With the hindsight of four decades, the verdict is now crystal clear: Paige Rense would never have committed the 1970 parking lot murder of Architectural Digest editor Bradley Little to get her boss’s job. As editor in chief of one of the most successful magazines in American history for 40 years, Rense has proved she’s far too shrewd to have made such a bad business calculation. Back in 1970, the thin Los Angeles-based trade journal with a circulation of 50,000 appeared only four times a year. It had little budget—virtually nothing for photography—and depended on the kindness of furniture stores for advertising and staging. Few zeros appeared on its bottom line. Although the editor would go on to write a murder mystery of her own many years after the Little’s tragedy, the magazine, at the time, wasn’t worth a murder.
After taking over, Rense had to invent everything about Architectural Digest but the name. At the time, most shelter publications were basically home-improvement magazines, but she had a different model in mind. “Why couldn’t there be a magazine like Connaissances des Arts or Réalités about decorating?” she recalls thinking. “Why not a beautifully produced magazine with work by the best designers? Back then hair dressers were the stars, not designers.”
She shifted the emphasis from do-it-yourself to the professionals. “People were afraid of what were called decorators, but they were the ones who really knew what they were doing,” says Rense. She also resolved to get architecture into the magazine.
She convinced designers to trust their work to the magazine’s portfolio format, cajoling them to send their own photographs so she could meet budget. “I traveled to San Francisco and New York to get the decorators before any other magazines tied them to their exclusives, or I wouldn’t have a magazine. It became a military operation,” says Rense. “It was a much smaller world then, and the designers started talking about the magazine. When I was in New York, I met with decorators every hour on the hour. The hotels must have thought I was a middle-aged hooker. I never thought I was competition with House & Garden and House Beautiful, which had been established for years, but then an article appeared called ‘The House and Garden Blues,’ which reported I was eating their lunch. I wasn’t even trying to.”
Her approach was focused and simple: Make home stories into a visit in which the reader is welcomed and taken on a tour. With bigger budgets, Rense gradually lifted the quality of the magazine to her Connaissance des Arts benchmark by improving each component. For the writing, she pursued journalistic integrity by first-rate writers who could produce substantive and entertaining text. Photography required, as she says, “great composition and lighting, with depth and richness.” As for graphics, Rense believes the “format of a magazine is vital. A magazine is your friend. It’s comforting. You know what to expect. We went for very good paper and printing and high production values.”
The magazine’s reach extended beyond California and New York to the regional U.S. and across its borders. Derry Moore, the aristocratic English photographer, opened doors in Europe, and using intermediaries—people who knew people with houses—even networking into royal households. Rense’s policy was to create surprise and variety in her pages. “I did quite a lot of features on antiques, art and historical houses,” she says. “I did the first article on the Vienne Werkstatte. I did houses belonging to fashion designers, artists, politicians. A magazine has to be talked about, so celebrities were key. You can’t ignore the facts of publishing.” But the reigning criteria was the “house had to have emotional or intellectual appeal.”
As Condé Nast chairman S.I. Newhouse says, Rense became “the soul” of the magazine. But beyond Architectural Digest, she became a force majeure in developing the home-furnishings industry and the interior design profession itself.
In June, Rense stepped down from her editorial post after one of the longer runs in the history of American periodicals. Retirement, however, is not in the cards. For a brief and unsuccessful period early in her life, she was a housewife and discovered she could not not work. Already she has embarked on her second act in public life: Editing a book on the life and work of her recently deceased husband, painter Kenneth Noland. She will then turn her attention to an as yet unannounced project on her own work and career. Stay tuned.