Martha Stewart, doyenne of domestic arts with a magazine that is now 10 years old, built her business empire brick by stenciled brick.

Focus On Decorating

October 07, 2001|By Elaine Markoutsas | Elaine Markoutsas,Universal Press Syndicate

Picture Martha Stewart in a $5,000 tufted armchair, dressed in fabric as soft as her Hermes angora-and-wool cable turtleneck. She's oh-so-comfy in her Westport, Conn., living room, with a ramekin of spicy seafood stew capped with a puff pastry beside her. She made it, of course, and you can, too, with her recipe. It's such a good thing.

If it all seems too perfect, that's part of the attraction. Her magazine, Martha Stewart Living, celebrated its 10th anniversary this summer, and its loyal readers are eager for decades more of good things -- flower arrangements, luscious recipes, design tips, how-to crafts and housekeeping features.

But a lot has happened in 10 years. She's now one of the most powerful women in American business, with a net worth estimated at about $700 million. The day in October 1999 that her stock hit Wall Street, the guru of good things delighted traders by serving brioche (her favorite bread) and freshly squeezed orange juice on the trading floor of the stock exchange.

She is chief executive officer of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc., which encompasses four huge businesses -- publishing (magazines and 34 books to date), television and radio, merchandising, and Internet and direct commerce. It's all part of the synergistic vision she had when she launched the magazine, which was financed by Time Warner. She bought Living in 1997 and now she's busier than ever.

The reason for the magazine's success, Stewart says, is that it filled a void for every homemaker -- and she's not afraid to use that word. "There was nothing like it. It gave how-to information and beautifully photographed stories," she says. "The magazine has become very valuable to all demographics, from farmers to waitresses to college students."

It's not easy being Martha Stewart these very long days, publicists inking every snippet of time on a daily calendar much more complicated than the monthly one you see in the magazine, where a personal entry might read, "Pick and eat tomatoes."

For Stewart, it all comes back home.

"Home is where we live," Stewart says. "It's where we do most of our thinking, eating and, also, practice most of our hobbies."

Her three main homes (she has seven) are laboratories for ideas and projects that sometimes appear in Living. In her gardens at Turkey Hill, her home in Westport, Conn., she developed 350 cultivars of flowers for a collection of seeds. The Federal farmhouse at Turkey Hill is where Stewart is most at home after nearly 30 years.

"It's a very important place to me," she says. "That's where I grew up -- in my professional life. It's where I sleep almost every night because of my animals [three chow chows, seven Himalayan cats, 15 chinchillas and 27 canaries], plenty of creatures who rely on human contact."

Of course, the decor has changed over time, not so much a product of evolving design tastes as a desire to lighten up, just as the former caterer's richest recipes have reduced butter and sugar in her latest cookbooks.

Much of Stewart's decorating style starts with color. Her philosophy is to create a harmonious palette so soothing that when you wander from room to room, it's without a jolt.

"To me, design is not fashion or faddism," Stewart says. "Design is something one develops. I've been influenced by so much, mostly by what I've seen and what I've studied."

Skylands, Stewart's 1925 pink granite Mission-style summer mansion and 61-acre estate on Maine's Mount Desert Island, is "everything" a home can be to Stewart. Her favorite place at Skylands, which was built by Edsel and Eleanor Ford, is the sprawling terrace.

Although there are beautiful plantings, it's the vista that she loves. The woods -- Douglas fir trees, spruces and hemlocks -- frame two sides, and there's a view of the Atlantic Ocean.

The house has a rustic ambience, but Stewart mixed taffeta, damask, polished brass, gilt frames, zinc-topped tables and Venetian and mercury glass in its furnishings.

A third residence, an 1878 large shingle-style cottage at East Hampton on Long Island, is her "place to be on vacation."

"There are really beautiful surroundings, with an acre of roses," she says.

She always has liked beautiful things, a legacy from her late father, a pharmacist and an aesthete who taught her to appreciate their Nutley, N.J., victory garden, distinguish fine fabrics and paint in oils.

Her mother taught her how to cook for an army; Stewart comes from a family of six. But the picture she once painted of her 87-year-old mother, Martha Kostyra, also hints at high standards. "She was always dressed in the morning, her hair was always combed and her apron always ironed," Stewart recalls.

There's no subject too mundane for the magazine because exquisite photography makes it compelling. Living has covered it all, from how to house-train a puppy to how to use polka dots as a decorating device.

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