Katy Burns: The return of Our Martha
We lost Our Martha in 2004. Well, we didn’t really lose Martha Stewart then, but we might as well have. She was disgraced, a has-been, a felon. More to the point for me, she was no longer an icon who was a reliable topic on a slow news week.
Now, after a fashion, she’s back! And, we are told by The New York Times, as a guru to entrepreneurial New York City hipsters!
Perhaps a bit of background is in order for those who have spent the past several decades living in a cave.
For untold years, domestic diva Martha Stewart had reigned supreme in America, the perfect advocate for perfect living. She raised her own heirloom chickens in hand-crafted coops, developed a paint line based on their multicolored eggs, preached the virtues of high-count all-cotton sheets and taught us all how to make subtle but lovely autumnal table adornments with brilliant fall leaves, subtly shaded mosses and lichens and colorful vines. She was revered by all those who strove for a higher, more elegant style.
Under Martha’s tutelage, we built snow globes enshrining personal mementoes for our loved ones, constructed gingerbread houses as elaborate as Versailles and effortlessly put together exquisite afternoon high teas for the Friends of the Library. She set impossibly high standards for us. And we strived to meet them, even if our own paltry efforts often fell short.
After all, Martha was a woman who could, without mussing her manicure, reupholster a rare Louis XIV fainting couch and then, as an encore, craft a down-filled doggy bed for an aging, arthritic pet.
Martha presided over Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc., an empire of gracious and genteel living that included television shows, magazines and an astounding variety of product lines, all exceedingly tasteful. And – gloriously! – she was a big fat target for desperate columnists on slow news days.
Martha could, it seems, do no wrong. Until, alas, she did.
In 2001, Martha – whose own net worth was probably greater than that of half the world’s nations – wanted to save a few bucks on a stock transaction. There were loud accusations of insider trading. It was murky, but there’s no question about the fact that Martha’s behavior wasn’t up to Martha’s standards. And in 2004, she was convicted of lying to the FBI. The Feds, it seems, frown on being lied to.
Being Martha, of course, she admirably womaned up and marched, symbolically at least, into a women’s federal correctional institution in rural and decidedly non-chic West Virginia. After spending five months learning microwave cooking and handcrafting an entire nativity crèche, from baby Jesus to the wise men, she emerged wearing a hand-crocheted poncho and resumed her life and career. Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia soldiered on.
But it wasn’t the same. Somehow Martha Stewart just wasn’t fun anymore.
She had risen to glory as an unflappable perfectionist single-mindedly and single-handedly lifting the great American middle class to a rarified and more elegant level of domestic bliss. And we loved her for her earnest efforts.
After her stint behind bars, though? Martha Stewart was just another money-obsessed corporate mogul caught with her hand in a cookie jar – even if it was a cunningly crafted cookie jar with unique stenciled silhouettes of kittens.
And, to the sorrow of many of us ink-stained wretches, she became lousy column fodder.
But now it’s our time to rejoice!
As Christine Haughney tells it in the Times, Stewart has a whole raft of new star-struck acolytes in New York’s creative folk, who find her devotion to unique materials and meticulous handiwork downright inspiring.
Just look at Tony Stinkmetal, a heavily tattooed East Village denizen. (Yes, Stinkmetal, an artist, changed his name from Michilini “for professional reasons,” we are informed.) Inspired by a Martha Stewart rerun where she whipped up a throw blanket from an old men’s jacket, Stinkmetal started turning out blankets fashioned from old Star Wars sheets. And they sold!
Now he and his business partner have a thriving business peddling blankets, T-shirts and other items fashioned from vintage children’s sheets with the same devotion to craftsmanship and perfection that Martha espouses.
“The truth is, in my own little Alphabet City tattooed way, I’m uptight too, and I like to do things right,” Stinkmetal told Haughney.
And Stinkmetal is hardly alone. According to Haughney, devotion to Martha and her artful crafts is increasing rapidly in the younger – under 35 – creative classes across the nation. They flock to her website and they devour her videos and books as they plot their own businesses based on domestic crafts.
Haughney, bless her, salted her story with irresistible quotes from Martha fans:
“She’s such a Suzy homemaker and also did some time in the joint,” said Luis Illades, owner of a store called Urban Rustic, which carries Stewart-inspired decorations. “That has helped cement her iconic image. Before, she was someone your mother would follow.”
“She’s like the Jesus of the craft world,” another devotee said. “Not that I like criminals, but I heard that she just took some bad advice. Anybody can make mistakes.”
A business analysis referred to Playboy’s Hugh Hefner, who has rejuvenated his magazine, calling Martha “the hipster women’s Hef.”
Stewart herself is enjoying her new audiences – and trying to capitalize on them, addressing conferences of entrepreneurs and featuring the young business people in her various magazines. She wants, she says, to be a teacher, to encourage and to mentor. “Small businesses need boosting.”
But those tattoos adorning many of her new devotees? Eh, not such good things. “I’m not a big fan of tattoos,” she told Haughney. After all, tattoos look awful on older, sagging skin.
“I don’t think they have to go quite that far. They could put embroidery on their jacket. They could silk-screen a T-shirt.”
Yes, indeed, Our Martha is back.
(Monitor columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)