Martha Stewart Living: 2020 Year in Review

Is it possible that 2020 produced something almost flawlessly beautiful? Could 2020 have been one of the best years in Martha Stewart Living's history as a magazine? I would submit to you that it was. Hear me out. 

The reasons for its success this year are the same reasons it was always able to achieve success in its most celebrated years: consistency, reliability and positivity. You don't need me to tell you that the world faced one of its most-challenging chapters this year. The global pandemic took hundreds of thousands of lives and effectively shut down world economies. It halted all international travel and prevented us from seeing our extended family and friends for months at a time as we entered extended periods of complete lockdown. It was one of the most difficult periods in time I can recall. And it is still ongoing. 

All of the covers this year were extremely beautiful. I've heard from other readers, too, who have mentioned how impressed they've been with the covers this year. 

Through it all, readers of Martha Stewart Living magazine were given monthly doses of reassurance and inspiration, and ideas for creation during a rare moment when there was actually time to spare. The editors worked largely from their homes this year. Indeed, six issues of the magazine were put together from the home offices and dining room tables of the MSL crew. And yet, they were still able to find the outward perspective needed to inspire and delight their readers. For this, I say a heartfelt thank you! I, personally, read each issue of the magazine from cover to cover - as I always do - and this year I found the content to be more 'alive' than ever. What I mean by that is that through its succinct presentation of ideas and inspiration I found a vitality that was more meaningful to me. 

An example would be the quotes featured each month on the splash page introducing the well of the magazine:

I found myself looking forward to these inspirational quotes each month, and each one informed me in some way, either emotionally or intellectually. I researched the people quoted and often wrote down the quote in my journal for posterity. That was a first for me in all my years of reading this magazine. 

Another example of this vitality was the connection the editors made with its readers, not only acknowledging the pandemic (as any editor would) but also providing reassurance through its messaging. There was direct guidance, for instance, in suggesting to readers that they use the ideas for entertaining during a time when it was safe to gather again. There were fewer photos of groups of people gathered around a table or sharing a dessert - and if there were, there was a notable caption indicating that the depiction of the gathering was photographed last year. (In the world of magazine publishing, content is often produced a year in advance). This level of responsibility in guiding its readers, reassuring its readers, is what helped make the 2020 roster of issues some of the most poignant in its history.

This was also, of course, the magazine's 30th year in print - an astonishing feat, considering the volatility of the publishing industry. Many magazines have come and gone in that three-decade period, but Martha has held a place of prominence throughout. Factors contributing to its longevity include the connection to its readers that I mentioned above, as well as the reliability of its content. Each month, readers are given what they expect but with new twists and inspiring alterations to keep the content from ever feeling staid or predictable. There is also the consistency of its beauty: through photography and design, the magazine has maintained unparalleled heights of gorgeousness. I still find myself swept away by a beautiful photograph printed on its pages, or a stunning layout; I still notice the careful styling and the attention to all the details in the recipes and texts. It is still such a beautiful magazine. 

Rather than let the pandemic cancel a festive mood, the editors rose to the occasion and provided readers with fond memories of the magazine's incredible history. To celebrate the anniversary, the editors delivered monthly content that reflected its best moments, primarily through the return of Martha's "Remembering" column on the last page, which was a fun bit of nostalgia. Rather than an essay written by Martha, however, the 2020 "Remembering" column was a distillation of a moment in time: a photograph of Martha with a brief remembrance from her lifetime. Each one was a little dash of insight into the world of the magazine's founder.
The anniversary content culminated in the December issue. As I've written before, the December issue of Martha Stewart Living is to its readers what the September issue of Vogue is to its devotees. It is the one we all look forward to with excitement each year. It made sense, therefore, that the editors used the December issue as the hull for its 'best-of' content. Martha's column in this issue was a retrospective on the beginnings of the magazine - a fun read with old photographs from the offices at Time Inc. and a page full of Martha's favourite covers over the years. (Her favourite covers continued in her "Remembering" column on the last page. I was pleased that, as a reader, I concurred with many of her choices).

Throughout the issue, too, at the bottom of each page, there were quotes from people who have either worked with Martha or have been inspired by her over the years. Quotes from celebrities like Snoop Dogg, Jennifer Garner, Blake Lively and Ralph Lauren mingle with remembrances and kind words from world-famous chefs and authors. In each quote there is an effusive note of gratitude and respect for Martha and everything she has created. (I'm also included in the quotes, by the way, which was such an incredible honour for me).

While I certainly would have loved a standalone special issue publication, as was done with the 25th anniversary issue, I feel the December issue is a wonderful repository of celebration and reflection on its 30th. The editors did a superb job of combining remembrance with new content, even presenting classic Martha recipes in a new feature with beautiful styling. 

A new column also debuted this year, in the October issue: Potluck. The column is part of the Everyday Food section of the magazine and features a new foodie or chef each month, inviting them to share cooking lessons from their own lives. I've enjoyed it so far, and have learned quite a bit from it already. I had no idea what suqaar was until I read the inaugural column about Hawa Hassan and Julia Turshen and their new book In Bibi's Kitchen. I also loved the wine advice in the December issue, via Brooklyn sommelier Andre Hueston Mack. 

This year, I will not choose a favourite issue or a least favourite issue. It just doesn't seem appropriate. I'm glad I was able to enjoy each issue of Martha Stewart Living in its 30th year of publication. Each one helped me keep my emotional balance, even just through the simple consistency of its delivery to my mailbox. Like a warm hug from a friend, each issue gave me something to look forward to. There was always something I could use from its pages to improve my life: something new to learn, a new photograph to obsess over, a new cake recipe to try. 

As I wait for the January/February 2021 issue to arrive, I look back at my stack of 2020 issues and feel only gratitude for the year that was. 

And that's saying something.


Anne Van Acker / Saratoga Springs, NY said...

Your blog and commentary on the magazine were as inspirational to me as was the magazine itself. I had let my subscription lapse for years, and re-upping this year has brought back a sense of stability and comfort into my life (one that included not 1, but 2 layoffs this year- and I'm still job hunting). I look forward to more of your lovely blog posts as well as many more issues of MSL!


Thank you, Anne! I'm in the same boat as you: I'm on lockdown number three here in Ottawa, Canada. And even though the layoffs have been temporary, it's still stressful having to apply for the relief benefit, waiting for it to kick in... It's just impossible to plan anything or look forward to anything with so much uncertainty. But MSL has been a source of reliability and comfort. And I'm so grateful for that.

Pru said...

Wonderful! I have only managed to get my hands on one issue of the magazine this year as not many newsagents sell the magazine here and we seem to continually be in lockdown. But your article reminded me just how much I have looked forward to reading the magazine in the past. I will scour eBay to see what issues I can find for 2020 and maybe look into reading it online in the future.

The editors of Martha Stewart Living I hope are delighted by your post. It is a true testament to the hard work that they put into delivering such great content.

Anonymous said...

MSL has shown what they can do in this pandemic. Martha shooting YouTube videos from her home and having a new show on HGTV that I absolutely need more of!

Anonymous said...

Andrew -- did you hear about this event -- SPD the love of Martha Stewart Living



I did hear about it, yes! I'm attending - virtually! :-)

Ramona said...

As a very long-time reader, one who in fact abandoned the magazine altogether for a period of time, I totally agree with you - what a year! While it is certainly more slender than the golden age of the magazine (I consider this to be 94-2000) Every page was beautifully considered and struck a really lovely tone. The writing was exceptional and it was both comforting and inspiring in what was a very difficult year for many of us the world over.