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Chris Madden's Moment

Welcome Back, Martha. Now Watch Out.

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2005; Page H01


Chris Madden has been an avid Oscar-watcher since she was a kid. So when a JCPenney ad featuring her furniture collection was slotted to run on last Sunday's telecast, she figured it merited a little celebratory glam. Although she and her husband had worked at home all day, she threw a black cashmere robe over her sweats, set up Asian lamb takeout on trays and settled in to wait for her 30-second brush with Hollywood.

"I heard the opening music and started to see all the pieces I have worked on for the last year and half," says Madden. "If you can't be out there like Chris Rock and Cate Blanchett, this is the next best thing. I gotta say, it was a real rush."

Chris Madden at work at her Westchester County headquarters. Her desk is a dining table she designed for JCPenney. (Photo Helayne Seidman for The Washington Post)

After more than 20 years in the lifestyle biz, the 56-year-old designer is ready for her close-up. Author of 16 books, host of her own HGTV show and syndicated newspaper columnist, Madden has decorated for Oprah and Katie Couric. Her home furnishings collection for JCPenney called Chris Madden Home has grown to 2,000 pieces, from leopard-print carpeting to pesto green bath rugs. And on May 3, she gets the prize piece of the lifestyle portrait: a magazine with the working title At Home With Chris Madden.

Madden's move into the spotlight comes at a moment of high drama on the domestic diva front. Martha Stewart, who has commanded that pinnacle for 20 years, is set to be released from her five-month prison stay on March 6 -- or possibly earlier. The formidable Martha spin machine is in overdrive trumpeting the homecoming as a new chapter filled with reality TV shows and renewed energy for the designer's line at Kmart stores.

There's no telling how America will take to a post-prison Martha. Despite the recent stock comeback, her company, which began as a one-woman catering business and grew to become a media and merchandising powerhouse, just posted a fourth-quarter loss last year of $9.5 million. Martha Stewart Living magazine has dropped precipitously in advertising and circulation.

Madden, meanwhile, has been busy honing her message, increasing her visibility and building her empire. Although Chris Madden Inc.'s $2.5 million 2004 revenues are minuscule compared with Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia's, which totaled $187.4 million last year, Madden's message is more focused. She does not challenge Martha's mastery of all things domestic. Her aim, she says, is to "demystify" decorating, with an emphasis on personal spaces and comfort and calm -- and no guilt trips about not embroidering your own dish towels or tending homemade compost.

"Your home should be a nurturing haven for everyone, starting with yourself," she says. "I'm not looking to add any more obligations to women's lives. But I'm trying to help consumers not to be overwhelmed by all the choices out there."

When Martha Stewart's legal troubles began, Madden was annoyed to find herself lumped in with less-qualified contenders for the home decorating doyenne title.

"I've been working in this business for three decades. Martha and I had many similarities: the same book publisher, the TV shows and newspaper columns. Even the fact that we were both blondes. But it made me cranky that the media saw me as an overnight sensation. I've been in the trenches designing, writing, photographing and speaking."

That time has produced both a reputation for solid design smarts and a keen understanding of the multifaceted lives that many women lead. She has been married for 30 years to Kevin Madden, 66, former publisher of House & Garden and now CEO of Chris Madden Inc. They have two sons, Nick, 20, a sophomore at Skidmore College in New York, and Patrick, 24, who works for C-SPAN and lives in Georgetown (with a Chris Madden pine Somerset bed and accessories he and his mom bought at the Wheaton JCPenney). When family schedules allow, they hike and snowshoe together at their mid-century modern getaway in Vermont.

The Madden homestead, about an hour north of Manhattan, is furnished in her hallmark understated classic style: taupe and tan walls and fabrics, sisal rugs, English antiques, stacks of books, collections of shells and tasteful beds for her three West Highland terriers. Menus from favorite restaurants hang in the yellow breakfast room. Her own haven, which Madden calls her "sanctuary," is a small space off the master bedroom personalized with a tray of growing grass, candles, a wooden cross that belonged to her father and a tiny Singer sewing machine she once used to make doll clothes.

It is here she starts her day with yoga before heading out with Kevin for the short drive to the headquarters of Chris Madden Inc., lugging three L.L. Bean canvas boat totes monogrammed "CM to Office," "CM to New York" and "CM to Vermont."

The Port Chester office, in an old Fruit of the Loom factory above a tortilleria and laundromat, is a honeycomb of sample rooms and design labs. Amid a hubbub of phone calls, deliveries and brainstorming sessions, Madden's own office is welcoming, orderly and homey. Toile-covered binders line shelves. Her desk is a huge white dining table stacked with books, red leather boxes and an urn of red roses. A needlepoint pillow proclaims, "There can only be one queen and I'm it."

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