Demise of shelter magazines

The regrettable loss of design democratizers

Since trouble in the housing market initiated our current economic slide, it’s no surprise that shelter magazines are among the latest casualties of the recession. House & Garden started the dismal parade when it folded in November 2007. Since then In Style Home, Blueprint, Home, Cottage Living, O at Home, Country Home, and Domino have closed their doors.

Historically, mainstream shelter magazines served a market hungry for design advice, but which often lacked the resources to retain architects. That’s a large readership when you consider that at least 95% of new homes in the U.S. don’t involve architects. The colorful, photo-rich pages of many shelter magazines were great design democratizers, offering tips and inspiration to do-it-yourselfers and those working directly with builders and designers (or even architects). Over time, T.V. and the internet stepped in to meet growing demand, providing different but often complementary material. Despite what eventually may have become an oversaturated category, it seems it was lack of advertising dollars, not lack of readership, which ultimately starved so many publications.

House & Garden had a readership of nearly one million at the end. Home reached a circulation of more than 800,000 in its final year. Cottage Living had a circulation in excess of one million. Country Home had over one-and-one quarter million last summer. Domino is estimated to have had 850,000. You get the picture. In a recent Washington Post article Deborah Burns, a senior V.P. at the Luxury Design Group (which includes Metropolitan Home and Elle Décor, two affluent brands) explains, “There’s no advertising to support the lower and middle markets in the shelter category, so revenue falls.” What a shame; those are the very markets with the most use for shelter magazines.

a lament for Cottage Living

It’s Cottage Living I will really miss. It was lively and accessible, promoting thoughtful placemaking and informal living in authentic, right-sized homes. Founding Executive Editor Lindsay Bierman was quoted on the Time Inc. website when he was made Editor in Chief (one month before Time Inc. announced the magazine's closing) saying, “Cottage Living is leading the way toward an new American Dream, a lifestyle defined by appreciation of quality over quantity, a pride of place, and living large while leaving a small footprint.” And so it was.

In September 2006, I had the good fortune to write for Cottage Living about one of the projects I designed, the Manchester Garage/Garden Room. I was impressed with how professional and thorough their staff and freelancers were. We had a ball at the photo shoot. I was honored to be part of their publication. Apparently, will also be closing, so I don’t know how long the link to my article there will work. Time Inc. will reportedly “keep the Cottage Living brand alive in one of its other leading shelter titles…” I’ll be interested to see how.

what next?

Where will all of the bereft readers of the now defunct shelter magazines go? Perhaps they’ll start frequenting design blogs. Stephen Drucker, editor of House Beautiful, says in the Washington Post “I think blogs are the best thing to happen in my 30 years in the industry…They spread the word about us. Blogs are basically magazines that are not financially viable.” Ouch. He continues, “Magazines that are currently in peril would probably be much better off as blogs.”

It’s time for a different online alternative to the failed or failing shelter magazines. It’s time for something more akin to the editorial structure of Design Observer and which builds on their economic model, but focuses on home design for a general audience. Or something with the posting frequency and approachability of Garden Rant, but for house enthusiasts. Hmmm. There’s an idea. Maybe House Enthusiast could become that alternative. Like Design Observer and Garden Rant, which are each produced by several contributing experts in their respective fields, House Enthusiast could evolve to include additional expert collaborators. I don’t know how much revenue Design Observer generates directly from their website, but they include rotating, unobtrusive, targeted advertising from the Ads Via The Deck network. House Enthusiast could likewise incorporate content-appropriate, judicious advertising. Maybe House Enthusiast could also secure additional revenue by offering subscriptions for select content, conducting educational seminars, providing limited services, or conceiving of other innovative income streams. Maybe this more robust and collaborative House Enthusiast 2.0 could better serve readers set adrift by Cottage Living and the like.

why not?

So with this post I’m making an open call for astute writers and thinkers to join me in promoting regional, vernacular-inspired architecture and design for today’s living. I welcome your financially viable ideas. Email

by Katie Hutchison for the House Enthusiast