Monday, November 7, 2016

On That Stack of Magazines in The Basement...

Long before I built my own house in 1992, I always enjoyed buying home improvement, interior design and related types of magazines. I believe it started with the old Metropolitan Home in the very early 80’s and copies of Architectural Digest (many of which I still have) a few years later. Once we decided to build a new home—of English design—I started buying UK magazines like House & Garden, British Homes & Gardens, Country Living, Period Homes, Homes & Antiques, Country Homes & Interiors, Period Living, and of course, Country Life.

I still have dozens of them stacked quietly in the basement; much to my wife’s chagrin, I seldom throw good magazines away, especially when I paid six to eight dollars apiece for them 15 or 20 years ago. I always thought they would be valuable for reference or inspiration, and after taking some time to relax with a glass of ale and look through a dozen or more copies a few days ago, I take comfort in the fact that I was right to do this.

We all know the print magazine business has suffered greatly over the last 15 years, with the advent of so many home-related websites and other online resources. Most magazines provide at least some content online, and other sites like Houzz—along with innumerable design blogs provide enough content to keep a lot of people happy. But it’s not a perfect world.

While I enjoy visiting Houzz regularly, it is so highly focused on contemporary trends that it’s becoming harder for a traditionalist like myself to find much of value. Primary among these concerns is the total dominance of WHITE (or almost-white) interiors across 80 to 90 percent of the posted images, even on their UK website. Similar websites, like HGTV and even This Old House feature a lot of trendy design looks that don’t always fit my traditional tastes.

But I’ve come to realize that it goes beyond content; for whatever reason, the presentation of online material just doesn’t seem to satisfy me the same way it did in a print magazine. I find the intrusion of unrelated, out-of-context ads bothersome. Stories are broken up into small, distracting, disjointed pieces; photos while plentiful, are often smaller. Online, I feel like I’m having content handed out to me piecemeal, rather than flipping to—and then lingering—on a printed page with a coherent story that I can follow at leisure.

Recently, as I perused a stack of my old magazines, I began to realize what I had missed. Interiors were comfortable, personal, and featured a wide spectrum of colors as well as a lot of natural or stained woodwork—rather than the white painted mouldings and casework that continue to dominate today’s designs. Best of all, I noticed that none of the interiors I was looking at looked old or dated; they seemed natural and inviting—timeless, really—and I was surprised that one could take so many useful design cues from magazines that were 15 to 20 years old. (The one exception, I must admit, was the occasional fetish for flowered cotton chintz that seemed to prevail back in the day; but then, no age is perfect, I suppose.)

Furthermore, in print, each issue stood on its own as something memorable and distinct. Online, web pages may change images from month-to-month, but individual stories and features are simply archived or added to an ever-expanding list of “posts”—which may be searchable and easier to access, but often providing less “meat” than their print counterparts.

Advertising has a role to play in this story as well, but I will cover this is a separate post. It is easy to see the linking and direct response advantage provided by the Internet; yet something is lost. Well-done, well thought-out print advertising can add an element of interest to print magazines—at their best, they have even served as valuable reader content. Unfortunately, developing a top-notch print ad with compelling copy is almost a lost art; today’s ads are all about image, pretty pictures and a website URL. The best days were when ads were not seen as a distraction—when readers enjoyed reviewing the assorted ads and found the advertisers’ individual stories almost as interesting as the editorial content.

Again, this is all just an individual observation—I plan to keep on visiting websites, and maybe returning to my basement magazine stacks a little more often as well.

I may even start to buy magazines again. As soon as I find more space to store them.

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