Vince Aletti: House & Garden
I have only the vaguest memories of my childhood and even those feel second-hand—moments and things other people remembered for me. Nearly everything has been snuffed out, erased, lost. After my father died (in a small plane crash; I was 10), the only way I could move forward was by not looking back. I guess my mother felt the same way. She moved us, my younger sisters and me, from a small town outside of Philadelphia to Fort Lauderdale, a Florida Gold Coast city full of northerners like us. I hated it at first, but the sun was always out and we were just blocks from the beach on a street lined with palm trees, small motels, and whitewashed apartment buildings. Since nothing on Lauderdale’s beachside was much more than 20 years old, the predominant style was Forties Moderne with ‘Spanish’ accents: soft curves, pastel detailing, picture windows, terracotta tiles, cactus gardens. I made my own apartment blocks with two decks of the Eames’s slotted House of Cards, constructing airy, intricate buildings on a glass-topped wrought-iron table in our breezeway that reached dizzying heights before I flattened them and started again.
Around this time—I was probably 13—I remember telling classmates that I wanted to be an interior decorator when I grew up. I’d used my allowance to subscribe to House & Garden ($5 a year; $7.50 for two) and imagined myself one of the gentlemen decorators I saw in its pages—William Pahlmann or Jean-Michel Frank. Not that I had much of an idea of what these men actually did, aside from selecting furniture and colour schemes, but how hard could that be? I had my own room by now, and I’d painted the thrift shop desk a shade of green that reminded me of one of the House & Garden colours, something between Leaf and Sprout. I painted a cane-bottom bentwood chair—a Thonet knockoff—the same colour and put a single fern frond in a tall glass vase.
House & Garden was my pre-adolescent window on a world of sophistication, refinement, and product placement: a Picasso lithograph on the wall, a faded kilim on the floor, a Noguchi table lamp, a potted palm, a Barcelona chair, a Bang & Olufsen stereo system. I discovered the Maison de Verre in its pages, and Saarinen’s marble-top tulip tables. I sent off for the Knoll catalogue and bought my Christmas cards from the Museum of Modern Art. I was obsessed with the living room of a Sausalito house on the cover of the May 1957 issue, shot from above by Ezra Stoller so it was like looking over a smartly laid-out floor plan. Light streams in from a sun deck over pale wood floors and a series of angled, overlapping geometries: rugs, chairs, side tables, floor cushions, a stone hearth, a black-hooded fireplace, a wall of books. There’s an issue of Theatre Arts on a foot stool and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins on a table nearby. I wanted to spend the rest of my life in that room.
And in a sense, I have. Not long ago, I bought that issue again on eBay and added it to a collection of House & Garden and House Beautiful magazines from the ‘30s, ‘40s, and early ‘50s that helps put my teenage obsessions in some historical perspective. The covers here are among the period’s best, souvenirs of a time when magazine design wasn’t subject to some focus-group consensus about commercial viability. Not likely that House & Garden pre-tested their November 1948 cover, but Joseph Cornell’s signature grid of glittering Christmas cubby holes was a gift to the reader. Priscilla Peck’s summer-themed June 1946 cover for H&G, with its sly collage elements, is proof that illustration wasn’t entirely out of the picture once photography became the dominant medium. But House & Garden illustrators like Georges Lepape, Pierre Brissaud, and AE Marty (all even busier at Vogue) didn’t easily adapt to the magazine’s chic, restrained, modern look, typified by Anton Bruehl’s stunning still life covers of kitchenware, vegetables, and Christmas ornaments from the mid ‘30s. In this same period, Paul Outerbridge turned out a remarkable run of photographic covers for House Beautiful. Most of them are claustrophobic interior views that look more like museum dioramas than lived-in spaces. But his June 1937 cover is different—a surreal vision of overblown pink roses under a patently artificial sky that flirts with kitsch in a style Outerbridge shared with Man Ray.
Still, House & Garden had the edge when it came to great photographers. Not long after Alexander Liberman took over as art director at Vogue in 1943, he assumed the same position at H&G and worked with many of the same artists and photographers at both magazines. It will come as no surprise that Horst’s covers, like the October 1950 image of a woman on a red carpet with the headline, ‘LIVE AS WELL AS YOU LOOK’, made the most explicit connection between fashion and interior decorating. Or that Irving Penn chose to focus on still life subjects for the meticulously staged covers he made at H&G, including the two garden- and landscape-themed ones here, from October 1944 and May 1946. But the extent and impact of André Kertész’s contributions to the magazine are unexpected, if only because they’ve never been included in his subsequent books or exhibitions. Kertész was at H&G from 1945 to 1962, turning out more than 3,000 photographs of houses, interiors, and landscaped grounds, often in colour, which also served to set the work apart from his fine-art images. Some of the work was routine, but none of it was tossed-off, and when Kertész found a subject that caught his eye, the results were dazzling. His cover for the June 1949 issue, of a sun-struck space described simply as ‘the hall of M. and Mme. Arturo López-Willshaw’s house at Nuilley-sur-Seine’, with its plaster bust and enormous wild-flower arrangement, captures a breathtakingly sublime moment inside another room I wouldn’t mind spending a lifetime in. Picking up that issue again, I’m there.