Martha Stewart Living

IF MAGAZINES ARE METAPHORS FOR the people behind them, then the "Fresh Starts" cover line on the current issue of Martha Stewart Living strikes an unusually candid note. And maybe a little bit of wishful thinking. Surely no one in the magazine world is in greater need of starting anew than Martha Stewart herself, who is currently serving out a federal sentence.

Opinions vary on whether Stewart deserved what she got, and whether she will return this spring with a stronger empire than ever (she recently lost a prison decoration contest, so she is likely to be rusty), but there is no question that her magazine has suffered. Martha Stewart Living's ad pages fell nearly 50 percent through the first 11 months of 2004.

The decline in ad spending is due primarily to the fact that advertisers don't want to be associated with the lifestyle diva while she is incarcerated. But given all that has gone on at publisher Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia - the cancellation of the syndicated "Martha Stewart Living" TV series by Viacom's King World Productions unit, Stewart's imprisonment, and a new president-CEO, Susan Lyne, stepping in - it would be difficult not to ask the question: is the magazine any good these days? The answer: Yes, but like its namesake, this title appears to be in transition.

While typically known for promoting perfection, Living appears to have been affected by the laid back, practical attitude of titles like Real Simple, and maybe even MSLO's own Everyday Food. The current cover promises, "Closets that Work," "Lightest, Easiest Meals," and a "Casual Party Menu." Inside, there are four basic recipes for oatmeal cookies. With Martha absent, the editors seem to have lightened up a bit.

Despite Stewart's uptight image, Living is actually pretty hip. The current issue highlights curries, just as Thai and Indian delicacies are said to be popping up in mainstream groceries. The recipes provided are intricate, but doable for the adventurous.

There's also a "crafts" piece on weaving wool strips to create scarves, pillows, and wall decorations, tapping into the knitting trend with a new twist (or weave actually).

Of course, there is plenty of advice that is of the "give me a break," variety. In "Gentle Reminders," Living suggests that you can save money by making your own bird seed rather than buying in bulk. Really? Could it be that the editors are also eyeing Budget Living over their shoulders?

Among other things, the January issue of Living recommends stringing together pairs of earrings through pairs of unused buttons and placing them in a small dish, all to avoid losing earring backings. That's if you haven't also lost your old buttons.

But while some of the magazine's projects may be tough to tackle, as expected, the photography in Living is beautiful. Colors are vibrant, as pictured desserts seem immediately edible. In the magazine's main feature, an "Ode to Oranges," a shot of marmalade made from tangerines and blood oranges oozes off the page. The pictures of the easy meals in the "What's for Dinner?" recipe section make the laziest cooks want to grab a fork.

Looking past the pretty photos, the magazine succeeds by engaging the reader beyond just endless tips, coloring much of its advice with personal anecdotes. A feature article about making the most of a small space is written in the first person by Editor-in-Chief Margaret Roach, who presents a fairly realistic account of decorating her guest house.

All in all, Living, while downplaying Stewart's influence for the time being, still knows its reader and what pleases her, or him, even if no one could possibly do everything in this particular issue.

As an added bonus, the magazine is easier to navigate than ever, since there are virtually no ads in the editorial well.

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