House & Garden

by , Nov 15, 2006, 1:15 PM
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House & Garden's November edition is billed as a special issue: the well-lived life. This seems wholly gratuitous, since the pub is geared to readers who would happily spend $500 on a placemat and actually believe Ralph Lauren can sell them 60 different shades of white paint. In short, this is the kind of magazine, however beautiful, that hyperventilates at the idea of copper-engraved finials. Remember when Tom Cruise visited Oprah, and they talked love? That's how I imagine the average H&G devotee feels about geometric wallpaper, in colors like charcoal and Connecticut hangover. She's just too well-bred to show it.

Now, I salute stylish design. I'm a big believer in art in everyday life. And if it's outside many budgets, so be it. We can still aspire to aesthetic perfection. It's just that here, it's all so precious. Like the story about a young woman decorating her first apartment. Since she's the granddaughter of Betty Sherrill, described as "one of the most influential designers of the past half-century," we can assume she's not using milk crates for a nightstand. But most 20somethings could live off the proceeds of her Alfred Stieglitz photogravure and Joan Miro litho. This is the kind of apartment you mature into; to label this starter digs is like calling Harvard your safety school.

So I'm sure editor Dominique Browning would hate me for saying so, but wearing what I assume is a sapphire ring with enough glitter power to light Boston, when her editor's letter addresses the power of architecture to inspire faith and worship, suggests less of the sacred and more of the profane. When it comes to religion, it's best to tone down.

The cover, meantime, speaks for itself. Like Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece, I always hang out at home in a Valentino dress that drags on the floor; this must be the closest she gets to sweeping. But the interesting bit is an African fertility goddess placed discreetly on a side table in her 18th-century Georgian townhouse salon. It's lively and colorful, and I was about to applaud her eclectic taste. Yet it's strangely missing from the inside spreads, which note every other piece in the room. Perhaps it didn't make the cut when she waxed rhapsodic about having "less color so that when you come home, it's like a sanctuary."

Personally, I like the lived-in look, and unlike her, I invite friends over--even if they know my china pattern. She's so worried they'll see she's had the same one for four years, visitors are banned. Granted, we're all embarrassed for her, but frankly, I'd be more worried that the house tour has yet to find a book. She did, however, show her devotion to the classics by naming her sons Achileas and Odysseas, among the toughest of Greek leaders in the Trojan War. It's a nice change from Biff, Trip and Scooter.

To be fair, Marie-Chantal underscores the larger ethos of H&G, which is to show how socialites and celebrities live. Be it Arianna Huffington's study in California or Sofia Coppola's serene white Manhattan loft--an optimistic color for the soon-to-be first-time mom. One has to be super-confident to think a sheepskin rug stays pristine with Junior around. And how do you baby-proof a cut-crystal Marc Jacobs by Moser vase?

Here's the thing: The H&G rooms, gardens and furniture are very pretty. It's top-of-the-line stuff. What's funny, and by that I mean slightly peculiar, is how the choices are juxtaposed with each other. For example, in the table of contents, a painted metal hand from India supports books. Freud said a cigar is just a cigar, but if you've seen "Dexter," the Showtime hit about a forensic scientist who moonlights as a serial killer, you'll understand why using a body part as a bookend slightly freaks me out.

Or consider the "Elements of a Room" section, which touts the library of New York Times style writer Alex Kuczynski, she of the recently confessed plastic-surgery obsession, as well as the literary pedigree she and cousin Nell Casey share. Though plugged as a "downtown" writer, Casey is photographed in Kuczynski's lavish Park Avenue pad; on the theory, one assumes, that H&G doesn't do Brooklyn.

If the story is supposed to celebrate books, why are they stacked atop each other? First, no one can read the titles. Second, this is the worst possible way to treat them. But the kicker is the two Andy Warhol paintings of Chairman Mao that match the $1,563 ochre scorpion table lamp. Forget the library breach. Dictators showcased in a capitalist's haven? Design, like politics, makes for strange bedfellows.

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