The Good Martha

Photo: Antonis Achilleos

On the mantel of my fireplace, next to a set of wooden hear-no-, see-no-, speak-no-evil monkeys, is a small silver frame containing a photograph of Bill Clinton and Martha Stewart. Cut out of a magazine, it was a gag gift to me from my mother-in-law, who has always hated Stewart—for all the usual reasons, but especially because the first step in Martha’s recipe for Easter ham involves the cutting of grass (upon which the ham is served).

I have never been particularly bothered by Martha. And yet when the verdict came down, I was upset. Not because I care about Martha the domestic diva or Martha the brand or even Martha the criminal. I care about the stuff.

Everyone seems to have forgotten Martha’s true contribution to society: The products that bear her name consistently display better construction and design than anybody else’s—and they’re low-cost, too. Martha is accused of stealing value from shareholders. Fair enough, but she also gave a lot of people a lot of value by getting a mass-market retailer like Kmart to sell classy goods at low prices.

It takes a rare zeal to produce inexpensive things that actually function and look decent. I was once given a very fancy set of Coucke kitchen towels from Provence—super-plush, hand-embroidered. They became stained and stretched after the first use. Not my Martha kitchen towels—they are not as luxurious or as arty, but they’re not bad-looking, and they’re practically indestructible. And then there’s the sage-green Martha paint I used on a wooden table eight years ago. I have moved that table out of state and back and into four different apartments; the paint job, amazingly, remains intact.

Martha’s tempered-glass Everyday china is solid, dishwasher-safe, and much stronger than bone and even regular glass; drop a teacup nonviolently and it’s not going to break. Four place settings don’t cost much more than a single Calvin Klein Home plate. The wrought-iron patio furniture comes with weather-resistant cushions, so your yard doesn’t have to resemble a brown-spotted rust heap come the Fourth of July. The stroller blanket is soft fleece, as good as the kind sold in Upper West Side baby boutiques at four times the $7 price tag.

True, there are pieces of Martha-ware that I wouldn’t bother with. The chef’s knives are on the flimsy side, some of the textile patterns are too country-kitsch for their own good, and accessories like wind chimes are just superfluous.

But I wouldn’t argue with their intentions: In Martha’s world, even a shower-curtain ring isn’t just a shower-curtain ring. It’s a quality creation: metal, sturdy, even attractive. And if you think it’s petty to sing the praises of a shower-curtain ring, think again. Like all the rest of Martha’s manufactured goods, this one conveys the message that you can be nearly broke and still buy something that is, in its own way, beautiful.

Kmart has yet to make a definitive statement about the future of these products. I can imagine a world without Martha. But a world without Martha’s stuff? That’s much harder.

The Good Martha