THE NEW YORKER magazine was once my idea of heaven. It brought me a world of fine china and terrific clothes and super hotels and dry wit and wonderful short stories that I never read but like having around. I have since changed my notion of heaven. It is now shelter magazines.
A shelter magazine is a trade term for magazines like House and Garden or House Beautiful. I have become addicted to them. I read them in supermarkets and in the drugstore, noticing that other men do the same. I am secretly thrilled when my wife brings them home, but I say nothing if people are around. As a man, I am uninterested in such things.
The thing I like about shelter magazines is that they are not about houses or furniture, but about some idealized version of happiness. The message, never stated but clear as could be, is that you could design yourself into happiness. These magazines tell you what it takes to be happy. It takes, among other things, plants.
It also takes a deck, a dog, a Cuisinart, an astonishing interest in food, a restaurant stove, lots of stainless steel in the kitchen, pots hanging from the ceiling, a study for her, a study for him, dual career, lots of spare time, more plants, lots of money, lots of quilts, a hot tub, a cold shower, a nearby place to jog that kids are never seen, brunch without the kids, dinner without the kids, clear skin, no doubts about anything, a bathroom with a chair (who sits in the bathroom?), the color peach, the color green, a bidet, modular couches, flowers on the tables, a patio, a pool, a pool house, a casually opened bottle of wine, a bottle of champagne in the fridge, a bowl of fruit that is not for eating since who wants to eat warm fruit (right?) a view of the sea, a view of the mountians, a dog that doesn't shed, a sunken bathtub, a bathroom without shades, a neighbor who won't peak, a kid who doesn't break anything, a mailman who won't bring any bills.
Nothing in a shelter magazine costs anything. A pillow is just a pillow. In the store, it's a small fortune. A couch is a mere nothing. (In the store, it's called a sofa anyway and it costs more than the house. It also never comes or if it does, it comes damaged.) Even the plants don't cost anything. The reason they don't is because they are usually brought by the photographer who shoots the pictures of a house. This is why they are never overwatered.
All of this helps to achieve the perfect look. The place looks happy. It looks perfect and it tells you that happy people live there. There is a collectable notion to this happiness, the suggestion that if you buy enough and build enough, you could be very happy indeed. I happen to believe this myself.
In a sense, shelter magazines are to the '80s what Playboy was to days gone by. Where once you got sex without responsibility (without even conversation), now you get a world where there are no concerns about such things as dust, breakage, rot mildew, rain gutters, bursting pipes or even money.
The people mentioned in shelter magazines never have to borrow money. They never go into debt. They never have to hassle with the contractor, sue the architect, threaten the life of the plumber, call the electrician at three in the morning to worry about permits. To them, building and renovating is sheer joy. All you know is that they found this perfect little barn in Connecticut, moved to Long Island, turned it into a four-story tower of glass, and never even got a bill. How very nice for these people.
In fact, the best thing about the magazines is the people. There aren't any. You never see them. They don't exist.They moved that barn all that distance and they don't even live in the place. You see their artifacts. You see tables set for people who aren't there. You see wine opened and bowls of fruit, champagne, pate and the door open to catch te breezes from the ocean. You see everything but people. They're gone. Come in.
And so I do. I browse through the place. I touch the quilts and sit on the modulars and enjoy the view. I taste the wine and the pate and bang the pots hanging from the ceiling and then, before the people appear, I sneak back to my place with a sense of expectation. Maybe the mail has brought The New Yorker.