It all started with a conversation in our editorial meeting about the simplicity movement. One of our staffers told us how, when the magazine Real Simple first came out, she was thrilled to have a monthly resource on voluntary simplicity. Her delight turned to dismay, however, when she realized that this magazine, which claims to embrace simplicity, at times reads more like a Sharper Image catalog. With that in mind, we thought it would be interesting to browse through a handful of home decorating magazines on their interpretation of simplicity. Admittedly, some of the magazines we looked at are not necessarily shooting for simplicity as an editorial value, but in every case there was some element of simplicity that the magazine seemed to reflect. In some cases, it was an emphasis on vintage elements (re-using materials, an important tenet of simplicity), a commitment to earth-friendly practices or, more often than not, a visual interpretation of simplicity with clean lines, natural materials and lots of space. We used three criteria to evaluate the magazines -- aesthetics, affordability and sustainability (or earth-friendliness) -- on a four-star "simplicity meter" system.
Cottage Style -- Oh boy. Where do we begin? We picked this one because under the title Cottage Style is the promising line "Return to the Simple Life." And yet the cover photo shows a bedroom that can only be described as a Mary Engelbreit print on a sugar high. We counted 32 different patterns jockeying for position in this one small room, including two different carpets, a busy print comforter and the deliberately chipped bed railings and wooden chair. Not only that, the entire magazine suffers from an over-reliance on pink, especially on a spread entitled "Fairytale Perfect." The pink and green dining room was one thing -- every horizontal surface, and many of the vertical surfaces as well, seemed crammed with pink objects of one kind or another. The bathroom, however, made a few of our staffers recoil in horror. Gaudy cabbage rose wallpaper, a bathtub lined with knickknacks and a strong ruffles-and-roses vibe culminated in the good-taste sin of running a puffy ruched valence (matching the wallpaper) across a leaded glass window with a stained glass floral inset. This bathroom needed a simplicity makeover, beginning with replacing the windows with plain old glass -- all the better to see the harbor view in the distance -- and a liberal application of ecru paint.
Simplicity Meter: *
The only area where Cottage Style shows any simplicity is in using antiques (re-using materials). But that one good is almost immediately outweighed by all the bads: this look is cluttered, expensive and accumulative.
Organic Style -- Organic Style is a lot of fun to peruse. The layout and photo composition are soothing, elegant and spare, and we enjoyed the pieces on tile made from recycled glass and the advice on how to make your home healthier for kids. The issue we looked at also had a splendid article on Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet For a Small Planet (whose new book, Hope's Edge, we review in this issue) along with some good articles on harvesting windpower and switching from conventional to organic gardening. The one troubling thing about Organic Style is that it is clearly for the upscale consumer; it's as if Town & amp; Country and the Utne Reader got together and had a little magazine baby. One of the articles, "Armani Goes Green," reflects this dual emphasis on sustainable agriculture (in this case hemp) and high fashion, but it's most noticeable in a gushing piece on the Sophie chair, made of sustainably harvested wood and natural fibers, which sells at $585.
Simplicity Meter: ***
We like Organic Style's organic style, but had to dock points on the affordability of said style.
Martha Stewart Living - Martha is many things U. Ubiquitous. Upper class. Ultra-tasteful. We thought this magazine would make an easy target, as our editors are mixed on the charms of Martha. While she is a juggernaut of marketing acumen and a fearsome doyenne of the domestic, we have to admit, her magazine is the Ultimate guilty pleasure. The recent 100th issue features a pleasingly simple assortment of delicate hellebores on the cover and the visual language of the magazine evokes an oasis of restful good taste. If you can overlook all the advertising, you'll find that the recipes are much simpler than you'd think (even I could make the rice pudding tarts with blood oranges), and the articles often honor the values of simplicity.
Simplicity Meter: ***
It's a lovely magazine, and there's no denying Martha's taste, but there are a lot of ads, and the reader is approached throughout as a consumer.
Natural Home - This is overall a solid little publishing product, containing articles on the building of a natural New Mexico home, on the renovation of a farmhouse for a chemically sensitive woman, on choosing locally grown eggs, and on how to plant trees and ground cover to minimize energy costs. The writers and editors are well versed in sustainable living practices, and we even learned a new term "baubiologie," or the practice of incorporating a "breathing wall" into a home. The one thing we didn't like was a section of articles early in the magazine that read more like ads... basically an assortment of like-minded products much like Oprah's "O List." But overall we appreciated Natural Home's strong book review section, the emphasis on only accepting ads from reputable natural living companies and its text-heavy content.
Simplicity Meter: ****
These folks know what they're doing, and it shows. This is an attractive publication for people who are serious about building and living in natural homes.
Nest -- Why did we pick this one? Nest does not purport to offer the reader much in the way of simplicity, yet we were drawn to its quirky die-cut design and quasi-nostalgic cover. Edgy, young and hip, Nest's philosophy can best be summed up by the text of one of its many ads: "The Whitney Biennial is coming. Carry your ass over there. It should be good. See art by the young and the hung." We liked the Chris Ware comic in back, Dan Savage's article on Amsterdam's Black Tulip Hotel, which caters to a strictly gay S & amp;M crowd, and the article on the thrift store digs of Dolores Deluxe and Vince Peranio (longtime associates of John Waters). There was even a piece on an austere Paris apartment encased floor to ceiling in white resin, furnished by nothing but a sofa and two chairs made of clear PVC and cushion springs. Very simple. But very self-consciously hip.
Simplicity Meter: **
But four stars for originality. Check it out anyway.