Martha Stewart Living's Founding Editors Look Back at the Magazine's Most Memorable Moments
As Living celebrates its 30th birthday, the creatives who helped shape the publication into what it is today revisit some of its most defining stories.
"Our families and our homes are the centers of our lives," Martha wrote in the very first issue of Living. "This magazine will always be filled with ways to make those homes more beautiful, more comfortable, and more full of life and light and joy for those we love." Three decades ago, she and a small but mighty team set out to deliver on that promise, dreaming up creative ideas, cleaning and organizing clutter before that became an industry (and a Netflix series), and cooking up troves of delicious dishes for both the everyday and extra-special events. It was vital to capture it all authentically, too—in natural light, using emerging photographers and talented stylists—and to frame it with good design and typography. (Martha has always cared about it all.)
Back then, much like today, there was a lot happening around the world: The Berlin Wall had just come down; Nelson Mandela was freed from prison; the Gulf War was starting; and Margaret Thatcher resigned after having served 11 years as the U.K.'s first female prime minister. But Martha and Co. remained focused on our favorite place: the home front—and we still are. Our version of a celebrity is a transcendent baker or an expert iris grower. We have an eye on the new, but appreciate the old—as well as the handmade, the homemade, and the American-made. And rather than report on trends, we champion personal style.
To mark this milestone anniversary, we've assembled iconic images from over the years and reminisced with former staff who shaped the magazine into what it is today. "Martha offers a key to a life that people otherwise couldn't envision," says founding editor Isolde Motley. Come on in—let's celebrate the things we love.
An April 1997 story on Wedgwood china explored the classic English company and showcased a range of styles, from jasperware to creamware.
Celebrating Beauty: Plums, August 1994
Living published its first glossary—or "visual encyclopedia," as founding creative director Gael Towey called these breathtaking images—in the premiere issue. It was a digest of evergreen boughs, and the format quickly became a signature of the magazine.
Celebrating Beauty: Backyard Birds, 1998
The editors would plumb the depths of each subject they covered, leaving no gemstone, songbird, or fig unexamined.
Celebrating Beauty: Ferns, April 1995
"We tried to be as extensive as possible," recalls Gael of their approach.
Celebrating Beauty: Tree Peonies, March 2001
"We reached out to people from all over the country," says Gael, "gathering all kinds of peonies or heirloom peaches."
Celebrating Beauty: Oysters, December 2006
"Or having crabs and oysters shipped to us live, packed on ice," Gael continues.
Celebrating Beauty: Figs, September 1997
That approach—scientific-quality precision combined with photography—made learning fun.
Celebrating Beauty: Magnolias, April 1996
"They were really unusual for the time," says founding editor Isolde Motley. "We wanted to make knowledge accessible."
Celebrating Beauty: Gemstones, May 2005
These pieces of earth (or treasures from the sea, as is the case of pearls and coral) come in every color under the sun. They are cut into shapes that highlight their beauty, such as squares or teardrops. Some are faceted, so light can bounce off every surface; others, smooth and lustrous.
Celebrating Beauty: Hibiscus, March 2004
"We had this phrase: 'Turning dreamers into doers.' We wanted to show the really beautiful, but there always had to be a takeaway, an element of empowerment. You might not be able to grow the entire glossary, but you can grow one variety—and here's how to do that," says Margaret Roach, the founding garden editor and former editorial director.
Celebrating Food: Stuffed Chicken, January 2011
Eating locally and seasonally is Martha's food philosophy, and it informs every story: Make daily meals fresh and a joy to eat, and pull out all the stops for special occasions.
Celebrating Food: Coconut Layer Cake, May 1997
"It seemed like no one was making layer cakes at the time," says founding food editor Susan Spungen of the May 1997 feature that included this coconut knockout. "It was a classic that had disappeared, and this story helped bring them back. I've baked this one many, many times over the years."
Celebrating Food: Fountain Drinks, July/August 1999
"What was revolutionary at the time was that we were capturing real moments—cooking food that we made ourselves and shooting it all in natural light, using no food-styling trickery," says Susan. "Martha wanted people to know exactly what a finished recipe would look like. We've always bristled at anything artificial."
Celebrating Food: Caviar, December 1994/January 1995
"She cooked and styled much of the food herself in the early issues," recalls Gael, and that set the hands-on culture of the magazine for generations of editors and readers.
Celebrating Food: One-Pan Pasta, June 2013
Martha made this one-pan pasta recipe from the Martha Stewart Living June 2013 issue on Cooking School. To this day, the simple recipe, which comes together in a single large-sided skillet, is a family staple.
Celebrating Food: Tomato Toast, July/August 2013
A rainbow of heirloom tomatoes elevated crunchy toast—and made quite the colorful feature in the July/August 2013 issue of Martha Stewart Living.
Celebrating Food: Madeleines, Holiday Cookies Special Issue 2005
Living's take on this classic cookie debuted in a special holiday issue in 2005.
Celebrating Food: Cooking with Parchment, January 2005
For former editorial food director Lucinda Scala Quinn, a January 2005 feature about cooking with parchment paper sums up the Living approach: "It took a basic tool and simple ingredients, and transformed them into a study of light, shape, and color—in other words, art."
Celebrating Food: Fruit-and-Herb Sorbet, July 2005
Meticulously recipe-tested, every result—including this fruit-and-herb sorbet—was also downright delicious.
Celebrating the Home: Kitchen at Bedford
When Living launched, Martha showed that decorating your home with personal style and a cohesive palette and point of view can be realized by everyone—not just high-end interior designers.
Celebrating the Home: Decorating at Bedford
She also welcomed readers into her own residences: Turkey Hill, the 19th-century Connecticut property she renovated from the ground up; her bustling Bedford farm; her East Hampton beach getaway; and her woodsy, magically mossy Maine retreat.
Celebrating the Home: Farming at Bedford
These homes have always been her Living laboratories, where she could test things out and "teach by example," says Kevin Sharkey, former decorating editor and current EVP and executive director of design for the Martha brand.
Celebrating the Home: The Gardens at Turkey Hill
Drop by any day and she might be painting her walls with a faux-bois technique, burnishing copper until it gleamed, feeding her chickens, or plotting a perennial bed.
Celebrating the Home: Coastal Living at Lily Pond
"So many of those early stories were answers to questions we had in our real lives," says Lisa Wagner, founding style editor and former video executive producer.
Celebrating the Home: Summer at Skylands
"Where else, other than maybe university, would you be thrown a topic, paired with equally obsessive and curious partners, and told to go for it?" asks Stephen Earle, former style and home editor.
Celebrating the Home: Collections and Décor at Skylands
"Martha has an insatiable curiosity and continually wants to learn. She is best known as a teacher, but she is also a perpetual student, which in turn makes her an even better teacher," says Marcie McGoldrick, former editorial director of crafts.
Celebrating the Home: Holiday Decorating, December 2003
"One of the most rewarding parts of the job was creating something you were personally passionate about and seeing it manifested in the pages of the magazine. I think everyone felt that. Martha encouraged us to follow our passions. I always loved the holidays, and must have decorated hundreds of trees during my tenure," says Eric Pike, former editor in chief and creative director, affectionately known in these parts as Father Christmas. For this holiday decorating story in the December 2003 issue, Eric, executive creative director at the time, adorned a tree in his New York City apartment with mercury-and silver-glass ornaments. He hung shorter glass icicles on top and longer ones below, to mimic what he saw in nature.
Celebrating the New and the Old: Mercury Glass, December 1996/January 1997
As much as our founding editors relished discovering the new, they also revered the past.
Celebrating the New and the Old: Milk Glass, July/August 1998
Those fascinations merged into our collecting stories, which explain an object's history, honor craftsmanship, and highlight centuries-old American manufacturers.
Celebrating the New and the Old: Jadeite, September 2011
"Early on, so much of Martha's decorating was reusing and reviving beautiful, old things," says founding collecting editor (and resident historian and joke teller) Fritz Karch.
Celebrating the New and the Old: Ironstone, February 2004
Editors scoured antiques shops and flea markets and visited collectors to gather unique finds, from sterling silver pie servers to utilitarian items like knitting needles—and encouraged readers to do the same.
Celebrating the New and the Old: Bottles and Jars, August 2010
"This shot of bottles and jars from August 2010 is my absolute favorite. I always say my time at Living was equivalent to getting my master's degree. Not to mention that the food editors basically taught me to cook!" says former longtime staff photographer Johnny Miller.
Celebrating the New and the Old: Ironstone, February 2004
"Our readers love the vintage world. We'd keep running lists of things we adored. Martha's one tenet in collecting was that it couldn't be a fetish. It had to have a purpose," says Fritz.
Celebrating the New and the Old: Pie Servers, November 2010
Says former design director James Dunlinson, "I thank Martha for her sense of wonder at the most magnificent, and the most mundane."
Celebrating the New and the Old: English Pink Spatter Lusterware, 2010
"For this story on English pink spatter lusterware, Tom Eberharter, who was in charge of building sets for photo shoots at the time, created a marbleized backdrop that mimicked the finish of the china," recalls Fritz of this 2010 image, which ran in Living's first iPad edition, 'Boundless Beauty.' "We didn't know how it would look until we got to set that morning, but it came together beautifully. It was amazing."
Celebrating the Handmade: Halloween Pumpkins, October 2013
Since day one, Living has reveled in the joy of doing, whether conjuring Halloween crafts and costumes (Martha's are the stuff of legend) or profiling gifted makers.
Celebrating the Handmade: American-Made Honoree Floret, December 2014/January 2015
"Everyone has a story, and you never knew where that story would take you," says contributor and founding crafts editor Hannah Milman, who traveled the country scouting growers and artisans.
Celebrating the Handmade: Easter Basket, April 2006
For holidays, editors and photographers would reimagine pumpkins, Easter baskets, and valentines every year. "My brain was always on fire with all we could do," says former style director Ayesha Patel. "It was incredible."
Celebrating the Handmade: Carnation Heart, February 2001
It also had lasting impact: "The camaraderie and collaboration were magic," says photographer Victoria Pearson.
Celebrating the Handmade: Thanksgiving Décor, November 2009
Adds Pearson, "I realized you can live with beauty and appreciation in all you do."
Celebrating the Handmade: Cranberries, November 2007
"It was an incredible privilege to learn about people's passions," says Gaelon of meeting makers, artisans, and growers around the country.
Celebrating the Handmade: Vermont Cheese
The editors met all kinds growers and farmers, including those working on Consider Bardwell Farm, a creamery dedicated to the art of cheesemaking.
Celebrating the Handmade: Origami Ornament, December 2001
In the 2001 December issue, the editors crafted colorful origami ornaments.
Celebrating the Handmade: Vermont Stars, December 2007
"There was a blizzard right before we arrived in Vermont for this December 2007 story; we had to drag snow away in tarps," says Marcie. "It was so cold that our photographer, Victoria Pearson, taped pocket warmers to her camera to keep the shutter from freezing." Melañio Gomez, contributor and former editorial home director, adds: "We used a 25-foot ladder to hang the final star. The wind was howling, the temperature was dropping, and dusk was setting in. I was so cold I made the ladder shake. As I stepped on the top rung, I remember thinking, 'Well, if I fall, at least I'll land on snow.'"