Michael Bierut | Essays

Where the Happy People Go

Smiley, Harvey Ross Ball, 1963

Happiness is the next big thing. No less than three books on the subject have hit the stores in the last few months: Stumbling on Happiness by Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert, Happiness: A History by historian Darrin McMahon, and The Happiness Hypothesis by University of Virginia professor Jonathan Haidt. All three were mentioned in last week's issue of New York as part of its cover story, "How to Be Happy." There we meet Chris Peterson, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center, who informs us that according to a statistical study the most unhappy people in the world live in New York City.

While the same article mentions that lawyers are 3.6 more likely to be depressed than other professions, nothing is revealed about the happiness quotient of designers. However, if you're looking for happy, contented people, designers may not be your best bet. A recent discussion here at Design Observer, for instance, was less peaches and cream and more Zidane and Materazzi. And of course a lot of the people who live in New York City are designers. Coincidence?

No, if you want to find people who are happy, really happy, and really happy about design, you have to look in only one place: the letters column of Architectural Digest magazine.

Architectural Digest is Conde Nast's "International Magazine of Design," but the focus is mainly interior design: relentlessly accessorized, blindingly lit, polished-to-a-vertigo-inducing-gloss interior design. The writing is usually excellent and the printing is impeccable. The photography anticipated the so-real-it's-fake aesthetic decades before the invention of Photoshop. (As Tom Wolfe once said about magazines like Architectural Digest, "I don't read them anymore. I eat them. Most taste like marzipan.") For over 35 years, the formidable 5-foot-tall Paige Rense has presided as editor-in-chief, an amazing run in the high-mortality world of magazine publishing. I've read it (or, at least, looked at it) for years.

Many magazines like to print complimentary letters, but I always vaguely sensed that the letters to Architectural Digest were peculiarly, ferociously positive. I wanted to make sure. I examined the 33 letters in the last three issues (June, July and August, 2006). The results are interesting. Of the 33 letters, 33 of them are overwhelmingly, feverishly positive. None of them are negative. Words that one finds in discussion threads here at Design Observer -- words like "stupid," "bad," "rude," "boorish" and, of course, "fascist" -- are simply not found in Architectural Digest. Instead, one finds "beautiful," "breathtaking," "sumptuous," "elegant," and "fabulous." Happy words! Here are some typical opening sentences, chosen more less at random:

I have long loved Architectural Digest for all the things that set it apart from those other home design magazines on the newsstand.

Your January issue...was by far the most informative issue ever!

You deserve a standing ovation for your March issue.

Your May 2006 issue arrived today, and in the space of an hour, I savored the visual smorgasbord that is the global world of design, pored over the tasteful interiors...and found myself hanging on every word...

I love your April issue so much I wish you could autograph it.

Thank you so much for the March issue, an in-depth look at some of Hollywood's finest homes and personalities. This issue is not only sumptuous to peruse but a must for anyone's home library...

Sumptuous to peruse, indeed! I'm reminded of the unctuous tones of the oily cleric Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice gushing over the "small summer breakfast parlour" at the estate of his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Occasionally, a letter goes completely over the top:

The May issue had me calling my doctor for oxygen. Never have I seen such artistic design as you presented in this issue of your publication. I applaud you for elevating my awareness of what a great artist can create, of what great people can demand of existence.

And there is ample evidence in these pages that what some people demand of existence is nothing more than a good long wallow in the world of, well, Architectural Digest:

My husband and I have enjoyed Architectural Digest for years. I have often saved an issue that I especially liked. When the March 2006 Hollywood at Home issue came, we enjoyed it and knew it was a keeper. I searched the bookcase and found the April 1994 issue, which had the homes of Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow, Steve McQueen, Mae West and more. I also found our copy of the April 1998 Hollywood at Home issue, with the residences of Jimmy Stewart, Rita Hayworth, Claudette Colbert and many more...

If you recall the frenzied search for half-empty liquor bottles undertaken by Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick toward the end of Days of Wine and Roses, you pretty much get the picture. One senses this insatiable rummaging could go on forever, and twenty years from now this same couple, Page Rense willing, will be savoring glimpses of the residences of Kevin Dillon, Rob Schneider and Steve Guttenberg.

I found only one letter that even hinted at anything resembling disappointment in the Architectural Digest experience, but the unpleasantness was addressed with exquisite tact:

I am quite happy with your covers recently. The photographs you have chosen to run in the last couple of months have returned the Digest to the most sophisticated-looking magazine on the rack. I especially liked the May 2006 cover. The bird sculpture in front of the window in the center of the photograph is stunning. Please continue to show your simple, pleasant high design on the cover of the magazine -- it is what best represents the content inside.

The writer here is too delicate to put a name to the offense: the magazine had run several issues with -- dear God -- all type covers. Another letter raised my hopes with a coquettish opening, but quickly reverted to the now-familar overwrought bowing and scraping:

How could you tease me so outrageously with the abundance of beauty in "Gardens: A HIghland Spring," but not one bitty glimpse of the majesty of Attadale's insides? My bookcases are filled to overflowing with your magazines, so when we have one of our rainy periods, I huddle down with an old one and...

You get the idea by now. It's easy to make fun of the tone of these letters -- okay, it's irresistible -- but I find something perversely inspiring about them as well. I spend my days in a world where design has been redefined as value-added strategy-led innovation, or as an instrument of social reform, or as a mode of formulating a critique of contemporary culture. But every so often I wonder: can't it ever just be beautiful? In the pages of Architectural Digest, we hear testimony from people who expect to react to design as nothing more or less than an experience of pure beauty, and find their expectations, month after month, exceeded. Like this:

If I were to live inside May 2006's Great Design section, I would wear Vivienne Westwood's gown to St. Basil's Cathedral and sleep in the Louis XIV state bed. Basically, life would be beautiful.

See? Life would be beautiful. And happy.

Posted in: Architecture, Media

Comments [18]

I spend my days in a world where design has been redefined as value-added strategy-led innovation, or as an instrument of social reform, or as a mode of formulating a critique of contemporary culture. But every so often I wonder: can't it ever just be beautiful?

If you want it to be ideological and beautiful at the same time, read the letters in DWELL. They take great pleasure in publishing letters that are both critical of the fine points of individual articles while at the same time reinforcing an unwavering belief in, well....DWELL!
Bernard Pez

I try to avoid the happiness "issue" because it seems (like the afterlife) the conscious pursuit of it for its sake alone keeps it always out of reach. Maybe that's why designers might not be the happiest of people, trying to find happiness in beauty (or in value-added strategy-led innovation). I doubt that a life of beauty and happiness go hand in hand.
Sam Gray

Finding happiness by seeing a good material, Igniting happiness by a good innovation and celebrating happiness on the success of a project is somehow different from a designer's own happiness, after all they are also human. Not only a problem solver (Read : design means), or not only provides form & function based solution BUT also seek for emotions.

Thank you for this delightful article on Happiness. Every word has filled me with overflowing joy. I have been a Design Observer reader ever since its inception, and each day I rush to see what delicious and enticing words await me; never am I disappointed as I savour such delectables as "stillettoed," "anthropromorphized," "unwavering," and "context." Please never stop serving up these extraordinary word dishes on which we all so indulgently feast and become nourished.

{{I couldn't help myself}}
marian bantjes

In the pages of Architectural Digest, we hear testimony from people who expect to react to design as nothing more or less than an experience of pure beauty, and find their expectations, month after month, exceeded.

Call me a jaded cynic, but the too-happy-to-be-true nature of these letters makes me think less about the people who supposedly wrote them, and more about the editors who judiciously selected them and left out the unhappy or downright angry letters they, like every other magazine, must certainly receive. Or (shock! horror!) the staff themselves who wrote the letters. Seeing as how the mission of Architectural Digest is to present a beautiful lifestyle which no living human experiences, couldn't it be that they're creating these letters to use as pretty wallpaper to further decorate the dream?

A quick call to Luke at New York, says these Happy Letters are primarily written by this woman.

Nice lady. Who knew.
felix sockwell

Methinks you're poking fun at a straw man there, Michael. The goal of Architectural Digest is arousal, not criticism; status quo, not controversy. It's porn for the chintz crowd.

And I wouldn't expect anything else from the letters in Penthouse Forum, either.
m. kingsley

thank you very much for a wonderful article on happiness - truly the best in some time now.

thank you very much for addressing this issue too often neglected in the design community - where people love to mistake every muddy puddle for deep water - simply because you can't see to the ground.

we - and our friends from the D.O. - know: in our civilised society happiness is a convention that reproduces itself (just like design btw)

According to a study cited in Malcolm Galdwells "The Tipping Point" perhaps we should all nod our heads up and down more often when reading DO.

The study, conducted on a large group of university students, involved asking to students to participate in market research for high-tech headphones. The participants were given headphones to wear and various songs played. Inserted between the songs was editorial discussion about raising tuition. One third of the students were asked to keep their heads still, the second thrid was asked to nod their heads up and down, while the final third was asked to shake their heads side to side. At the conclusion of the test each participant was asked their opinion regarding an increase in tuition. The participants who nodded their heads in a "yes" fasion found the editorial to be very persuasive, while those who shook their heads in a "no" fasion disagreed with the tuition increase.

So the next time you your day is filled with clients treating you like you offer about as much insight as the person behind the counter at the local Kinkos, rather than visiting DO and reading in the normal fashion, try this: Read the first paragraph of the story, then move your gaze down and read the first comment. Return your eyes back to the top of the screen and read the second paragraph of the story, followed of course by glancing down again to read the second comment (scrolling may be required mind you). Surely this head bobbling motion, when practiced frequently, will alleviate all the negative, unhappy comments here at DO and induce a sort of warm design-o-topia feeling which can further be enhanced by staring at your Pantone chip books for extended periods time.
Steve Bullock

I think this article is a satellite in orbit around the designer-client relationship.

What makes designers happy? One could simply answer "good clients," and be generally right -- but we like them because they give us that rare combination of both a challenging assignment and wide creative latitude.

We love to solve a problem elegantly, but we also love pure elegance for its own sake, and it is in the creation and appreciation of this that we derive those moments of design happiness.

When clients stand between us and this, we're not happy. When they allow us to reach it, it's one of the finest joys in the profession.

Where the happy people live. Happiness doesn't have to cost the earth ;-)

If Daniel Gilbert's book is anything like his talk at SXSW recently, it's less about being happy than a study of what makes us happy and unhappy. You can download an MP3 of the talk from that site. Well worth a listen.



I wonder how happy the staff of Architectural Digest is ...
Michael Blowhard

When I worked for Xxxxxx A.M. Xxxxx, he was published everywhere. That was good for his professional reputation, but as far as commissions it almost never led to anything more than a letter asking if they could buy the plans in the January issue for $500.

Then he got his first house in Architectural Disgust, and the week the issue he came out he started getting calls from people who wanted multi-million dollar houses and apartments. Most demanded little more than that he be able to get them published in Digest. It is a well known phenomenon at a certain level of the profession.

Sidebar: Have you noticed that Digest houses frequently have magazines in them but rarely have books?

Or move to Denmark.
Joe Moran

Pursuing happiness seems rather empty to me.
In fact, an unrelenting pursuit of it seems as though it would lead to a lot of unhappiness.

On the other hand, consciously pursuing fulfillment seems critical to one's overall wellbeing.

There are plenty of things (activities/commitments/obligations) that, when engaged with, may not make one happy, but add to the quality of one's life.

If one encounters things which are unfulfilling, it would seem wise to respectfully/ethically disengage from those things ASAP. (Don't sabotage your own soul!)

Specific to the letters published in Architectural Digest, I suppose they're reflective of many of the readers' aesthetic preferences. Though I'd be willing to bet they get a handful of negative letters as well...regrettably, AD has only limited space...

Obviously, the magazine likes to present its audience as people who pursue pretty pictures, pretty architecture, and happy experiences. They can have it.

Give me Domus or Abitare any day!!! (mmm...design porn...). Not only does one get to oogle pretty pictures, there's content that actually facilitates the consideration of ideas and opinions.

A design (in any discipline/medium) may embrace/embody prettiness and happiness, but design is nothing without critical thought. Without considering what works and what doesn't (and why), a designer cannot grow. That would be an unhappy and unfulfilling existence for this designer.

Alas, I'm preaching to the choir.
It adds to my fulfillment that this choir exists.
rich melcher

I like Rich Melcher's posting. Its honest, realistic. To me, that the first rule to happiness. Quote from the post "(Don't sabotage your own soul!)"

look fr studio LDA

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