"Market power is critical to the future of design firms. There is neither time nor the resources for design firms to know all they need to by themselves. Who do they look to? They look to Kerry Harding for support, thoughtful ideas, useful advice, and coaching...he offers a complete tool kit of ideas for professionals."

James P. Cramer, Hon AIA, Hon IIDA
Chairman & CEO
The Greenway Group
Norcross, GA

The Martha Stewart Phenomenon: What Lessons Can Design Firms Learn?

April 15, 1998
by Kerry Harding

A recent issue of DI quoted the president of Starbucks as saying that “the general public may not understand exactly what good design is but they will respond favorably when surrounded by it.” It is this same philosophy along with the premise that a “sense of place” can be created out of nothing which is the essence of not only Starbucks’ success but of the other arbiter of American taste: Martha Stewart.

At the recent semi-annual symposium of the Design Futures Council in Chicago, discussions frequently seemed to return to the phenomenon of Martha Stewart and her ability to single-handedly bring design into every aspect of everyday life. To demonstrate her power over the American consumer, one conferee shared this anecdote recounted by a Home Depot executive. On Stewart’s Saturday morning program, she advised that it was the perfect time to be planting geraniums and that everybody should plant them. By 6:00 p.m. that day, every Home Depot store in the country had sold their entire stock of geraniums. While hundreds have chronicled and satirized Martha’s exploits, none of her detractors can argue that she is at the center of three important cultural trends.

The first is a tendency in a world increasingly devoid of meaning to “venerate the object.” In hard times, we can’t afford to buy lots of big expensive stuff. Instead, we buy one beautifully designed expensive thing. Surrounding ourselves, whether it be in the home or the workplace, by things in which we have had a hand in creating, provides a sense of permanence and stability in our lives.

The second trend that gives Martha her power is the collapse of employment caused by globalizataion of manufacturing, automation and brutal corporate downsizing. With the instability of the workplace we look to our home as a cocoon to enhance our sense of place.

The third trend is a particularly American one: the Puritan impulse of self-improvement. By tackling a small task with an end result in site, we can take pride in our efforts at a time when, with corporate megamergers happening worldwide, we are becoming an increasingly smaller cog in an increasingly larger wheel. While few of us actually do the many things she does, simply watching her do them or reading about them provides a vicarious pleasure akin to us doing them ourselves.

You have to be able to communicate. Being good designers is irrelevant if we lack the ability to translate design solutions into concepts understood by our clients.

Technology makes it possible, so it’s going to get done. In a life packed with projects, Martha depends on having the best technology currently available to facilitate the mundane. Being willing to continually invest in our project delivery, management information and telecommunications systems is essential to better focus our efforts on solving our clients’ problems.

You have to be organized. Part of Martha’s magic is that truly, there is a place for everything in her surroundings. One by one, she chips away at life’s frustrations, providing well thought out solutions, whether it be for time management or storage needs. Fostering a culture in our firms that everything about them can always be made better a little bit at a time is a goal some firms have attained and to which many aspire.

One author categorized Martha as more of a drug than a domestic dream, saying “You don’t so much watch her as mainline her.” Martha tells everyone that their environment can be a handcrafted monument to themselves. That, as an object of desire, it’s the result of honest toil and brings a happiness fairly won. In addition to our homes, why can’t our firms, and the workplaces they create, be more like that?

What are the lessons that the traditional A/E community can draw from her phenomenal success? A lofty goal? Perhaps. As aficionados would attest, to Martha “It’s a good thing.”