Louis Oliver Grubb dies at the age of 88; Shelter journals that lead you through the turmoil
Louis Olivier Grubb, a frequent patron of shelter magazines during decades of turmoil as editor-in-chief of House & Garden, Elle Décor and House Beautiful, died on October 17 at his home in Greenport, New York, on Long Island. He was 88 years old.
His daughter, Lauren Grubb, Lori, announced her death. No reason was given.
In 1981, Condé Nast Publications decided to revamp House & Garden, its 80-year-old decorating magazine, and chose Mr. Grubb as its new editor. Like its competitor, House Beautiful, House & Garden was at the time a mid-tier publication devoted to recipes, DIY decor, and crafts.
But Ronald Reagan had just begun his first term as president, and the culture was changing. The luxury market – the wealthy reader – has come to him. Architectural Digest has already set out to chronicle the good life lived by heads of state, movie stars, and Hollywood A-listers. The house and garden will do the same.
Mr. Grubb may not have been an obvious choice to oversee the transformation. He was a generous, practical Midwestern man with a modest, Methodist upbringing, who collected mid-century modern furniture, admiring the spirit behind those clean, functional lines. Since the late 1960s, he has been editing Home & Garden Guides, single-topic magazines on solar homes, construction and renovation, kitchens, decorating instruction, and home storage. They were useful, popular, and catered to the DIY spirit of the time.
The new Home & Garden magazine, launched in January 1983 as Creative Life Magazine, looked nothing like its old form. He was very mature, very cultured, very elegant. Gone are the jumble of cover lines – “Draw your own cloth patterns!” – Pet food and classified ads. There were no stories about decorating in a small space, sewing the edges of towels, or turning your closet into an indoor garden.
Instead, there were features around cultural lions’ nests, such as playwright Lanford Wilson’s Manhattan loft, designed by Joseph D’Urso, or fashion designer Bill Blass’s apartment, designed by Mika Ertegun and Chasey Reiner. And there were stories to go with it, essays by Elizabeth Hardwicke, Gore Vidal, Rosamond Bernier, and Jean Morris.
This combination may not have been quite to Mr. Grubb’s taste, especially as the 1980s wore on and the interiors of the wealthy became more complex and elaborate. The new focus reflects the influence and interests—and his social circle—of Alexander Lieberman, the Russian-born immigrant and artist, who was Condé Nast’s feared editorial director.
However, Mr. Grubb’s great talent was his ability to adapt to the vision of others, and to support and promote that vision. His editors loved it, and so did the advertisers.
“Lou was incredibly good-natured and open-minded,” said Shelley Wanger, Mr. Grubb’s essays editor, who persuaded several writers from her former employer, The New York Review of Books, to contribute.
“If he saw himself as a business president,” Stephen Drucker, a veteran Shelter magazine editor who worked for Grubb in the 1970s, said by phone. He never thought for a minute about becoming a star himself. “It showed that you can be successful — and you can be kind,” he added.
In 1984, House & Garden won National Magazine Awards for Design and General Excellence. It was the only magazine in its category – magazines with a circulation between 400,000 and 1 million copies – to do so.
However, by 1987, Mr. Lieberman and C.I. Newhouse, Condé Nast’s crooked and reclusive owner, had soured on the magazine and its editor. (The stock market crashed later that year, and advertisers actually panicked.) The two men were courting a young British fashion editor named Anna Wintour, whose ambition was to run American Vogue magazine. They gave her a house and a garden instead.
Mr. Grubb was abruptly fired – to his fame in the industry – while on vacation with his family in Newport Beach, California. His dismissal came after the dismissal of William Shawn at The New Yorker magazine and before the dismissal of Grace Mirabella at Vogue magazine. The firing of these respected editors within a year became part of Condé Nast’s appalling snake-pit lore, and added to Mr. Newhouse’s reputation “as a kind of cave-dweller who relished the humiliation of his distinguished talent,” Dodi Kazanjian and Calvin Tomkins wrote. In “Alex: The Life of Alexander Lieberman” (1993).
Mr. Grubb was usually optimistic. He has always said he went on to better things, as editor of the American edition of the French decor magazine Elle Décor, and then as editor of House Beautiful, which he ran from 1991 until his retirement in 2000. There, he retained the magazine’s DNA – an accessible design for an audience Broad – but it has broadened its focus and improved its appearance.
“I’ve always thought of Lou as the Walter Cronkite of the Shelter magazine world,” Warren Schulberg, a design industry consultant, wrote in an email. “I don’t think anyone else in that era had the credibility and charisma that Lou did. He was also a really nice person and never seemed to flaunt his status (although he was elegant,” Mr. Schulberg added).
Mrs. Wintour’s Home and Garden magazine, which she renamed HG, became a fast-paced, fashion-influenced magazine—particularly putting people in stylish interiors—but it alienated many subscribers and advertisers. Condé Nast had to set up an 800 number to handle all complaints and cancellations.
Before the year was out, Mr. Lieberman and Mr. Newhouse decided it was time to fire Ms. Mirabella from Vogue and replace her with Ms. Wintour. House & Garden closed in 1993, was revived in 1996 and closed for good in 2007, a victim of the housing slump and a looming recession.
Louis Oliver Grubb was born on June 6, 1935, in La Porte, in northern Indiana, and grew up near the border, in New Buffalo, Michigan. His mother, Carol (Pagell) Grubb, was a homemaker. His father, Hosea Grubb, shoveled coal for the railroad.
Lewis studied communications at Michigan State University. As a journalist, he thought he might write about religion. Instead, his first job offer was from Home Furnishings News, a trade magazine. He had already fallen in love with modernism, after walking into a Chicago furniture store while looking for work and seeing pieces by Charles Eames, Harry Bertoia and Eero Saarinen.
“I’ve never seen things like that,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1991, recalling the nondescript furniture he grew up with. “You didn’t have a small-town Midwestern style,” he said. “You had a sofa and a matching chair.”
He moved to Manhattan in the 1960s and married Jane Goodwin after meeting her at a Riverside church in 1965. In addition to his daughter, Lauren, he is survived by his wife; another daughter, Amy Grubb Forbes; And five grandchildren.
In December 1993, Interior Design magazine inducted Mr. Grubb into its Design Hall of Fame, dedicating him to his thoughtful approach to design coverage.
“Design journalism, often fueled by images and flash, has always produced its share of bombast and exaggeration,” wrote Meyer Ross, the magazine’s editor at the time. However, Grubb said: “He has managed to navigate the industry minefield of arrogance and arrogance with integrity, grace and an absolute commitment to the highest editorial standards.”
“Uninterested in smug rhetoric and affected posturing, Grubb’s work has always focused on celebrating good design,” Mr. Ross added.