when Kalins was named Adweek's "editor of the year," she described Met Home as "a magazine that dedicates itself to the realizable dream." At the end of last year Met Home's circulation was a healthy 726,266.

Despite the magazine's prominence, the Des Moines-based Meredith Corp., Met Home's owner, decided last year to concentrate on its other design titles-Better Homes and Gardens, Traditional Home and Country Home-which appeal to a more mainstream, middle-class audience. That meant either closing or selling Met Home. Hachette, a subsidiary of a French publisher, bought the magazine because, Hachette officials say, it was a good fit with their other two home-decorating titles: Home, aimed mostly at young families, and Elle Decor, a spinoff of the fashion magazine that stresses European style. Nine members of Met Home's current staff came from the old magazine, but Kalins didn't go along. "I had a great run," she says, but she wanted to try something different. She still hasn't figured out what that is. The new editor in chief, Donna Warner, says that "the essence of the magazine hasn't changed" in the two issues she has put out. But she wants to emphasize that it's a reality-based magazine," not a "dream book." The May/June issue a vintage sink on the cover. The symbolism is clear: tried and true, not trendy.

Kalins thinks the big success stories in the '90s will be magazines like Decorating Remodeling that are very service-oriented because people want more value for their $2.95. She also thinks the market will become increasingly fractionalized; smaller magazines that cater to particular tastes may have an easier time attracting ads and readers. A few big magazines, like House Beautiful or AD, may well survive, but some other likely winners might be Traditional Home or Country Home, which feature only one style and are aimed at baby boomers with families, readers more concerned with making the most out of storage space than making a statement.

Even in a time of retrenchment, editors are betting that readers still crave pages full of domestic fantasy. It's comforting to know that someone, somewhere, has their house in order-even if you're just trying to scrape up the money to paint the garage.