Home is where the heart is, to be sure. But home may also be where the money is these days, as Americans put away their dancing shoes and come back home again.
At least, that is what publishers of the elite home-design magazines are betting on. These sumptuous publications, which are to home decorating what haute couture is to sewing, include Knapp Communication's Architectural Digest, standard-bearer of the category; Conde Nast's HG, known until two years ago as House & Garden; Hearst's House Beautiful, granddaddy of them all at 94 years old; Meredith's Metropolitan Home; and Hachette's stylish newcomer, Elle Decor.
As advertising pages continue to decline while the economy deteriorates and with marginal magazines struggling for their lives, the industry is bracing for a shakeout in categories with too many similar magazines.
On the theory that a reader might be hard pressed to differentiate between, say, House Beautiful and HG, these magazines would appear to be prime candidates.
But media directors and advertisers think differently. They say that despite similar demographics and the same kind of lavish layouts, each magazine has an individual appeal and its own hard core of readers.
"Certain ads will draw better in one magazine than another," said Michael Dugan, the president of Henredon Furniture Industries. "House Beautiful seems to have carved out an editorial niche that emphasizes the country look. HG has a more urbane, elegant look. Elle Decor is visually terrific and may have appeal to the younger reader. Met Home has a very clear identity and a lot of reader interaction. Architectural Digest is the best magazine we advertise in."
Nonetheless, the home furnishings market is down and many fTC department stores are feeling the pinch.
Cheryl Smith, media director at William B. Johns & Partners, a New York ad agency, described the home furnishing market as "a little bit flat right now," but said advertisers with the most expensive goods were the least affected by the economic slump.
"If you continue advertising and stay visible, you can gain market share," she said. "Recession or not, you have to remain visible."
Recession or not, the magazines are now edited for readers who are scaling back. They are running more service pieces, more articles on how to refurbish existing interiors instead of redecorating from scratch, more features on less expensive items.
In the first nine months of the year, advertising pages fell 9 percent in House Beautiful and 8 percent in Metropolitan Home, while Architectural Digest posted a 4 percent increase and HG a stunning 10 percent gain.
Elle Decor began publication in March, so no comparative figures exist, but its publisher, Polly Perkins, said the nine 1990 issues had a total of 468 advertising pages, well above the projected 350 pages.
The circulation leader is House Beautiful, with 932,377 subscribers last year, followed by Metropolitan Home at 701,015, Architectural Digest at 632,302 and HG at 619,920. Ms. Perkins said Elle Decor's circulation, as yet unaudited, was 200,000.
All five magazines have a lustrous quality about them. With their depictions of perfectly appointed rooms, designer furniture, elegant gardens and oh-so-handsome couples presiding over impeccable preserves, the publications present a world that is more fantasy than reality.
Architectural Digest, edited by Paige Rense, is considered to be the dominant magazine. Its critics call it pretentious, but with four-color issues of more than 300 pages each and more than 1,800 ad pages last year, it is the ultimate voyeur experience into the houses of the rich and famous.
"A couple of hundred years from now, if you want to get a sense of how affluent America lived in the latter half of the 20th century, you could do no better than a copy of A.D.," said Thomas P. Losee Jr., the publisher.
Or any of its competitors, for that matter.
Nine-year-old Metropolitan Home likes to distance itself from the others with its motto, "Journalism, Not Voyeurism," although it, too, runs its share of glamorous homes.
For instance, one article entitled "Why You Can't Buy a Sofa in America" examined why most good furniture is sold "to the trade only" and must be purchased through decorators. The piece also explained how to read the price code that hangs off sofas. As a result of this article, Metropolitan Home was barred from a major furniture show.