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Seeking Simplicity
Home & Garden Magazine Sampler
How well do major Home and Garden publications do when it comes to advocating simpler living?
by Sheri Boggs

The Pacific Northwest Inlander
March 7, 2002

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.

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 & 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: **½
We like Organic Style’s organic style, but had to dock points on the affordability of said style.

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 valance (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.

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: **½
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.

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&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.

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: ***½
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.

Simply Irresistible!

In our search for good magazines espousing the values of simplicity, one was a particularly serendipitous find. A quick glance at the pages of MaryJanesFarm showed that this magazine was exactly what the cover promised: "Simple Solutions for Organic Living." Instructions on re-covering ironing boards and how to throw together a decent one-skillet supper were interspersed with articles on garage sales, a catalog of organic products you can order and pages and pages of helpful hints. The overall design was both simple and lively, incorporating a public bulletin board sensibility in many of the sections. Best of all, there was a noticeable dearth of advertising. We were already impressed and then we noticed a lot of the helpful hints were sent in from readers in Moscow, Pullman, Spokane and Lewiston. Curious, we went to look at the masthead and discovered that this fine magazine is, in fact, published in Moscow, Idaho.

"The magazine is selling really well, and it sells so easily," says MaryJane Butters, publisher and editor in chief. "After eight years, I've found something that really works."

Butters has been fascinated with the concept of organic fast food ever since moving onto her farm in the rolling hills outside Moscow 16 years ago. Her line of organic foods for backpackers, produced at her Paradise Farms, has already been a popular staple at REI. In recent years, she has expanded into marketing her organic soup packets and baking mixes to cubicle dwellers and dorm-room chefs. These days she's hoping to reach the average home cook who wants to eat healthy but seldom has the time to keep such a commitment. And this is where MaryJanesFarm comes in.

"It just sort of evolved. It started out as a catalog for the food we sell," says Butters.

"But I kept wanting to add things. We have this area on our Web site where our customers write in and I wanted to put this in the catalog, as we were calling it then.

I'm also a voracious magazine reader - at one time, I was subscribing to 55 different magazines - and I had this long list of annoying things about magazines and that helped me form a concept of how I would want to do a magazine. As it stands now, it's one part catalog and two parts magazine."

The magazine has only been out on the stands for about two months, but it's already taken off. Butters says that in addition to Auntie's, the magazine is also being carried by the University of Idaho bookstore, Tidyman's in Moscow and at Global Folk Art and Huckleberry's in Spokane. A crew from the Food Network also just visited Butters at her farm to film a segment to air next fall.

While the first section of the magazine, the catalog, is technically advertising, it's refreshing that the rest of the magazine is almost completely free of ads. We did find one ad, but it's for a local cottage enterprise, Cowgirl Chocolates, which is run by Moscow artist Marilyn Lysohir. All in all there's a really nice community feel to the whole endeavor, and it helps illustrate Butters' philosophy of doing business.

"Everything about this is different. We're not using a lot of middle people. When you stack up a lot of middle people, things like loyalty just go by the wayside, pricing becomes more of an issue, and it's just a real dog-eat-dog situation. That's not how I wanted to do things," she says. She adds that the printing costs for a smallish run are rather high, but as the magazine expands she'll be able to put the magazine out using web press publishing, which will help production costs considerably.

Realizing that her first issue is a big hit, Butters is already mapping out the second, "I dreamed up the second issue while lying in bed," she laughs. "I lay there for two hours because it was nice and warm, and I visualized the next issue page by page. I finally got up and lit a fire and then fed it all into my computer. It took about three hours.

After that I called my graphics person and said, 'Okay, I'm ready to start working on the next one.' "

Simplicity Meter: Simply Irresistible!