I am looking at a 23-year-old shingled house by a pond in suburban Chicago, contemplating the meaning of zing. It is the presence of zing, "in all its colorful forms," Traditional Home magazine says, that makes this house such a joy to behold.
You would not have found the word zing in HG, a magazine that long served as an urbane arbiter of taste (may it rest in peace). But throughout their history, home magazines have been a Rorschach test of American values. If the announcement of HG's closing and the rise of magazines like Traditional Home are any indication, Americans have grown weary of visual repartee. Never mind cutting edge. They want zing.
Home magazines, or shelter magazines as they are called, have grown up with America. Though they may seem fluffy (see "Soft Spots: Handmade pillows to cushion life's bumps" in Martha Stewart Living), they have historically reflected broad cultural shifts that transcend ad pages and other publishing concerns.
In the early 1980s, the retooling of House and Garden, rechristened HG, and Metropolitan Home heralded the era of the Masters of the Universe a la "Bonfire of the Vanities."
Today, magazines like Traditional Home, which shun chrome and look to suburban Chicago and Tulsa, Okla., for inspiration, seem to reflect the generational shift in values symbolized by the 1992 presidential election.
If Architectural Digest is like Nancy Reagan's gaze, cool and remote, the Traditional Homes of the world try to be as accessible as Bill Clinton's bear hugs. They feel our pain. They are Little Rock, not Santa Barbara or Kennebunkport.
"Style isn't selling anymore," said Martha Stewart, ruminating on the crop of voyeuristic "dream books" that defined the 1980s. "The idea of looking has had its time."
The emphasis on traditional design and how-to stories about real people -- what House Beautiful's editor in chief, Louis Oliver Gropp, calls "the new realism" -- is in a sense a return to the shelter magazines of old, which taught women how to produce the perfect setting for the perfect American family.
To John Mack Carter, head of magazine development for the Hearst Corp., the roll-up-your-sleeves orientation of today's magazines has resulted in the triumph of "the thumbprint" over the coffee table.
The earliest shelter magazines, born in the 1880s, tried to ask "What is home?" rather than "What can I buy for it?"
"People thought houses conveyed values," said Mary Corbin Sies, a historian at the University of Maryland. Houses were vehicles for the American democratic ideal.
Shelter magazines were also aesthetic bibles and social
instructors. Caroline Seebohm, who has written a biography of Conde Nast, says House and Garden was meant to do for interiors what Conde Nast had done with fashion: Help the socially insecure, including the wives of railroad barons "who had huge houses on Fifth Avenue and didn't know what to do with them."
The early 1980s were clearly a Zen moment for shelter magazines. In 1969, the Meredith Corp. issued a one-shot special-interest publication tailored to the post-collegiate bricks-and-boards crowd called Apartment Ideas: the Magazine of Better Apartment Living.
In 1974, the magazine became Apartment Life. Apartment Life profiled bearded men in dashiki shirts playing the flute while building bookcases and sensitive-looking couples eating quiche together in bed.
In 1981, the magazine switched its name to Metropolitan Home and became a grown-up sophisticate enraptured with design. Like House and Garden, which also switched focus in that period, Met Home went off in pursuit of what William F. Bondlow Jr., House and Garden's publisher at the time, called the "movers and groovers." The groovers were equipped with discretionary income, education, a lust for the good life. The objects of their desire filled the dreamiest dream book of them all, Architectural Digest.
In the mid- to late '80s, ad pages of high-end shelter magazines were as pumped up as their readers' biceps. Since the late 1980s, says William Kerr, executive vice president of the Des Moines-based Meredith, there has been "an equally great collapse."
Met Home fell prey to lackluster circulation growth and a standstill in the furniture industry, Mr. Kerr said. Meredith recently sold Met Home to Hachette Publications, which owns two other shelter magazines, Elle Decor and Home, and has made Met Home a bimonthly.
But the reincarnated Met Home has lost the zeal and graphic punch of those heady days -- when innovative work by architects and designers was fueled by the economy and each month offered an endless, exhausting array of design trends.
Mr. Kerr thinks that high-style design magazines may have had their day. "Like Andy Warhol's 15 minutes, 'design' and 'style' were a hot subject five or six years ago, just as today 'family' is a hot subject," he said. "Home and family are a more enduring phenomenon."
Dorothy Kalins, Met Home's longtime editor-in-chief, observed: "We were breaking new ground, but maybe aging baby boomers don't want 'new' in their lives. They're putting their 2-year-olds to bed instead of shopping for Philippe Starck lamps."
Like voters rejecting trickle-down economics, shelter readers may have become fed up with a dream that was unattainable. As Barbara Caplan, a director of Yankelovich Partners, a market research concern that advises shelter magazines, said, "The new status is feeling good about yourself, feeling comfortable, realizing that all that stuff didn't bring happiness."
Ms. Kalins thinks readers still want shelter magazines. "Every life stage, whether it's having a baby or getting a divorce, demands a physical change in living space," she said.
Or as Eckart L. Guthe, Conde Nast's vice president for corporate research, put it: "The nostalgia quotient is up, and people are looking for things that are safe, with everlasting beauty, which are not banged around by fads."