Lessons from Martha Stewart on living well: 'We don't preach. We teach'
The Globe and Mail asked Martha Stewart about her love of cocooning, why she thinks jealousy is a good thing and the appeal of tiny houses
While professing to have a penchant for tiny homes, Martha Stewart boasts no less than 21 kitchens in her various full-scale homes.
At 75, the lifestyle guru is as adamant as ever about romancing the home and globally building her brand in myriad new ways. This fall, she's teaming up with iconic hip-hop star Snoop Dogg to co-host a new weekly dinner party TV series.
And she's just launched a business called Martha and Marley Spoon, a U.S. meal-kit delivery service that offers the makings for cook-it-yourself dinners, for those who just don't have time to shop.
"Thoughtful good living is what I'm looking for," she told me after lunch recently at Hudson's Bay Queen Street store in Toronto, where she was launching a new line of bedding. Stewart proclaims her passion is "living style," a phrase she's coined and spun into a multimedia empire.
The Globe and Mail asked Martha Stewart about her love of cocooning, why she thinks jealousy is a good thing and the appeal of tiny houses.
You have managed not only to inspire but educate so many people on such a global scale. Was this part of your vision in the first place?
I was raised by two schoolteachers so we were always being taught. We were taught to respect education and our teachers. And I loved my teachers. I remember all their names and used to have them over for lunch at my house. Teaching is very important. But I'm not a preacher. I want to make that very clear: We don't preach. We teach. We want the information to be as good as it can be – as well-informed as it can be.
You were almost ahead of your time initially, understanding the need for cocooning and how our homes were going to play an increasingly important role in our whole sense of well-being.
Early on I met a woman, Faith Popcorn, who had a house in East Hampton where I had a house. She would be talking about the couch potato and cocooning. We … totally agreed that being a couch potato was just such an inferior way to live. Those phrases, like "cocooning," didn't mean sitting on the couch to me. "Couch potato" meant sitting on the couch. "Cocooning" meant making your home a more pleasant place, a place where you wanted to spend time with your family … a good time.
Your line of products runs the gamut from items for the elegant home to the country home. I know both these elements are very important to you.
I live in several different kinds of environments. And more and more, I want to live in a tiny little one room someplace. I just built a Taj.
We call it a Taj but it's a condominium for my peacocks, with two rooms side by side: one for the white peacocks and one for the blue peacocks, separated by a wire.
But it's 24 feet by 12 feet. It is the perfect size house really.
A tiny house.
Yes, and I love the whole idea of a tiny house. I think all of us probably spend too much time indoors, in too big, spacious places.
Yet, many of us love the idea of having more than one home …
Well, I have four homes plus an apartment. And I use them as laboratories, to try and work things out colour-wise, furnishing-wise, kitchen-wise. They're all different. And I know what's good, what works, what doesn't work. I have 21 kitchens right now. I have a hundred acres in Maine, in the middle of nowhere and on that property I have a carriage house, and there are two living spaces above. In that space alone there are three kitchens and they're all workable. And I have a guesthouse with a kitchen, and a tenant house with another kitchen that we just put in. It's a Martha Kitchen from Home Depot, which is so beautiful everybody wants to stay in that building because of the kitchen. So I install kitchens, and I see what works and what doesn't. My East Hampton house has a giant island which I thought was going to be so fabulous but I hate it because you spend all your time walking around the island which is just the wrong proportions for the rest of the room. But it's too nice to rip out, so I'm never going to rip it out. But I've learned. I experiment. When I'm designing, I try hard to try the things out on myself and see.
It seems as though you've got as many kitchens as some women may have frocks. There's always been an interesting synergy between home style and sartorial style. Are you inspired by what comes down the runways of the world?
Oh very much so. I love fashion. I love going to the shows, meeting the designers and talking to them. They also like talking to me about the garden. So many designers are gardeners, which is my first big passion. And so the garden is sort of a meeting place for a lot of us. We love to grow things, we love to eat from the garden, we love to cut from the garden and you learn a lot doing these manual things yourself. It's the same as cooking. Cooking is another kind of leveller for good taste. What makes a good meal, what makes a good food …
The technological advancement of fabrications has been a great source of inspiration for so many designers. What about for you, and the types of things that you want to surround yourself with at home?
I spent a lot of time looking at home furnishings. What makes a comfortable bed? What is good mattress construction and what is the comfortable sheet? How many pillows do you really need? We spend so much time taking pillows off the bed and putting them on the floor … Just go to bed. I don't want to do that. I want to get into bed and have the bed ready to climb into when you're in the bedroom. So we don't do a lot with fancy coverlets and things.
I think that is definitely a strong philosophy now running through the fashion world too. We want to dress for comfort … wear things that feel good, without all that unnecessary stuff that we've been piling on.
I think global warming has a lot to do with it too. I used to love coats. I have a closet full of them. In New York, you don't have that much cold weather any more, so investing in a coat or two every year is sort of unnecessary. But a shawl is so much cozier.
Plus a shawl can be used multipurposed, tossed over a couch.
Yeah, you can do a lot of things. And I think about those kinds of things and what makes sense in a home….
Your brand has such a lustre to it. Was it something you consciously tended or did it just grow out of a love of what you did?
Well everybody who works at Martha Stewart Living thinks that way. What makes a good home? What makes a comfortable home? What's sensible? What's appealing? What's well made, what's affordable? Affordability is also a big thing that I think about, because I don't want to price myself out of a person's environment if I don't have to. And I learned that when I first started the business with Kmart, which was the largest retailer in America at the time. If you make a million of something, you can make it cheaper than if you only make 10. I learned all those economics through Kmart and that's why I love the idea of servicing and providing a large group of people with really nice things.
Your juggling act is inspiring as well and I often wonder how you manage to have that many kitchens, to be involved in that many different arenas, yet still remain grounded. What's your secret?
I just think it's spending enough time in each place to make it a positive statement. We photograph so many things in my homes and people know my homes by name. They know Skylands. They know Lily Pond. I open my garden in Bedford to many, many gardening groups. My garden's still a work in progress but the letters I've gotten from the women – who are some of the best gardeners in America – are so nice and they understand what I'm trying to do with landscape. They understand that we eat from the garden, we enjoy the garden, we have animals in the garden. They understand that you're being successful in your life effort.
Any vulnerabilities that you'd admit to? Ever worry about your houses not being up to snuff?
Maybe it's jealousy. I like the word jealous. If I feel jealous when I go to somebody's home, that's kind of good because that's aspirational. I just visited a friend's home that I had read about and dreamed of what it would be like. He finally invited me to see the house and I didn't feel any jealousy whatsoever. And I felt so good going home, because I didn't feel as though I was missing out on something. But I like the jealousy thing, because it's the next something I can aspire to.
Well as long as you keep it in check.
Yeah, it's like you see somebody in a dress that you wanted and she looks so much better in the dress than you would have looked in it. That kind of jealousy is good.
This interview was condensed and edited.