The Lost World of the Middlebrow Tastemaker
Today’s home builders are “[r]eactionary, obstinate, restrictive, frightened of change, un-imaginative, profit-bent only…” and “the building industry is turning out thousands of cracker boxes…” for the masses in need of housing, who are “desperate and house-ignorant, clamoring solely for a roof over their heads, unmindful of their fearful destiny: the sickening realization a few years hence that they have mortgaged their incomes for houses which are ten to thirty years out of date—both in plan and materials.”
So observed the midcentury American journalist Elizabeth Gordon about the housing market in 1947. It’s hard to imagine such pointed and powerful prose would be published in a mainstream publication today, with what was once derided as middlebrow criticism—journalism for the aspirational if not elite classes—having largely given way to the pressures of clickbait and social media hits. What’s more astounding is that this was not published in the newspapers where Gordon started her career—the New York World, New York Journal, or even the onetime proud Times competitor, the New York Herald Tribune. In fact, she was railing against the architectural and homebuilding establishment from the editorial pages of House Beautiful.
A magazine founded to straddle the void between professional architectural periodicals and ladies’ journals, the original House Beautiful presented architecture and decor in serious but accessible fashion, and Gordon was an editor with unsparing and eloquent opinions about the inadequacy of both mainstream and elite notions of design. She unfortunately became best known for the International modernism she was inveterately against rather than the many broader varieties of innovation she was assiduously for.
This is the story told in Monica Penick’s invaluable new book, Tastemaker: Elizabeth Gordon, House Beautiful, and the Postwar American Home.
“Tastemaker” is a term that a term that Penick borrows from a 1949 book by Russell Lyne, best known as the author of the Harper’s essay “Highbrow, Lowbrow, and Middlebrow.” His attention was to the process by which “taste became everybody’s business and not just the business of a cultured few,” a quest that had been Gordon’s for several years by the point of that book’s publication, amidst her pivotal two-decade tenure as editor of House Beautiful.
Holding a seemingly middlebrow viewpoint at an avowedly middlebrow magazine in midcentury is not, I needn’t tell you, the best theoretical place for your historical reputation. Seemingly quaint middlebrow stances are constantly and rightly being revalued upwards, however, once until we’ve had time enough to see what the world looks like without their example. “Great Classics” collections seem fusty and narrow until they’re cleared off of shelves and replaced with DVD collections. A more mainstream modernism might have seemed temporarily unadventurous—but by the age of the McMansion seems far less so.
Penick shows that, despite her reactionary reputation, Gordon was an advocate for modern design. Indeed, the editor who abominated Corbusier and Mies also featured homes by Cliff May, Emil Schindlin, and Alfred Browning, and content by Quincy Jones, William Wurster, and numerous other exceptional architects and designers, including the grand old wizard himself, Frank Lloyd Wright.
Of course, magazines have always trafficked in things—from policy proposals to couture to homes—that the average reader will never directly influence nor possess. And yet this is no bar to their relative success. Consider the magazine of ideas that can demonstrate its stamp on a few laws, the fashion magazine that propels a designer into only a handful of closets, or the architecture magazine that might help find a new buyer for Jennifer Aniston’s villa—all are generally counted successes, although that impressionable proportion of their small readerships is generally so miniscule that this type of journalism was almost destined to be bespoke from the start.
The more penumbral realm of publishing influence, short of direct cash-on-the-barrelhead sales of some idea or thing, is harder to quantify and yet likely more interesting. It is this phenomenon, as exemplified by Gordon and House Beautiful, that Penick adeptly uncovers for us in Tastemaker.
Gordon ascended to the editorship of House Beautiful in 1941, so features on making the most of limited wartime resources naturally followed. But it was the anticipated postwar boom that animated much of her energies. Thus Gordon’s work at House Beautiful aimed to provide both aspirational and practical advice.
House Beautiful’s variant of the case-study house, from an age in which shelter magazines seemed to sponsor as many new designs as toy catalogs did, was the “Pace Setter,” of which several are masterpieces. The plans themselves were no more available to her average reader than home ideas in other architecture magazines—and yet Gordon was on an indefatigable quest to ensure that elements in their design or their principles and ideas might be. As Penick writes, “While architectural journals of the same period covered new construction methods and structural technologies, House Beautiful frequently focused on new systems or products that could easily be placed in existing homes.”
Cliff May’s “Ranch House Classic” was the first Pace Setter House published. It had been featured in other magazines but Gordon’s aim was not simply flattering photographs but a comprehensive examination, one designed obviously to inspire admiration but also to explain, with 15 articles, 55 photos, and six drawings.
The issue stressed the home’s “modesty” somewhat unconvincingly, a description more than mildly askew from a design far too impressive to be cheap. And yet the issue’s main aim is not veneration for an architect’s caprices but a practical explanation of the viability of things like its features in other homes, not merely in this one. It largely turned its back on the street but boasted a generally open plan otherwise, centered around a garden courtyard. It integrated plenty of climate control innovations, sky shades and wind shutters, encouraged as readily adaptable. The involvement of the House Beautiful staff with these home’s design was often considerable. Their color stylist William Manker devised a 64-color paint scheme and the staff selected a fabric design of 24 variations. These were presented as readily achievable, and the magazine encouraged a “color-coordinated group of home fabrics” sold by Celanese.
Homes you might not be able to live in whose features you could easily adopt in part became a mainstay of House Beautiful, particularly in its subsequent attention to the increasingly evident disregard of new suburban housing for its actual climatic situation. The Cape Cod was a northeastern vernacular home, the ranch home southwestern: they were not designed to be as casually strewn (as they increasingly were in the postwar era) without modifications for the country’s varied temperatures. In 1949 House Beautiful launched a “Climate Control Project,” with 15 home prototypes for different American climates, encouraging a range of solutions, trellises, canopies, trees, plantings, white roofs, “wet” walls, and more. Emil Schmidlin’s Oregon Pace Setter House, the magazine’s second, was designed to demonstrate climate adaptability, with “solar windows” glazing designed to capture winter heat and exclude summer sun, a roof overhang and a retractable canvas awning, schemes for cross-ventilation, and more. There were some journalistic deceits: felt stood in for snow in one photo, but the dedication to preparing for winter was genuine even if the season itself was not.
House Beautiful engaged in a forceful advocacy not merely of particular architects and designers but of other products, linking these propositions in ways uncommon in other publications. It ran literal seals of approval next to favored products, one a “Better Your Home, Better Your Living.” There are elements of vintage 1950s didacticism, with blurb endorsements from Arthur Schlesinger and Ralph Barton Perry.
Gordon cycled through a variety of labels for her preferred ethos, updated as any magazine’s wares must necessarily regularly be. She offered “A New Look”, “The American Style”, “The Next American House”, “Naturalism” and multiple other monikers for this corpus of advocacy. It’s difficult to simply encapsulate her preferred style, which argued for material honesty and the embrace of technological advances but wasn’t averse to ornament. It was against superfluity but also against abstraction, for reminiscence but against nostalgia. Approved chair styles ranged from Shaker to Dunbar Club. Its claims were occasionally national but never nativist, actively encouraging Scandinavian and Japanese elements. In short, like most styles, it’s difficult to describe but easy to understand when seen.
It is unfortunate and ironic that the one incident perhaps most clearly recalled from Gordon’s illustrious career of constant arguments for good design was a vitriolic argument against design she hated—namely the perceived excesses of the International Style. Her 1953 editorial, “The Threat to the Next America” (note it’s not merely the present one) was a jeremiad against the paladins of the International Style, directed against leading architects Corbusier, Mies, Gropius, and their peers. It was a fulmination in just about all possible senses, with portions bolded and those that were not frequently as scorching:
“They are all trying to sell the idea that ‘less is more,’ both as a criterion for design, and as a basis for judgment of the good life. They are promoting unlivability, stripped-down emptiness, lack of storage space, and therefore lack of possessions.” Gordon continued by charging that “These arbiters make such a consistent attack on comfort, convenience, and functional values that it becomes, in reality, an attack on reason itself.”
Gordon explicitly connected the Miesian apothegm with “a cultural dictatorship” and “A social threat of regulation and total control.” The road to serfdom was also seemingly the road to the Seagram building.
The editorial prompted a broad range of objections and resignations. Architectural Forum published a thinly-veiled rejoinder “Who can really declare his or her preferences represent ‘free taste’ but yours are part of a conspiracy to subvert the nation?” One mordant response: “Here Lies House Beautiful, scared to death by a chromium chair.” The magazine’s architecture critic resigned, and other contributors announced an end to their work for the magazine. Eighty-five percent of letters were approving, however, none speaking more loudly than one telegram.
Surprised and delighted. Did not know you had it in you. From now on at your service. Sending you the latest from my standpoint
The message was from none but the most prominent dissenter from the modern mainstream: If Gordon had alienated many elites, she had now won over Frank Lloyd Wright, whose association with the magazine was to continue closely until his death.
Wright, never a man to leave a good spat unused, or failing that to invent one, had taken umbrage over Gordon’s invocations of a theory of “Naturalism” without granting sufficient heed to his own conception of Organic architecture years earlier, but subsequent to 1953 became an enthusiastic contributor, with his work repeatedly featured in House Beautiful. Gordon drew an even closer link, hiring John DeKoeven Hill, a former Wright apprentice at Taliesin as her new architecture editor; Hill soon took on a strong role in an in-house design studio (and later designed a Pace Setter himself). This studio designed not merely sets for the magazine but exhibitions elsewhere, including Wright’s interiors for his 1953 Usonian House installation on the future site of the Guggenheim Museum.
The magazine unearths one of Wright’s more intriguing failed collaborations, a step towards populism beyond any Usonian dreams—a program, in Gordon’s words, “to have Frank Lloyd Wright design furnishings for the general homemaker, rather than for special clients.” Gordon arranged for manufacturers to produce Wright-designed fabrics, carpets, furniture, paints, and wallpapers. The line is fantastic, particularly its Heritage-Henredon furniture, yet suffered from calamitous problems of advertisement. Intended as a coherent ensemble, department stores generally broke up the components and displayed them on entirely different floors.
Gordon shared one great enthusiasm with Wright, for Japan, which she visited on numerous occasions and whose seeming harmony of design she continually sought to promote, including in two large issues. Dr. Soetsu Yanagi, head of the Japan Folk Crafts Museum, provided Gordon with a sense of “shibui” that stuck:
In what must have been a semi-prepared lecture (he had “notes” for Gordon), he outlined six key points or “elements of beauty” central to shibusa (the noun form of the more commonplace adjective “shibui”): simplicity, or plainness; integral quality (“beauty of a thing—not on a thing”); modest or humility; tranquility; naturalness; and yugen, roughly translated as “the look of freedom… that comes when a craftsman has mastered his technique”
This concept captivated Gordon, who had long been searching for some ordering principle between American materialist clutter and Bauhaus austerity; she devoted an issue arguing for the concept, with a variety of Japanese contributors and Ezra Stoller photos of Japanese objects that Gordon had purchased. She subsequently produced a Shibui line of products, which, unlike the Wright line, proved a great success.
Penick’s Tastemaker is well-timed, amidst a wave of monographs looking at the forgotten middle of American midcentury design. A clear theme of these recent architectural histories has been ways in which many embraced some modern elements while rejecting modernism at large. Tastemaker is a great help in filling in some idea of just what ideas the consumer might have brought to home purchasing—and what they then might have bought from shops to fill these homes out. The concept of a few builders filling out suburbia in a uniform way is a myth. There were thousands of big developers, but a few tastemakers such as Gordon made an indelible mark on the postwar American home.
Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer in Brooklyn who has contributed to the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, the Guardian, and numerous other publications.