Rob Walker | Essays

Original Tastemaker

Last year, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia announced what sounds like the ultimate option for those who take their lifestyle cues from the domestic-arts celebrity: a 650-home community near Raleigh, N.C., designed and built in a collaboration between Stewart and KB Home, a builder of residential houses. Reportedly priced at roughly $200,000 to $400,000, the houses will "reflect places that are very special to me — my very own homes," Stewart said. This certainly sounds like a new frontier in tastemaker power. Yet peddling a vision of the good and proper home (and life) to the masses predates Martha: Edward Bok may not have her Q rating today, but as the editor of Ladies' Home Journal a century ago, his influence was Stewart-size or greater.

Bok had headed the Journal for about six years when, in 1895, the magazine published its first model-house design, including floor plans by the Philadelphia architect William L. Price, titled "A $3,500 Suburban House." Such designs became a regular feature, and readers could buy complete sets of plans from the magazine. Bok kept this up until 1919, covering an era when a new and expanding middle-class America was taking shape, with growing numbers of people who could afford to worry about modernity and taste but who could not afford to hire an architect. Leland M. Roth, a professor of architecture at the University of Oregon, dug through years of back issues while researching an article on Ladies' Home Journal houses for a 1991 issue of the journal Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture. Although Bok's magazine was not the only source of architectural inspiration for the aspiring homeowner, Roth wrote that it was "perhaps the single most effective agent in disseminating ideas regarding improvement in home planning and decoration."

The concept of houses being based on published designs dates back to the Italian Renaissance, according to Daniel D. Reiff, author of the comprehensive "Houses From Books." Pattern books for designers became more common after about 1750, and collections of mail-order plans aimed at consumers were well established by the late 1890's, when Ladies' Home Journal added plans to its pages and published its own books. (The next iteration would be the prefabricated "kit house," with companies like Sears selling not just the plans but also all the precut lumber and other materials.)

Ladies' Home Journal had a huge circulation (1.6 million in 1915), and while it's hard to nail down a number, people did build the houses. Roth recounts examples that the Journal itself publicized; in 1916, for instance, the magazine ran a four-page spread of photographs of Journal houses and claimed 30,000 existed. Among the contributing architects was Frank Lloyd Wright; his design for "A Home in a Prairie Town" appeared in the February 1901 issue and has been credited as the starting point of "the prairie style."

While Bok never seemed to have come up with an umbrella description for his enterprises quite as frightening as "Omnimedia," he was not shy about his ambitions or influence. (His autobiography includes a scene in which President Theodore Roosevelt tells him, "Bok, I envy you your power with your public." ) At its core, his magazine sought to tackle the same questions of taste and respectability that many consumers face today. In the 1996 book "Selling Culture," Richard Ohmann, a professor of English at Wesleyan, included Ladies' Home Journal as an example of a type of magazine that came about at the turn of the 20th century, with a lower cover price, a reliance on advertising and an unprecedented readership. The underlying strategy, Ohmann wrote, was "a formula of elegant simplicity: identify a large audience that is not hereditarily affluent or elite, but that is getting on well enough, and that has cultural aspirations."

Like the supposedly new "mass class" consumer of today who wants to trade up but could use a little guidance in how to do it, readers of the Journal were looking for answers, and Bok was happy to supply them: he published all manner of advice, including pictures of rooms decorated in his view of exemplary fashion. The only thing he didn't do was brand everything he offered as an answer to those questions. Today's lifestyle mavens have, of course, figured that out. 

This essay was originally published in The New York Times Magazine, March 5, 2006.  

Posted in: Architecture

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