That 'Je Ne Sais Quoi': What Makes A Shelter Book A Keeper?

by , Dec 10, 2009, 12:34 PM
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Earlier this year I was bemoaning the death of Condé Nast's shelter book Domino, while also wondering if I could find a replacement pub for my monthly design fix.

My subsequent search helped me define the X factors determining whether a shelter book merely rates a cursory look-through, or becomes a keepsake pub (at least for me; feel free to propose contrary views in the comments).

Take the mag CN sent me as a replacement for my Domino subscription: Architectural Digest. Obviously, huge, almost laughable differences exist between the two pubs. One is Tiffany's; the other, perhaps a more upscale Target. (You might even ask, WTF, CN? But AD was the last home mag left in the publisher's portfolio).

Even more than the high/low dichotomy, AD and Domino provide contrasting reader experiences. With AD, you feel like a voyeur (or, in my case, the Little Match Girl) staring into the windows of expensive houses gorgeously photographed  -- vs. being more of a participant, with someone holding out a hand to help you use the accessible examples you see. It's the difference between aspirational magazine-making  (Vogue) and service journalism (Good Housekeeping).

Even when AD promises a more reader-oriented slant -- as in September's cover headline, "Designers' Own Homes: Learn Their Secrets" -- things fall flat. That issue features many adjectives, but few specifics. And consider one story's hilariously high-toned lead: "How to pay homage to Paris? How to capture the light in the City of Lights?... Such questions are neatly answered by the interior that Christopher Noto, a young American designer based in Singapore, devised for his own Parisian pied-a-terre."

Zut alors! (That's French for "what pretentious BS," right?)

After my Domino eulogy ran, a commenter suggested I try reading Dwell.  It's a pretty good mag on the writing and graphics end, but not to my particular taste -- no reader service there. It's also a bit too academic, focused more on the theoretical aspects of pure design than on practical home design.

As I continued searching for the Shelter Book Of My Heart, I narrowed down another important je ne sais quoi (oy, stop me now): entertainment (vs. snooze) value.

Helpfulness plus fun, snappy writing and beautiful photos -- that's what I get in my new BFF, Hearst's House Beautiful. Consider September's theme: "Find Your Color Personality." The issue is teeming with lighthearted yet highly useful resources, from a ladies'-magazine-type quiz ("What color would you like to try, but are scared to?") to a Q&A with a house painter, and a section suggesting 15 ways to find the best hues for your home. You could ask a color consultant, a numerologist, or an archangel; sample pots of paint; or ponder tips from decorators (who, in another part of the book, give specific paint names as answers to the question "What Color Are You?)

Those decorators are an important part of HB. Each month's editorial well starts with a lavishly illustrated portfolio of Q&As -- various designers discussing their work on particular homes. I'll certainly never have the chance to ask a top decorator how to jazz up my tiny bathroom, but here I get what amounts to a free consultation. Speaking informally, the decorators seem a likable, unstuffy bunch, with any sense of "me, me, me" or too much jargon edited out.

Other experts speak to the point as well, as in a column with the most practical discussion of the cell phone vs. landline question I've ever seen.

The mag also tweaks the formula for that most clichéd reader service topic -- food -- with a monthly detailed description of what it's like to try out a particular recipe in a new cookbook.

And in another fun Q&A, the new column "I Love My Bed" provides a look into the boudoir design of folks like Bryan Batt, who owns a design store in New Orleans and also plays Sal on "Mad Men." (Aside for all you Draperites: How much are you praying that Sal comes back next season?)

HB isn't perfect, of course. It can get too insidery, as in the Dec./Jan. trends issue, which includes the oh-so-important news that once-de rigueur "naked metal curtain poles" will soon be outpaced by the "return of the fabric valance." Who cares?

Though I would like to know why no decorating mag has ever featured the (in design-speak) "window treatment" I recently bought for my bedroom. Lots of pix of Roman shades -- but where are the honeycomb ones? Tell me, have I committed some unspeakable crime against good taste by choosing them? Zut alors.



Architectural Digest

Published by: Condé Nast

Frequency: Monthly

Web site:



Published by: Dwell, LLC

Frequency: 10 times a year

Web site:


House Beautiful

Published by: Hearst

Frequency: 10 times a year

Web site:

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