This teacher's sense of control makes her Sunday-morning TV show strangely transporting—it's a sort of alternative church service for those seeking aesthetic self-help. The brilliance of the show is not in how-to; it's actually in how well it crosses over to the exhausted non-do market. This audience is composed of busy working women (and some men) who previously bristled or laughed at what they saw as Stewart's relentlessly perfectionist class- and status-ridden standards, her assumption that everyone has the leisure and acreage and desire to do what she does. These are tasks that appear unthinkable to your basic Door Store couch potato. But there's something about watching her tireless quest that gives the show a narcotic buzzing this perfect visual aesthetic existence."
Says Steven Overman, an assistant at Wired magazine in San Francisco, "The first time I looked at [Martha Stewart Living], I knew I was in love. It portrayed a whole world that I wanted to live in. It was the apotheosis of what my whole design education and life was about."
But Overman does find God, and Martha, in the details: "See, I'm a total Christmas-tree queen. My dream is to run a Christmas-tree farm. When I was a child, I used to drag Christmas trees home off the street. So when I saw a picture of three Christmas trees in her living room, that spoke to me. I thought, It's okay to be obsessed. Martha is."
Overman adds, "There's a camp element to what she'd doing. It's like dressing up household objects in drag. Instead of buying the really expensive thing, you dress it up with little bits of pearls and silver and gold ribbon and glue, and masquerade it as something else."
That sensibility extends to nature as well, where Martha shows a penchant for fetishizing vegetables. There is something genuinely campy about, say, placing a giant flowering kale, or a huge Bermuda onion, on the table as a centerpiece. One of Martha's visual trademarks, which has become standard caterer style, is the almost steroidal bounty of her offerings—as if the entire produce section of Balducci's were plopped table-top. And even though Martha's magazine mostly shows hetero-looking white people sitting down at dinner, her tableaux all seem to be exercises in dress-up. "As a gay person, you are re-creating and reinventing institutions like marriage and family holidays," Overman says admiringly. "You see through institutions, and tweak them, and co-opt them and use them for what you want. That's what Martha Stewart Living does."
The magazine is indeed lush and gorgeous, with fine-art-quality photography, sophisticated typography, and Shaker-clean graphics. The creative director, Gael Towey, comes from an illustrated-books background (and worked on Martha's food and gardening books). Many of the stylists come from the world of catalogues or design. The magazine's penchant for spending eight elegantly photographed pages on, say, rice has been widely copied; instead of the canned, loud look of women's service magazines, the grace and sensuality of the photography sometimes recalls Edward Weston in the way it uses nature's imperfection as an object of reverential focus.
This reverence serves as a visual analog to one of Martha's recurring themes: respect. She doesn't reserve that respect only for institutions and people; she is willing to extend it to the homeliest of God's comestibles. Like pickles. "When I was growing up, there was always an informal pickle competition in our house," she wrote in her "Remembering" column in the October 1994 issue, which has since become a classic for other reasons we'll get to shortly. The "competition" between Grandma Ruszkowski's bread and butters, and Babcia Helen's dills "made family life more interesting and kept alive the art of pickling. . . . I still love pickles and try them whenever I see them—in the bazaars of Morocco . . . Japan . . . or in the warmth of friends' kitchens . . . where pickles garner the respect I was taught as a child."
As a hazy window into Martha's soul, the magazine makes for weirdly fascinating reading. Martha's monthly calendar, listing her regular Today-show appearances and such chores as "clean the canoe," "plant nasturtiums," and "begin excavation for new road," is probably the most-read page in it, but it is also found comedy, Martha at her most self-parodic.
Then there's the chicken issue. Most people find Martha's Perdue-like absorption in chickens eccentric, to say the least. The legendary October 1994 issue of the magazine pictured Martha on the cover, standing outside her Westport henhouse (she calls it the "Palais du poulet") in jeans, her socks falling into her shoes, holding one of her prized birds. "It occurred to us at Martha Stewart Living that we had never really focused on the pleasures of raising backyard livestock," she writes in an opening letter that may set the standard for homekeeping monomania. "I developed my penchant for animal husbandry," she continues, "after I married and had a home of my own." That must be meant without irony, since she married at 19 and discovered a great many things after that.