by Monica Penick. Yale University Press, June 2017. 256 p. ill. ISBN 9780300221763 (h/c), $65.00.
Reviewed November 2017
Tastemaker: Elizabeth Gordon, House Beautiful and the Postwar American Home is the first comprehensive book to date on the work of the influential and controversial House Beautiful magazine editor Elizabeth Gordon. During her tenure at the magazine from 1941-1964, she became the only woman to head a publication focused on architecture and design. Her studies in philosophy had made her adept at using rhetoric, and her early career days as a copywriter attuned her to understanding the purchasing power and psychology of American women. She championed a modest approach to design and consumer products in post-World War II America, introducing consumers to American modern, Scandinavian, and Japanese design aesthetics. Throughout her career, she never shied away from controversy and became well known for her criticism of the International Style, championed by Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, which she derided for being communist and austere. Her editorial agenda bestowed ongoing praise for American architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, who became her friend and ally. Gordon’s adamant argument for the new American modernism incorporated democracy, regionalism, and a staunch commitment to individualism. Penick critically engages with Gordon’s approaches, acknowledging Gordon’s intense dedication to her design principles while gently recognizing her flawed myopia and conflicts.
Tastemaker is meticulously researched and presents a nearly chronological history of the magazine shortly before and during Gordon’s tenure, outlining its place within the education and development of the postwar American consumer. The book includes nearly 200 illustrations, with many reproductions of spreads from the magazine and architectural sketches. Although Gordon presented her editorials as prototypes for the average American family, Penick points out the lack of affordability for the median income at the time, and includes house pricing data and square footage where appropriate, providing the reader with an historically accurate understanding of the attainability of Gordon’s ideals. Penick heralds Gordon’s undertaking of the Climate Control Project, which made her a well-respected voice on domestic architecture and can be considered one of the first steps towards sustainable design thinking. The relationship and influence between Gordon and Frank Lloyd Wright is outlined thoroughly over the course of several chapters and gives considerable insight into the debates and various perspectives of the theory of design in postwar America.
As an early arbiter of taste in American design, Gordon was a fascinating figure whose editorial influence was wide-reaching and agitating. Penick has found an excellent subject to examine in that of the influence of consumer magazines on the postwar American home.