Is Chris Madden the Next Martha?

The design diva carves out a role by stressing the art of makinglife easier.

October 1 2005 by Sheridan Prasso


It is a sunny afternoon, and Chris Madden is receiving guests at her 1910-built stone carriage home in Purchase, N.Y. Impeccably turned out in a sunset vermilion silk pant suit, the CEO of her own home design company introduces her husband Kevin, who quit as publisher of House & Garden several years ago to devote his career to Chris’ business. Well-wishers step through Madden’s front door, pausing first to admire the walls of her foyer done in a sepia-toned decoupage of old photos, then the Madden-designed Romantic-line furniture of her receiving room, and then out the back stone steps into the tented yard. Among the guests is Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, regal with her white braided hair gathered under a blue bandana. The two greet with the hugs, kisses and fond exclamations of old friends. Chris has designed home interiors for this eminent author, as she has for Katie Couric, Oprah Winfrey and other celebrities.

 

Now, after 16 books on cooking and home design, eight years as host of her own show on Home & Garden Television (HGTV), and the launch of her successful Chris Madden furniture, bath and bedding collection for JCPenney last year, Madden is celebrating again, this time the startup of her first magazine, At Home with Chris Madden, which debuted in May of this year. The publication, a one-time title that may launch quarterly or monthly if it does well, features Madden’s decorating ideas demonstrated not only in her own house, including this foyer, living room and backyard cabana,  but in vacation homes, small city apartments, remodeled kitchens and other living spaces.

 

The comparisons with Martha Stewart are so clear that Madden’s name is hardly spoken without them: both poised, coiffed blondes; both products of Roman Catholic upbringings in the Northeast; both competing to be divas of domesticity in the $195 million-a-year home furnishings industry, designing lines for competing stores (Madden at JCPenney, Stewart at Kmart). And now, of course, publishing competing magazines. “There are a lot of similarities, that is clear,” says Madden.

 

But it is the differences that are perhaps most interesting. Yes, Madden may be Stewart’s competition, but she comes sans guilt and high-nosed snobbery. Chris Madden is everywoman, the heroine of the all-American housewife who is juggling three kids, soccer practice and an unrelenting schedule. Women can’t do it all, Madden says. Forget making your own Christmas wreaths and hand-embroidered tea towels. Quit trying to be the perfect hostess who has to impress. Instead, decompress. Make your home into a haven, turn it into a place of refuge, and go easy on yourself within it.

 

“I really am not about telling women what they have to do,” Madden says, citing the philosophy that has turned her “Home as Haven” mantra into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. “I’m really about telling women, €˜How can we make this easier?’ If you’re tearing your hair out trying to do it all, this is an easier way.”

 

In other words, you can follow Martha Stewart’s many steps-by-step guide for making your own fresh beeswax candles to centerpieces for your autumnal table using as molds the scooped-out insides of acorn squashes (minimum time commitment, six hours). Or you can buy a Chris Madden 60-hour Signature Scented Candle (in “Mandarin Honeysuckle” or “Fresh Cotton”) at JCPenney for $22. “How easy was that?” is the tagline Madden sometimes uses to punctuate not only her sentences but her magazine articles as well.

 

Madden grew up the eldest of nine children sewing her own clothes, and later earned a scholarship to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. She left three credits short in 1968, but went on to a career in publishing, including a stint at Random House, before launching her own company in 1977. Now, after nearly three decades in design, Madden feels she has earned the bona fides to be recognized as a home-decorating maven without, quite bluntly, the mention of Martha, Martha, Martha, over and over again. “I was one of the first four hosts on HGTV [of her own design show that ran from 1995 to 2003],” says Madden. “I’ve got the credentials. I’ve always been down and dirty in the trenches.”

 

Still, she says, women like herself owe Martha the place of honor as pioneer, no matter who may be scraping at her heels now, or who was at it first. “I think what Martha did for us, and I mean that, was incredible. She really paved the way, because, yes, I was doing all this stuff before; I was decorating my girlfriends’ homes. I had grown up cutting my own clothes. I got a scholarship to FIT based on my expertise with the needle. But she was there at a certain time and opened it up for us,” Madden says. “But I also feel that I really have always pursued it my way.” (A spokeswoman for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia declined to comment.)

 

Yet, it is clear that the competition between the two is growing. The privately held Chris Madden Inc. may be puny in comparison to Martha Stewart Living’s $187 million in annual sales. But from just over $2 million in revenue in 2002, Chris Madden Inc. logged sales of close to $3.5 million last year. And now, with the magazine launch, a deal to write a 17th book, and an expansion of Madden’s line at JCPenney earlier this year, sales for 2005 appear headed for $8 million. Things are clocking along so quickly that Chris Madden Inc. recently added a chief financial officer to its employee roster, which has tripled from four people in 2002 to 12 today. (Martha Stewart has more than 300 employees.)

 

Madden previously had partnered with Bassett Furniture in 2000 and produced a collection that sold $100 million in two years. After a spate of media attention in 2003, and talks with over 100 home design companies, Madden settled on a cooperation with JCPenney. (The Bassett partnership was discontinued.) The department store, having seen the demonstrated success of Martha Stewart at Kmart and Isaac Mizrahi at Target, was in the market for its own design maven.

 

So Madden started out designing two lines of affordable furniture and one of home furnishings (bedding, towels, etc.) for JCPenney’s aisles. One of the furniture lines, Somerset, featured dining room sets ($749, on sale), hutches ($550) and sideboards ($599) painted white, invoking a country-cottage-and-picket-fence look. JCPenney executives at first were skeptical. But Madden just told Penney executives, “Trust me,” and the line proved so popular that stores ran out of white furniture inventory within a few months. Within six months, after more of the white tables were back in stores, JCPenney had sold 50 percent more of them than they had originally manufactured. Madden’s furniture even appeared on a TV episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and by early 2005, JCPenney had expanded Chris Madden’s collections into bath spa accessories, decorative bedding, pillows, table lamps, rugs, curtains and window treatments-an ensemble far larger than the Martha Stewart line at Kmart. The items are classified into one of three themes in line with Madden’s long-held decorating philosophy: a “Serene” environment of white curtains or Zen-like simplicity; a “Romantic” collection of antique-styled, classic home comforts and lace; or an “Adventurous” look of world-collected curios, bright colors and textured fabrics.

 

 Once choosing a theme, any of the products within that line will match each other. “The entire collection has exceeded our expectations,” says Deb Evans, vice president for home product development at JCPenney, based in Plano, Tex. “It has turned out to be the single largest designer launch for the company.” JCPenney has seen double-digit increases in sales in its home collections in the last several years, with Madden’s lines a major reason why, Evans says. The Chris Madden Home Collection now constitutes three-quarters of the furniture sold at JCPenney, far exceeding original forecasts. “There is probably not another single brand in the home furnishings business that covers the breadth of categories that Chris Madden does,” Evans notes.

 

After the major expansion earlier this year, JCPenney plans to roll out new Chris Madden decorative bedding as well as other designs later this year. “There’s more to come,” Evans says. “It is a big part of our growth plans.”

 

Hachette Filipacchi Media also saw Chris Madden as a possible part of its growth plans. It published the At Home with Chris Madden magazine under its Women’s Day Special Publications unit, printing 400,000 copies for distribution in supermarkets, bookstores and at JCPenney. “We all saw the Chris Madden trend in the media,” says Olivia Monjo, the editor-in-chief of At Home With Chris Madden. (A decision taking the magazine quarterly or monthly is expected in November.)

 

Madden says the magazine gives her the opportunity to talk to her audience in a more immediate way, as in, “Hey, get your priorities straight! Do you want your home to be a haven?” While there are plenty of constant entrants in this crowded field of home design magazines, the monthly Martha Stewart Living notwithstanding, Madden’s magazine features her JCPenney furniture, as well as tips on how to blend pieces of old and new in order to create a comfortable living space rather than a designer’s dream. The important thing, Madden says, is “giving women permission to nurture themselves, because if it’s not us, who is going to do it? I don’t want to put any more obligations or any more €˜must-do’s’ on women, but we can make that home into a haven, and God knows we need it now more than ever with everything that’s going on in the world.”

 

It was this philosophy that earned her the fan club trio of Toni Morrison, Oprah and Katie Couric. Morrison, for one, says that Madden is the ideal designer for people who have items they love and want to keep while being able to decorate around them. “I’ve had other interior decorators,” says Morrison. “They’re very confident about what they know. She, of course, has that confidence, too, but also she has a deep respect for your eccentricities.” Madden worked more cooperatively with her client, rather than imposing style judgments. “That’s the way she does it,” Morrison says. “That’s a distinct difference between her and other designers. She gives the women agency. It’s okay what you think,” says Morrison. “I heard her speak once and she said, €˜This is not your mother’s house. It is not your neighbor’s house. It is your house.’ So much of what we do is presentational, for showing to others.

That’s where she is so different, so enabling for women.”

 

The issue of giving women more “agency,” or decision-making power, has been driving Madden to new interests as well. She wants to expand her bath spa line at JCPenney into more products, for example, which Evans says is already in the works. In addition, Madden is in talks with a Detroit automaker about designing a car to meet women’s needs: “Like a soccer mom car. All I know is, I want a place to put my handbag! And what’s with the makeup mirrors?” she says. “Let’s just redo this, boys!” Designing hotels that are more accommodating to women travelers’ needs is also on her agenda. And Madden is talking with paint and wallpaper companies, which, if she branches into those lines, would expand her home decorating and designing reach.

 

“Is she the next Martha Stewart?” ruminates At Home with Chris Madden’s Monjo. “All indications are the JCPenney line is doing fantastically well. She certainly has the customer recognition. So we’ll see.” Then again, does it matter? In a booming business sector, there’s plenty of space for two domestic divas to do their own thing-and then some.