Jessica Helfand | Essays

Design Gone Mad

Readers of Martha Stewart Living generally fall into two categories: those who take the time to tie each canapé with a single chive, and those who don't. The first category boasts a wide range of personality types, from the house-proud wannabes who delight in stiching fine calligraphic ornaments onto their freshly-pressed linens, to the earnest artisans who make grape arbors from hand-crafted coat hangers, to those annoyingly happy people who effortlessly produce lakeside feasts for 75 or so of their closest friends.

My reaction to these sorts of people typically vascillates between envy and exasperation. Flipping through the monthly magazine, I gaze wearily at the jauntily positioned citronella candles, the robust platters of sizzling seafood, the tow-headed children giddily ingesting fresh-from-the-oven fruit cobblers, the overflowing buckets of just-picked dahlias adding just a soupçon of country air.

Let me just add that I live in the country, where the air is pretty much soupçon-free, save for the sheetrock dust that penetrates every centimeter of breathing space. Seeking morning sustenance, our own children spent the better part of last winter having to put their parkas on over their pajamas to even enter their kitchen which was, for a time, only accessible by an outside back door.

Yes, we are living proof that construction (otherwise known as a redesign in your own home) can ricochet through your life, gathering more dust than dahlias. We began on the first of June, 2003 — over a year ago — and we're still not finished.

It's a bad thing.

Yet beyond the obvious — the mess and the expense and the innumerable delays — journalistic integrity (and, well, shame) obliges me to confess that it is the design of this kitchen that is perhaps most of all to blame. This is, after all, the kitchen of two designers who rarely agree on anything, let alone where the faucets should go. Real chefs would likely classify ours as an anorexic kitchen: in other words, it looks great, but can you cook in it?

Arguably, an insatiable quest for perfection might be said to characterize not only most anorexics but most designers, too. Celebrity cooking goddess Lyn Hall confessed in last week's Guardian that her worst experience by far working as a personal chef was being faced with a minimalist kitchen. "It was design gone mad," reports Hall. "A long steel slab, hidden knobs, all the appliances behind white cupboards that had to be kept closed as the hostess had Terence Conran coming to dinner and wanted everything perfect."

If minimalism run amok is one example of design gone mad, then surely Martha Stewart's fall from grace, due to a poor moment of judgment regarding a stock tip, represents another. Today is the day that Martha is to be arraigned in Manhattan, and while much is being speculated about her sentencing ("house arrest" takes on rather a different meaning in Martha's case) I've been thinking about the design ramifications of her imminent incarceration. Sure, her eponymous empire will continue — the magazines, the TV reruns, the fabric and paint and recipes — but where will a nation of design-challenged innocents turn if their guru is behind bars?

In an age of anorexic kitchen design, let us remember that we have Martha to thank for reminding us that design can also mean indulgence: sloppy and homsespun, her design philosophy is all about comfort and reassurance; about do it yourself and re-use; about dessert and naps and fifteen uses for old handkerchiefs. Sure, some of it is really lame: design, as most of us would likely characterize it, has little use for decorative lampshades made from mosaics of felt scraps. But if you think about the perceived value of design outside our profession, it is equally true that design has become a household word — and an achievable goal — thanks to Martha Stewart's ambitious efforts (fulfilled, of course, by the legion of experts on her payroll) to make design real. In terms of content and intellectual value, it may just be the most egregious example of Design Gone Mad that any of us can think of. But at the end of the day, you have to admit: it's probably a good thing.

Comments [13]

This just in: CNN reports that Federal Judge Miriam Cedarbaum fined Stewart $30,000 and sentenced her to five months in prison, five months of home confinement and two years of supervised probation after she is released.

Stewart's lawyers are expected to appeal.
Jessica Helfand

thanks to Martha Stewart's ambitious efforts (fulfilled, of course, by the legion of experts on her payroll) to make design real.

Real? Jessica, you're a designer gone mad. You've been seduced by pure aesthetic. You were right about the legion of experts, but forgot to mention the wealth of time and materials. The highly contrived, moneyed, white "design" of Martha Stewart is largely unattainable except by the wealthy, talented, and unemployed (all three). This aesthetic attempts to hearken back to a bygone Kennedy era that never really existed. Don't be fooled by all that patchwork and supposed repurposing of materials. It's completely bogus and its unhappy attempted emulation is probably directly responsible for the suicidal tendencies of women across North America.

I urge you to reject everything that is Martha, and take pleasure in creating something that is uniquely you out of drywall, scraps of wood and steel (or whatever). I spent 3 years enshrouded in dust, running electrical wire and packing insulation--and our kitchen is still pieces of plywood propped on 2x4s! But I wouldn't trade my house or kitchen for any faux old-money Martha Stewart contrivance in the world.
marian bantjes

As Martha pleads for the judge to "consider all the intense suffering" on this "shameful day" we are still detaining 594 suspects in Guantanamo Bay without charges or access to lawyers.
Still she claims innocence after proven guilty.
Barely a slap on the hand.
How long until I can buy an orange jumpsuit at Kmart...say Halloween?
Ryan Pescatore Frisk

Characterizing Martha Stewart's style as "faux old money" not only misses the point of Jessica's piece but also substitutes canned class rhetoric for critique.

The Martha Stewart Living phenomenon is part of a larger cultural trend toward the democratization of luxury that includes the rise of Target, Premium outlet malls, and a proliferation of cooking shows. Martha Stewart the person had neither the pedigree nor the economic incentive to cater to true old money style -- a musty program of ancestor worship through decoration. The idea that there would be a mass market for domestic design projects more likely grew out of the waves of new money immigrants to towns like Westport and Darien, who were Martha's first customers. Their desire to be simultaneously casual and upscale defined the rustic/elegant continuum on which Martha built her vision of domestic bliss. The democratization was complete when Stewart introduced a line of products for K-Mart which could be easily attained irrespective of wealth, talent, or employment.

Whatever you may think of Stewart, her Kmart products are excellent. The peeler has a large handle that's easy to grasp, the ladles are solid pieces of construction that are very functional looking (they would not look out of place in a restaurant kitchen), and they all look to be solidly built and reasonably priced (as they have to be in a retail store a step above Wal-Mart).
Bill Peschel

Dmitri, my point is not so much about the products that the Martha Stewart phenomenon has helped to bring to the market (which this post did not mention) as it is about the clean and pretty lifestyle promoted by her magazines. I object to the fact that most of her so-called handmade artefacts are in fact objects of trickery (aided and implemented by people paid to apply their sometimes extraordinary skills) and are thus unobtainable by the average person (her market) with jobs and kids and much more important things to do than decorate eggs or fold napkins. Call this canned class rhetoric if you will but I assure you that there is a great divide between those Kmart shoppers and Martha and her minions. I maintain that Martha's vision of domestic bliss includes a great many (unseen) servants.

Am I saying that the plebes should remain in the muck and forget about pretty things? Not at all. I applaud every effort to bring well-designed (and not just pretty) objects within the reach of all of us. However, I am dismayed by all forms of manufactured culture, and my comment was an encouragement to all of us to use our own very real materials and within the limitations of our resources (time and money) create homes and environments that reflect us, not something that we see in a magazine and have been told is the epitome of "good taste."

Sure, if you prefer (as I do) a big messy barbeque with pieces of food that may or may not have fallen on the ground, furniture that shows signs of true use, bookshelves that brimmeth over, by all means don't read Martha Stewart Living. But I find the phenomenon has a creep and when I see otherwise sensible friends of mine struggling to perfectly enflower a cake, I wonder if it's not more than design that has gone mad.
marian bantjes

I don't like this democratization of luxury thing. All that does is spread your assets thin and encourages manufacturers to charge more for things that aren't really luxurious. In the long run, real cheap is better than almost luxury (unless you're physically disabled) .

To satisfy one's taste for the good life and stop agonizing over one's amateurish skills or mundane possessions, it's better to save and hire a real craftsman or buy the best of some durable good you use every day, the essentials (a category whose size is totally exaggerated), and to splurge only once in a while. In all other cases, "lousiness" is the key to good living.

Some people will get good at enflowering cakes. Maybe they'll get good enough to open shop. But aside from that, the desires and expectations of mad skills, intelligence, grace, taste, talent, or some form of wealth is unachievable when the goal is to be always surrounded by an orgy of fantastic-ness. Martha Stewart is an example of the perfect being the enemy of the good. She's classically pop in her crudeness and indiscriminate lusts. Look where that got her, and you. She's a bad thing.

What I find bracingly uniform about people's criticisms of Martha Stewart is how little they have to do with Martha Stewart. I'd encourage all of her critics to take a spin through this month's issue of Living, and pick out the things that they find so objectionable: is it the four step recipe for lemon poppy-seed cookies, the article about how the Shaker movement helped shape modern agronomy, or the foolproof method for keeping votive candles from sticking to your glassware?

I'd agree that "an aesthetic that harkens back to a mythical era" is repellant and regressive, but the only place you'll find it in the magazine is in the Ralph Lauren ads, where well-scrubbed Anglo children cavort in blazers from fake prep schools and aw-shucks newsboy caps. Other advertisers are guilty of equally objectionable things for which Martha is routinely blamed by the uninformed, from greedily commodifying luxury (The Bombay Company, Baker Furniture) to exhibiting shockingly outmoded notions about women (GE, Guess, and Oil of Olay, just in the first 30 pages.) But this is not what Martha, her media, or her philosophy are about.

There is undoubtedly a bit of theatre involved, since magazines and books and television shows are, ultimately, entertainment. And certainly I can admit to being peeved by seeing so many of Martha's many stately homes and Versailles-sizes cutting gardens, but then I'm jealous of anyone who has a nice house in the country. I don't disagree that the craft projects in Living are ridiculous, but only because all craft projects are ridiculous. Tens of millions of North Americans count "crafting" as a hobby, a vast army mostly of married suburban women, who were making festive holiday vests and pinecone picture frames long before Martha ever took to the hot glue gun. Feel free to disparage these people and their pastimes if you must, but don't blame it on Martha.

Graphic design blogs are filled with pedantic ding-dongs who get up in arms about absent smart quotes and fake small caps, and they rightly defend these niceties as worth having because there's no reason not to have them: they don't come at any additional expense, beyond taking the time to learn how to use them. I'd hope that her critics here might recognize that this is Martha's credo too, whether it's applied to making a pastry crust or tuck-pointing a retaining wall. Her empire is founded on the principle that anything worth doing is worth doing well, and that things done smartly are satisfying to use and joyous to experience. Martha's (ill-titled) book How to Decorate begins not with a presentation of handome auction furniture, or a paean to the good life in Easthampton, but with a well-organized exploration of color theory worthy of Josef Albers. It begins with this simple and honest observation: "A fresh coat of paint is within the reach of almost everyone."

I've worked with a number of MSLO magazines over the years, and ten years ago I had the pleasure of very briefly meeting Martha in person. It was in the context of a rushed design meeting, in which I was presenting a typeface prototype to Gael Towey, MSLO's Creative Director. In the two minutes she had to spare, Martha took the time not only to say some very kind things about the work I was doing, but to ask some cogent questions that revealed a sincere inquisitiveness about how I do what I do: are there things I find especially difficult about working both by hand and by computer? Is designing a font the kind of thing on which multiple designers can collaborate? Are there academic programs that specialize in typeface design, or countries where type design is especially strong, and are type designers typically trained in calligraphy? Are there qualities or connotations of this typeface, or anything about its history, which makes it especially relevant to the magazine? These are not questions I'm often asked by anyone, let alone non-designers, and they revealed a genuine interest in learning more about how things are made, and why they look the way they do.

One look at the design of the new $20 bill, in which no graphic designers were involved, should remind us that ours is a culture which regards aesthetics with suspicion -- if not downright hostility. Against the grain of this, Martha Stewart has built a one billion dollar industry based on the simple premise that things should look nice. I don't see how any of us can fail to admire and respect that.
Jonathan Hoefler

Well said, Jonathan. Thank you for this.
Jessica Helfand

It is true that Martha Stewart, the person, does not always help the world like her. If you read Julia Child's biography you'll find the following description of the domestic goddess of the electronic age:

"'Every age gets the house-hold goddess it deserves,' wrote Margaret Talbot in a 'New Republic' cover story on Martha Stewart: 'The Tyrant of Taste.' Half the first page was devoted to Julia Child, our first 'house-hold goddess': 'sophisticated... as permissive as Dr. Spock... anti-snob... [with] an air of Cambridge eccentricity -- faintly bohemian and a little tatty.' The contrast was easy. Julia was 'something of a sensualist, a celebrant of appetite as much as a pedant of cooking'; Martha was the 'corporate overachiever turned domestic superachiever... in earth-toned Armani... [who] generates some $200 million in profits a year."

Fitch, Noel Riley. 'Appetite for life: The Biography of Julia Child'. Random House: New York, 1997, pp 487-488.

(There is not much further discussion about Stewart, other than a deservedly snarky anecdote about a Holiday episode of her show which guest-starred Julia Child and Miss Piggy...)

I can't say that I've been a big Martha fan over the years. I found truth in the domestic goddess quote in the '90s and wished for warmth of Julia Child who many people my age watched like the news every day when we were little just after Sesame Street. We still don't know quite how much we owe to Julia -- who took American food away from scientists and the freezer section of the grocery store when she introduced cuisine to our tv-dinner culture.

Martha is a polarizing figure, especially today. I used to love to hate her too, but I always had to admit she had something going on. We owe something to her too. She draws on the history of American craft -- the kinds of foods and objects maybe our parents, but certainly our grand-ancestors used to make not so long ago. The 'Martha Stewart Living' magazines are some of the most subtle of the shelter magazines from the 1990s. They aren't a high-gloss parade of expensive hipster-wares -- things to own that will make you desirable and cool. More often than not, her magazine is full of things for its readers to make; however, most probably read each issue and note all the things they'd try if any of us really had the time. A headline in The New York Times on July 7th dashed our last hope in this regard: Europe Reluctantly Deciding It Has Less Time for Time Off.

How are Martha's artefacts objects of trickery if they are produced by an army of well-paid experts? I can't believe Martha expects us to believe she is sitting at her desk making felt. Each article in her magazine is credited appropriately and you'll find there even someone with the title 'Craft Editor'. While Martha's products may suggest an ideal of unattainable suburban perfection that can get under one's skin, we're free to take it or leave it as far as our own insecurities let us. I don't find the food in 'Gourmet' magazine to be trickery even though it has been prepared by experts and their lushly pictured results are probably not edible knowing the tricks of the professional food stylist.

Following this logic to an extreme, couldn't one go so far as to say that the products of a graphic design studio are objects of trickery since there is usually a small army of skilled makers producing the work that is often perceived to have been made by the studio's owner singlehandedly?

We have so much in this country. We can buy just about anything (whether we can afford it or not, thanks to the democratization of credit if not design). We can even buy frozen scrambled eggs in the freezer section of the grocery store -- it is depressing to think how much effort it takes to produce their shiny, 4-color box. Most of us don't make anything anymore. Martha suggests, albeit in lushly extreme examples, that we should.
Tracy Jenkins

I agree with the general conclusions of the last few posts, that things worth doing are worth doing well, that things should look nice, and people should make things. But in regards to Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, specifically, these values are presented in a not-too-innocuous manner. MSLO wouldn't have become a "one billion dollar industry based on the simple premise that things should look nice", but it did on the mania that everything should look nice. Anything you can think of, in every aspect of your home and life, its directions will be provided for you in the next issue of the magazine or program on TV, and the next, and the next, and the next, with no end in sight. With the right attitude, admittedly critical or maybe nonchalant, one can take and ignore as they please. A recipe here, a color scheme there. But it's faulty to assert that these publications and telecasts don't add up to something greater and more terrible than its parts. (Not to say all the discrete parts are without suspicion. There is such a thing as way too much butter or caviar.)

We mustn't lose sight of the social-historical context. The "do-it-yourself" tradition (the planning and production of projects by and for the self) is indebted to the historical tradition of many social cultural reforms. Do-it-yourself work has been best understood historically in the context of the rise of domestic advice specialists in the nineteenth-century, beginning with Catherine Beecher and then extending its influence throughout the twentieth-century with figures like Hazel and Julius Rockow who embraced the role of do-it-yourself projects as a form of familial bonding. The idea that one can be self-directed toward improvement whether of the self, of the family, or of the home is a hallmark of the do-it-yourself tradition. And, while we can certainly trace the nascent formation of do-it-yourself work back to the Protestant reformation, I think it is worth considering Emerson's "Self-Reliance" to be the founding text on do-it-yourself activities, especially when it comes to redesigning the self.

When I read in "Self-Reliance" Emerson writing, "For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure," I thought of Martha Stewart and the verdict that was handed down by the jury in the United States District Court in New York City. Guilty of the four charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and two counts of making false statements. But not necessarily or merely guilty of the crime of lying and deceiving the FBI and the SEC in the ImClone investigation, rather Martha Stewart is guilty of being a perfectionist.
Michael J. Golec

I thank you for mentioning my parents, Hazel and Julius Rockow, in your message of July 20, 2004. As far as "do-it-yourself projects as a form of familial bonding," you should know that my father hardly knew which end of a hammer to hold, although he would have dearly loved to have been proficient at carpentry. Nor did he and my mother ever get around to decorating our own house. It pleases me to know recall how down to earth they were and how practical.
Karen Rockow

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