Home Improvement

With luxury on the upswing, shelter magazines are raising the roof

Headshot of Emma Bazilian

Haven’t you always dreamed of owning a Hamptons weekend getaway “inspired” by the Lazienki Palace in Warsaw and the Château de Groussay outside Paris, like the mega-crib featured in this month’s Veranda? Or perhaps you’d prefer a “small castle” in the Netherlands blending “old-world charm and modern-day simplicity,” as seen in Elle Décor? These are places where a $550 waste bin or $20,000 luggage—just a few of the “trinkets” in the latest design tomes—would feel at home. With luxury surging back, high-end shelter magazines once nearing extinction are riding that gilded wave back to the top.

The upturn comes after the 2008 recession bloodletting when a slew of shelter glossies folded amid the ad sales free fall. Today, ad pages in the category’s high end are up nearly 25 percent in the first quarter of 2012 compared to last year—a huge leap considering the magazine industry’s 8 percent overall drop. What’s more, in recent months four new home design titles have appeared on newsstands. With the economy (and housing market) still shaky, what’s different this time?

When Blueprint, Metropolitan Home and Domino were shuttered, readers and young would-be decorators were passionate for their forward-thinking design. Another casualty, mainstay House & Garden was well respected, with Anna Wintour as one-time editor. But with advertisers and publishers pinching pennies, these titles—beloved or not—were unceremoniously axed despite reader numbers like Domino’s 800,000 circulation.

Now the clouds are finally clearing. “The design centers are active again, designers are working again and that’s great for the manufacturers,” explains Traditional Home publisher Beth Brenner. As a result, titles whose advertising revenue had been steadily declining are reporting ad page gains in the first quarter: Veranda’s pages rose 63 percent, Elle Décor 40 percent, Traditional Home 37 percent and Architectural Digest 24 percent.

 At the same time, several publishers are testing the waters with new titles. After two successful test issues of HGTV Magazine, Hearst recently green-lit another four. Boutique title Cottages & Gardens launched a New York edition of its Hamptons and Connecticut publications in mid-March. A month later, Condé Nast released Domino Quick Fixes, a newsstand-only, one-off edition that created massive design world buzz despite mostly rehashed content from old issues. (A second Domino special edition will be published this fall.) And last week, New York debuted its one-off title, Design Hunting, based on the weekly’s popular online newsletter with its huge sourcebook aimed at the New York set.

 On the advertising front, the upswing links to the resurgence of luxury brands. Titles catering to the uber-wealthy, like W and Departures, reported 17 and 8 ad-page increases, respectively, for the first quarter of 2012. And this holiday season, shoppers flocked to pricey department stores like Neiman Marcus, Saks and Nordstrom, which overall saw 10 percent sales gains over the prior year.

 In targeting the wealthy, advertisers are realizing that exclusive shelters provide an ideal vehicle thanks to their “more upscale, older” readers, according to media buyer Carolyn Dubi, svp and director of print at Initiative. “The Internet is not where you want to reach this person. But these books are viable in that they’re not just a bunch of eyeballs—they’re consolidated audiences,” says Dubi.

 It also helps that most high-end shelters never abandoned the 1 percenters. “We haven’t gone for a high-low mix to target a different group of advertisers; we’re still focusing on luxury and quality,” says Veranda publisher Jennifer Levene Bruno, who lists jewelry brands David Yurman and Swarovski among the magazine’s newest advertisers.

Editors also found it unnecessary to court low-end, recession-minded consumers, says Traditional Home’s Brenner. “I don’t think it’s as much about economizing as it is about listening to the reader and giving them what they want,” which she learned means kitchen remodeling and green living, not cash-saving tips and tricks.

Despite the high-end uptick, industry insiders attributed renewed consumer interest in part to lingering affects of the downturn. Homeowners forced to stay put in houses they would have flipped in a better market are investing more in home décor, knowing that they can’t leave any time soon. “People are really trying to make the best of where they are,” says House Beautiful editor Newell Turner. “It’s been good for us in the long run, in some odd way.” At the same time, signs that the real estate market finally seems to be reviving—however slowly—also bodes well for the design category. “The more the housing market comes back, the more it will drive people to the magazines,” says Elle Décor publisher Barbara Friedmann. “It’s still not good, but it’s getting better.”

Whether someone wants to spruce up an existing home or decorate a new one, they’re likelier more design-savvy than ever before. In part, this increased design awareness has been shaped by the industry’s growing embrace of digital and social media, as consumers learn about trends, decorators and manufacturers from fellow enthusiasts rather than pros who once ruled the field. Stumble on a picture of a kitchen you like on Pinterest or Facebook? Click through and you’ll end up at a design blog or shelter magazine’s website.

“During the decline, there was a technological revolution,” says Architectural Digest publisher Giulio Capua. “People want to interact with brands in new ways.”

The rise of design blogs and online-only magazines like Lonny, Rue and High Gloss is bringing a more digitally aware (read: younger) audience into the mix, forcing print competitors to adapt. “You have to give the digital magazines and blogs credit for pushing magazines into the future in a lot of ways,” says House Beautiful’s Turner.

Embracing e-commerce, shelters have rushed to partner with discount luxury flash sale sites like Gilt Home and One Kings Lane. While these partnerships aren’t driving major revenue yet, says Elle Décor editor Michael Boodro, “it broadens our audience and asserts our expertise.”

With publishers jumping on the improving environment to launch new titles, some industry veterans fear that the shelter market could become oversaturated, leading to a scramble for increasingly limited ad dollars. “The pot is much smaller than it used to be, so these magazines are going to have a hard time,” says Dubi. But Design Hunting’s editor Wendy Goodman is more optimistic about the growing number of titles: “I think it’s good for everybody in the sense that competition’s always really good,” she says. “If everybody can find their own voice and their own point of view, we’re going to have a really healthy diversity again.” And with more modern-leaning titles like Design Hunting and Domino joining traditionalists like House Beautiful, that diversity is easier than ever to find.

Still, it won’t be easy for shelters to sustain their resurgence. While ad pages are markedly improved, they’re still nowhere near pre-recession levels. For instance, in the first quarter of 2007, Veranda and Architectural Digest each ran about 100 more ad pages than the first quarter of this year. “I don’t think that anybody can truthfully say, ‘We’re past the hump and everything’s fine,’” says Goodman. “Everyone has to be really focused and really realistic. There is a great positive upsurge for sure, but we’re in a really challenging time right now.”

But as the economy continues to improve and wealthy customers rev up their AmEx black cards, it’s hard not to see light at the end of the tunnel. Without the super-luxe shelter titles like Design Hunting, how else will designers show off the car elevators and original Warhol prints in their clients’ swell New York apartments?

@adweekemma emma.bazilian@adweek.com Emma Bazilian is Adweek's features editor.