Martha Stewart: the old guard departs

Time Magazine invited Martha Stewart and the stars of Fixer Upper, Joanna and Chip Gaines, to the TIME 100 gala early this week.

Chip says, “She didn’t have the faintest idea who we are, not a single clue.” How very sad. Martha was looking at her replacement.

I was at an Airbnb recently and I found this magazine on a side table.

“Oh,” I thought, “Chip and Joanna have a magazine!” I had seen Fixer Upper (a reality show from HGTV) and admired their retelling of the “men are from construction, women from interior design” story so beloved by Americans.

Adding a magazine to their TV show (itself in hiatus until Chip and Joanna launch their own network next year) signals that Chip and Joanna are edging out of the “construction + design” proposition into a media enterprise that fashions entire styles of life.

So much for design and construction. They are now ‘selling selfhood,’ as Syd Levy used to put it. It’s a bigger value proposition, to be sure.

Call it Fixer Upperer.

And I thought, “Hey, didn’t this used to be Martha Stewart’s job!”

I turned to Google Trends for an assessment of Stewart’s place in American culture.

It looks grim. Some will say, “Oh, this is easy. Stewart was investigated in 2002 and sent to serve her sentence in 2004.” Decline was inevitable.

On the other hand, maybe not. We could also argue, as Benjamin Wallace does, that prison turned out to be relatively kind to Stewart. While she was “inside,” Stewart stage-managed her incarceration with some cunning, her MSLO stock rose from $11 to $36, her personal net worth more than tripled, to over $1 billion, and she was named to the Forbes 400 list for the first time.

The decline came later. The trouble wasn’t prison, or only prison. It was that Stewart was now fighting cultural headwinds that have nothing to do with prison. What she was facing, and what she failed to negotiate, was a cultural change. American values were running away from the Martha Stewart’s concept of the world. As we shall see, they were running towards the world according to Joanna and Chip.

Martha’s value proposition was a simple status play. And this turns on a simple proposition: Martha knows better. She’s the mistress of the semiotic codes dear to the upwardly aspirational middle class. She lived the part. She looked the part. That she was NOCD (“not our class, dear”) might have hurt her in some circles. But for others, Martha’s modest origins in the status scheme of things merely made her proof of her own conceit. Martha has made herself. Jumped Upperer!

Martha’s semiotics were powerful. Fresh flowers. Fresh linens. Fresh colors. And an embargo on all things unsophisticated and déclassé. Wallace tells us that Stewart did not publicly acknowledge the microwave oven until the 21st century.

People inside Martha Stewart could hear things changing. They made strategic purchases They launched ­Everyday Food (a reply to Real Simple) and a magazine called Body and Soul. They acquired the newsletter of ­alternative-health guru Andrew Weil. Martha herself remained unmoved. As Wallace puts it, “De-Martha-ing did not sit well with Martha.”

The anti-Martha headwinds could be felt even in coastal Connecticut. By the turn of the century, people were walking away from a Martha style of life. Twenty years later, they are running full tilt (and pell mell). “Wealthy Greenwich Home Sellers Give In to Market Realities” reads one recent headline in the Wall Street Journal. “A Growing Problem in Real Estate: Too Many Too Big Houses” reads another.

People are baling out of grandeur. They were looking for little and companionable. They were interested in something called “walk to town,” not so long ago behavior unthinkable and unpardonable in Darien. Smaller houses in a smaller communities. Community! This was a strange and new idea for frosty Yankees. They were now actually preparing to meet their neighbors. (The things you do for fashion.)

And there, at the other end of the market, were Joanna and Chip. For starters, these new exemplars were living in Texas. Waco, Texas! For another, Fixer Upper was all so very folksy. Cheerful even. Martha can simulate warmth. When necessary. No, really. But clearly she stoops to conquer.

But Joanna and Chip are not displacing Martha deliberately. They are more a symptom of her decline than a cause. If I may quote from a post I did a couple of days ago on Conde Nast:

Hierarchy is dying. Deference is tired and tiresome. Provincial readers are no longer provincial. The level of education has risen. Data are distributed. The cultural advantage that comes from living in New York City is radically diminished. Anyone who works as a creative or a strategist routinely looks behind the curtain of American culture. There are few secrets and fewer elites. High culture knowledge is no longer “must know” capital. Neither, interestingly, is avant-garde knowledge. In sum, the New Yorker (both the person and the publication) knows less, and when he/she/it does know more, this matters less.

Again, the cultural trend was not unknown to the people running Martha’s company. Wallace quotes one editor there as saying,

“There was an incredible divide between what Martha was interested in and what the reader wanted. As Martha got fancier, readers were going in the other direction.”

At some point, Martha thought she grasped the problem. In that oldest of all managerial anxieties, she believed that her product was simply not young enough. She reached out to a young man called Kevin Sharkey.

Kevin is under no illusions. He understands that it’s not about youth at all. Here’s his bio on marthastewart.com.

[Sharkey] believes that a truly beautiful room is one that hasn’t been “decorated” at all, but rather “considered.” “It’s not about dictating a set of rules,” he says, “but about disseminating information so that people can apply the techniques we teach in the magazine and on the radio and television, and then do it in their own way to create something they truly love and are proud of. There are no absolutes. You just have to be inspired, passionate and informed. Then you take it and make it your own. That’s really where beauty comes from.”For him, the biggest compliment comes when a reader says, “I learned this from the magazine, but I did it my way.”

My way? Good lord. Surely, it’s Martha’s way or the highway. Kevin’s vision is actually very Joanna and Chip. He understands that when Joanna and Chip fix up a home, the motive is not to stun the visitor with “can’t touch this” perfection. It’s simply to share the beauty of the place. As a convivial gesture. As if to say, “but of course you could have done this. if you’d you wanted to. And what would you have done, by the way? Let’s talk.”

What Joanna and Chip fix up has taste in evidence. There’s discernment at play. But it’s been decanted by common sense and good humor, purified of those status-anxious anxieties that haunt the Martha Stewart consumer. This is homeyness elevated. Somewhere in the middle turns out to be exactly where the American middle wants to be. Not in some replica of the beautiful house built by Martha in haut monde Connecticut.

The name of the game is authenticity. And it’s not a simple matter of fuller disclosure, of revealing who we really are. No one wants that, believe me. Authenticity is a cultivated appearance as much as status is. But it has a bigger range within which to work. It can make things beautiful without making them exalted. (What is considered beautiful must still be contrived by shifting cultural standards.)

The trick is “sprezzatura.” This is Castiglione’s wonderful idea of contriving an appearance and then dialing it back so that all the contrivance is effaced. Or as Castiglione put it, we must “conceal art with art.” Martha can’t conceal art with art and doesn’t want to. Art is, after all, precisely the point of what she does. Martha doesn’t do authentic, not authentically. She does Martha, with contrivance in full and spectacular effect.

This is a massive failure in strategy and forecasting. What if Martha saw Joanna and Chip coming? What if something or someone gave her fair notice? What if she had contracted with Abigail Posner, Brad Grossman, David Marx, Joe Pine, Kim Larson or Benjamin Wallace for a glimpse of the future? What if MSLO had a big picture of the future that Martha could have consulted to see Joanna and Chip on the horizon and on approach.

Time Magazine invited both Martha and the Gaines to the TIME 100 gala, and Martha, we are told, had no idea who she was looking at. This is just too sad. Joanna and Chip were her replacement.

Photo of Martha Stewart: David Shankbone, CC BY 3.0

Anonymous. n.d., Kevin Sharkey biography. Martha Stewart website. https://www.marthastewart.com/contributor/1047071/kevin-sharkey

Castiglione, Baldassarre. 1967. The Book of the Courtier from the Italian, Done into English by Sir Thomas Hoby, Anno 1561, with an Introduction. by Walter Raleigh. Tudor Translations. New York: AMS Press.

Clarke, Katherine. 2019. “Wealthy Greenwich Home Sellers Give In to Market Realities.” Wall Street Journal, April 15, 2019, sec. Real Estate. https://www.wsj.com/articles/wealthy-greenwich-home-sellers-give-in-to-market-realities-11555348468.

Levy, Sidney J. 1978. “Hunger and Work in a Civilized Tribe.” American Behavioral Scientist. 21 (4 March/April): 557–70.

McCracken, Grant. 2019. “How to Fix the Conde Nast Business Model.” CultureBy. April 11, 2019. https://cultureby.com/2019/04/how-to-fix-the-conde-nast-business-model.html.

McCracken, Grant. n.d., The Big Board. www.bigboard.works.

Taylor, Candace. 2019. “A Growing Problem in Real Estate: Too Many Too Big Houses.” Wall Street Journal, March 21, 2019, sec. Real Estate. https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-growing-problem-in-real-estate-too-many-too-big-houses-11553181782.

Vivinetto, Goma. n.d. “Chip and Joanna Met Martha — and She Didn’t Have ‘faintest Idea’ Who They Were.” TODAY.Com. Accessed April 25, 2019. https://www.today.com/home/chip-joanna-gaines-met-martha-stewart-time-100-gala-t152910.

Wallace, Benjamin. 2011. “Is Martha Stewart’s Empire Headed For Sale?” New York Magazine. July 29, 2011. http://nymag.com/news/features/martha-stewart-2011-8/.