Mary Engelbreit's Home Companion

Usually when I review a magazine named after somebody I've never heard of (Avery Cardoza's Player, Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel), I invent borderline-libelous stories about him or her in the interest of "humor." You know, like about Cardoza's prosthetic left ear, or how authorities at Haverford College have long pegged Frommer as the "sorority slasher" who terrorized the campus during the spring of aught-three.

Today, however, I'm feeling positively researchy. So let's learn a little about one Mary Engelbreit, who lends her moniker to the happy/huggy Mary Engelbreit's Home Companion, shall we? According to the hyper-credible Wikipedia, which rightly identifies chocolate pudding as an invertebrate, Engelbreit started out as a designer of greeting cards and children's book illustrator. She boasts a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame and finds herself in violation of child-labor laws on no fewer than four continents. Or not.

Her bona fides as a magazine editor? Meh. The December/January issue of Home Companion euphonizes about both the "radiant warmth" and "joyful outbursts" of red (you know, like a chest wound), and declares that "there's no better way to greet the New Year than with a blizzard of tabletop glitter" (my boozehound friends would beg to differ). It speaks of "egg-squisite" gifts. And to answer the question before you ask it: of course there's two pages worth of "Breit Ideas."

Yeah. It's one of those.

And I'd have no problem with it, but for a mid-issue shift in tone that could well alienate a large subset of readers. Everything in the first 45 pages of the mag, from affordable gift ideas to easy-to-parse info about sewing-machine doohickeys and yarn, has a low-key, inclusive vibe. Take the "artist's workshop" visit with Carol Kass, who does something or other involving old prints, découpage and tire irons. In tone and in presentation, the piece encourages creativity and provides advice for fellow would-be artisans.

But Home Companion changes course when it enters its features well (the intro page, oddly, is placed next to a tacky ad for "miracle polish"). The home-'n-hearth layouts for "Sinterklass" and "Design For Living" genuinely sparkle, but the featured interior-design motifs wouldn't seem to be achievable, in terms of cost or time, for readers who'd enjoy the simpler (and cheaper) projects presented elsewhere in the magazine. Maybe the editors recognize this on some level: After the features, the issue downshifts back into DIY territory with the exceedingly well-rendered "paper, scissors, crop" tips for home keepsakes.

The conceptual schizophrenia might be the December/January issue's most glaring misstep, but by no means is it the only one. The mag has an annoying habit of pulling out its dippiest, least didactic quotes ("Why stop with wrapping paper when you can do so much more?"). Too, seemingly out of nowhere, it chucks in a section about "caring for our animal companions" -- a decision which couldn't possibly have anything to do with the PetSmart ad on the opposing page.

These strange decisions become all the more frustrating when one considers Home Companion from a design perspective, as it's the rare magazine that gets the word/graphic balance almost exactly right. While the mag traffics in those thin fonts everybody loves nowadays and goes the cutesy-cutesy route with lower-case letters in its headlines and section names ("this we like," etc.), both choices make sense, given the subject matter. The design reinforces the whole "here's how you do it" approach; it's hard to imagine a more user-friendly magazine.

But when Mary Engelbreit's Home Companion strays from this approach in its features, it degenerates from a fine niche publication into one that has no real purpose beyond making readers feel really, really crappy about the aesthetic inferiority of their living rooms (not me, though -- I display my stained beige rug like a badge of honor). It's an inconsistency easily enough fixed, however, and once it is addressed the mag should have little problem distinguishing itself from the other home/house aspirational dreck clogging the racks. Get to it, Mary.

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1 comment about "Mary Engelbreit's Home Companion".
  1. Sharon Baker from freelance , January 27, 2009 at 1:29 a.m.

    It's a sad day. While you dish Home Companion, there are 350,000 strong who love it dearly as a magazine that celebrates art, artists and creativity. And now it is going away. I just received notice that ME Home Companion ceased publication with the January 2009 edition. And they think I'm going to be happy with Martha Stewart Living for a few months as a substitute! Please -- Martha is no match for Mary!