What Can a 1970s Magazine Teach Us Today?

“Believe it or not, your next home could be in a dentist’s office,” a popular shelter magazine declared, referring to underused New York City commercial buildings that were being turned into apartments.

The year was 1979, and the magazine was Apartment Life, a monthly dedicated to young Americans who had moved out of their college dorms and were settling into urban studios and one-bedrooms instead of houses in the suburbs.

Founded in 1969, Apartment Life was a vivid time capsule of macramé, wicker, houseplants and furnishings whipped together from boards, pipes and scraps. It was stuffed with information about rent-control regulations, low-cost tropical getaways and how not to be intimidated by French cuisine. It brandished terrible puns in its headlines: “There’s No Place Like Foam” (about sofa material) and “Fanfare for the Uncommon Pan” (about cookware). In 1981, it morphed into the more urbane Metropolitan Home.

Apartment Life’s 800,000 readers typically lived on their own or with partners. They were determined to explore the worlds beyond colonial-style bedroom suites and meatloaf — albeit on a budget. They postponed marriage and child-rearing to entertain their friends in shoe boxes that they could arrange to express their identities and values.

Today, we know this group as baby boomers on the road to affluence. But “it’s a cycle of life that continues no matter in what era,” said Amanda Dameron, the chief content officer of A360 Media (formerly American Media). Ms. Dameron is working to bring back the old Apartment Life, in its original guise, as a special-interest publication. She sees its cluttered, lively ethos as an antidote to the chilly perfectionism of Instagram and finds relevance in its message to young people today.

Many covers featured couples, not all of them professional models.Credit…Patricia Wall/The New York TimesFor several years, the cheeky tagline appended “Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” to the word “Life” in the title.Credit…Patricia Wall/The New York Times

“You’re coming into adulthood, and you want to figure out who you are,” she said. “For the first time, you have your own space and agency over it. You don’t have all the money in the world, but you have opportunities.”

Ms. Dameron, 45, who managed to snap up almost a full set of back issues of Apartment Life on eBay — 69 in all, for $510 — is a fan girl. Several years ago, when she was hired to produce instructional videos about home design for the company Tastemade, she did a series based on D.I.Y. projects from the magazine, like building a rolling plant wall and weaving a colorful nylon hammock. Her staff of zoomers starred in the productions, wearing flip hairdos and turtlenecks and grooving to a bouncy synth-and-brass soundtrack.

“It was not overly earnest; it was meant to be fun and funny,” she said. Just like its inspiration.

Apartment Life was the oddball child of the conservative Meredith Corporation, in Des Moines, Iowa, the publisher of the heartland handbook Better Homes & Gardens. Dorothy Kalins, the magazine’s founding executive editor and later editor in chief, said Meredith had caught wind of an emerging market of well-educated readers who scorned Better Homes’s emphasis on traditional design and housewifely values.

Apartment Life “kind of codified what I and my friends and our generation were about,” she said. “We would jump off buildings rather than live in a Better Homes & Gardens house.”

Ms. Kalins, 80, orchestrated the cheeky voice and visual antics that became Apartment Life’s brand. When the magazine published its “Hassle-Free Holiday Issue,” in 1976, for example, it gave the distinct impression that the holidays were to be endured as much as enjoyed. The D.I.Y. crafts included paint-it-yourself “anti-Depression glass” and a wreath made from neckties scrounged from the Salvation Army. The “Save Our Sanity” department included a chart of shipping rates (by truck, bus, train and plane) for gifts that readers might have dragged their feet in sending.

Rayman Boozer, who grew up to be an interior designer, remembers being inspired by Apartment Life to turn cans into planters.Credit…Patricia Wall/The New York Times

Having contributed to New York magazine under the tutelage of its founders, Clay Felker and Milton Glaser, she knew how to provide service journalism with a smile. A 1975 story called “Choosing Apartment Pets — Which Adapt, Which Don’t,” put the answers succinctly in a grid. Among the adapters were dachshunds and iguanas. Forget about monkeys and koi.

A 1976 article insisted that “a planter is anything that won’t dissolve” and illustrated that maxim with photos of greenery growing in rubber gloves and castoff shoes.

“There was so much energy, so much humor,” Ms. Kalins said. “Nobody took themselves too seriously.”

Underneath the lively spirit, however, was a mission to recalibrate the values and customs of postwar middle-class America. Apartment Life decreed that the kitchen was the new living room where readers could kick back, and that friends were the new family that they could choose. A first-person account of a home renovation called “My Wife the Carpenter” made no bones about a sea change in sex roles: “Like everyone else,” the author wrote, “we were hell-bent on not doing the things our parents had.”

Making the point that it was not a Ladies’ Home Journal, the magazine mostly displayed couples on its covers. Some of the subjects were models. Some were what Ms. Kalins described as “real people.” (Pointing to a man in a ribbed yellow pullover, she said, “That was my high school boyfriend.”) Many (including her ex-boyfriend) had Tom Selleck-like mustaches.

The covers also featured people of color, gay couples and celebrities like Robin Williams and Richard Dreyfuss.

Three themes seemed to permeate the pages. It was OK to live alone as a single person. Small quarters did not demand small furniture; instead, rooms and objects should be multifunctional. And a lamp could be made from anything — colanders, parasols, canning jars, wicker baskets, rolls of twine. Anything.

“That was the cri de coeur,” Ms. Kalins said of the lamps.

The “Hassle-Free Holiday Issue” gave the distinct impression that the holidays were to be endured as much as enjoyed.Credit…Patricia Wall/The New York TimesMs. Kalins recruited celebrities to attract newsstand buyers. In all, Apartment Life had about 800,000 readers.Credit…Patricia Wall/The New York Times

Rayman Boozer, the founder of the New York interior design company Apartment 48, recalled enjoying Apartment Design as a teenager in Indiana because it was not about buying things. “At that time, there was no upcycling,” he said. The magazine was unusual in encouraging readers to scavenge for tossed-out furniture and recover it themselves. Mr. Boozer took its advice to turn tomato cans into planters.

This was not what advertisers wanted to hear, but Ms. Kalins lured them by mixing luxury goods with handmade accessories and thrift-store finds. In a feature called “Hi-Lo,” room vignettes were populated with similar objects itemized at different prices, so readers could get the look of, say, a Victorian boudoir for more than $4,000 (about $21,000 today) or less than $600 (about $3,150 today).

“We travel the country in ragged bunches, always with more shopping bags than hands,” she wrote in “The Apartment Book,” a 1979 collection of articles from the magazine, referring to the styling of the elaborate photo shoots.

Philip M. Tusa can vouch for those shopping bags. In the mid-1970s, he was a young interior designer living with his wife, Kathleen Ferguson-Tusa, in a studio apartment in Manhattan, when Apartment Life swooped in. The editors had so many props and so much Mediterranean food for a spread that the bags holding those things had to be left in the hallway, he recalled.

Mr. Tusa, who is now 72, had built a variety of furnishings to make the small home more comfortable for a couple. He remembered that the editors coined names for them: the “Wonder-Working Wall” (a plywood partition with storage); the “Alley Office” (a work nook set off by a smoked-plexiglass panel); the “Surprising Black Box” (a coffee table covered with textured-rubber floor tile that hid sliding wood shelves).

The article, “The Engineered Apartment,” appeared in May 1976. It showed the Tusas and a friend chowing down on tabbouleh and grape leaves in the styled interior, and provided diagrams for making the furniture.

Another magazine subject, Andrea Brown, was less comfortable with Apartment Life’s zhuzhing. Ms. Brown said she cannot remember how the editors came to transform the living room of her Brooklyn brownstone for a January 1974 article about creating the illusion of a wider space, but she was put off by the enormous yellow kite they hung over her fireplace mantel. Even more painful was the yellow, green and purple crocheted rug dropped on her floor. Ms. Brown, 83, who is an artist, said she is still galled that these interventions were billed as an improvement. “Cover the rug with your hand,” she advised a reporter before sending photos of the spread.

The magazine gave readers ideas for taking control of their environments — on a budget. Credit…Patricia Wall/The New York Times

By 1981, the scrappy party was over. Hippies were turning into yuppies with the emergence of the Reagan era. Meredith had bet correctly on a market of urban renters, but as the Times reported, “Now most of these same people want equity in their dwellings, so they have gone to condos, co-ops, townhouses and even homes in the suburbs, while remaining city oriented.”

A hundred thousand insufficiently affluent readers were cut from the circulation list. “We have to get those nuts-and-boltsies out of the audience,” Harry Myers, Apartment Life’s publisher, was reported as saying of the do-it-yourselfers. Ms. Kalins presided over the magazine’s transformation to Metropolitan Home and continued a storied career in publishing beyond that.

Among the disappointed subscribers was Mike Lamprecht. When he began reading Apartment Life in 1976, he was a 23-year-old graduate student in psychology at Iowa State University, in Ames. “I was living in pretty spartan conditions and looking for ways to dress it up that were affordable,” he said.

“There were a lot of space solutions,” he recalled of the magazine. “And a lot of things you could build yourself without having a lot of tools.”

Mr. Lamprecht, who is now 69, remembered the early Metropolitan Home as “way more upscale, and I didn’t have a use for it. They assumed that their readership had grown all the way up and was making more money and had bought houses. And the truth was I hadn’t gotten to that point yet.”

He kept his back issues of Apartment Life for years, dipping into them for ideas. At one point, he ordered a needlework kit through the magazine to make a cross-stitch sampler. “So I taught myself to cross-stitch,” he said, “and got it framed and hung it over the fireplace.”

The message: “Home Sweet Apartment.”

Living Small is a biweekly column exploring what it takes to lead a simpler, more sustainable or more compact life.

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