Happiness is the next big thing. No less than three books on the subject have hit the stores in the last few months: Stumbling on Happiness by Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert, Happiness: A History by historian Darrin McMahon, and The Happiness Hypothesis by University of Virginia professor Jonathan Haidt. All three were mentioned in last week's issue of New York as part of its cover story, "How to Be Happy." There we meet Chris Peterson, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center, who informs us that according to a statistical study the most unhappy people in the world live in New York City.
While the same article mentions that lawyers are 3.6 more likely to be depressed than other professions, nothing is revealed about the happiness quotient of designers. However, if you're looking for happy, contented people, designers may not be your best bet. A recent discussion here at Design Observer, for instance, was less peaches and cream and more Zidane and Materazzi. And of course a lot of the people who live in New York City are designers. Coincidence?
No, if you want to find people who are happy, really happy, and really happy about design, you have to look in only one place: the letters column of Architectural Digest magazine.
Architectural Digest is Conde Nast's "International Magazine of Design," but the focus is mainly interior design: relentlessly accessorized, blindingly lit, polished-to-a-vertigo-inducing-gloss interior design. The writing is usually excellent and the printing is impeccable. The photography anticipated the so-real-it's-fake aesthetic decades before the invention of Photoshop. (As Tom Wolfe once said about magazines like Architectural Digest, "I don't read them anymore. I eat them. Most taste like marzipan.") For over 35 years, the formidable 5-foot-tall Paige Rense has presided as editor-in-chief, an amazing run in the high-mortality world of magazine publishing. I've read it (or, at least, looked at it) for years.
Many magazines like to print complimentary letters, but I always vaguely sensed that the letters to Architectural Digest were peculiarly, ferociously positive. I wanted to make sure. I examined the 33 letters in the last three issues (June, July and August, 2006). The results are interesting. Of the 33 letters, 33 of them are overwhelmingly, feverishly positive. None of them are negative. Words that one finds in discussion threads here at Design Observer -- words like "stupid," "bad," "rude," "boorish" and, of course, "fascist" -- are simply not found in Architectural Digest. Instead, one finds "beautiful," "breathtaking," "sumptuous," "elegant," and "fabulous." Happy words! Here are some typical opening sentences, chosen more less at random:
I have long loved Architectural Digest for all the things that set it apart from those other home design magazines on the newsstand.
Your January issue...was by far the most informative issue ever!
You deserve a standing ovation for your March issue.
Your May 2006 issue arrived today, and in the space of an hour, I savored the visual smorgasbord that is the global world of design, pored over the tasteful interiors...and found myself hanging on every word...
I love your April issue so much I wish you could autograph it.
Thank you so much for the March issue, an in-depth look at some of Hollywood's finest homes and personalities. This issue is not only sumptuous to peruse but a must for anyone's home library...
Sumptuous to peruse, indeed! I'm reminded of the unctuous tones of the oily cleric Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice gushing over the "small summer breakfast parlour" at the estate of his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Occasionally, a letter goes completely over the top:
The May issue had me calling my doctor for oxygen. Never have I seen such artistic design as you presented in this issue of your publication. I applaud you for elevating my awareness of what a great artist can create, of what great people can demand of existence.
And there is ample evidence in these pages that what some people demand of existence is nothing more than a good long wallow in the world of, well, Architectural Digest:
My husband and I have enjoyed Architectural Digest for years. I have often saved an issue that I especially liked. When the March 2006 Hollywood at Home issue came, we enjoyed it and knew it was a keeper. I searched the bookcase and found the April 1994 issue, which had the homes of Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow, Steve McQueen, Mae West and more. I also found our copy of the April 1998 Hollywood at Home issue, with the residences of Jimmy Stewart, Rita Hayworth, Claudette Colbert and many more...
If you recall the frenzied search for half-empty liquor bottles undertaken by Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick toward the end of Days of Wine and Roses, you pretty much get the picture. One senses this insatiable rummaging could go on forever, and twenty years from now this same couple, Page Rense willing, will be savoring glimpses of the residences of Kevin Dillon, Rob Schneider and Steve Guttenberg.
I found only one letter that even hinted at anything resembling disappointment in the Architectural Digest experience, but the unpleasantness was addressed with exquisite tact:
I am quite happy with your covers recently. The photographs you have chosen to run in the last couple of months have returned the Digest to the most sophisticated-looking magazine on the rack. I especially liked the May 2006 cover. The bird sculpture in front of the window in the center of the photograph is stunning. Please continue to show your simple, pleasant high design on the cover of the magazine -- it is what best represents the content inside.
The writer here is too delicate to put a name to the offense: the magazine had run several issues with -- dear God -- all type covers. Another letter raised my hopes with a coquettish opening, but quickly reverted to the now-familar overwrought bowing and scraping:
How could you tease me so outrageously with the abundance of beauty in "Gardens: A HIghland Spring," but not one bitty glimpse of the majesty of Attadale's insides? My bookcases are filled to overflowing with your magazines, so when we have one of our rainy periods, I huddle down with an old one and...
You get the idea by now. It's easy to make fun of the tone of these letters -- okay, it's irresistible -- but I find something perversely inspiring about them as well. I spend my days in a world where design has been redefined as value-added strategy-led innovation, or as an instrument of social reform, or as a mode of formulating a critique of contemporary culture. But every so often I wonder: can't it ever just be beautiful? In the pages of Architectural Digest, we hear testimony from people who expect to react to design as nothing more or less than an experience of pure beauty, and find their expectations, month after month, exceeded. Like this:
If I were to live inside May 2006's Great Design section, I would wear Vivienne Westwood's gown to St. Basil's Cathedral and sleep in the Louis XIV state bed. Basically, life would be beautiful.
See? Life would be beautiful. And happy.