Paige Rense, who expanded Architectural Digest internationally, dies at 91

1929 - 2021

Paige Rense, who expanded Architectural Digest internationally, dies at 91

Pilar Molyneux, Paige Rense (center), and Juan Pablo Molyneux in 2014 (Samantha Deitch/© BFA 2021)

America lost a powerful and highly influential voice in architectural journalism when Paige Rense, editor-in-chief of Architectural Digest magazine from 1975 to 2010, died on January 1 at her home in West Palm Beach, Florida, due to a heart-related issue. She was 91.

Unlike the editors of Architectural Record or Progressive Architecture, two publications aimed at AIA members and not typically found on newsstands, Rense edited her magazine for a more general readership, albeit one with means and ambition.

Instead of dwelling on the technical aspects of construction or the keys to running a successful practice, Rense specialized in aspirational journalism. She put out fat, sumptuous magazines that gave readers an exclusive peek into the homes of the rich and famous, created by leading designers and captured by first-rate photographers.

There were certainly other shelter magazines, such as House Beautiful and House & Garden. But Rense aimed to make hers the “design bible” for readers around the globe. She came up with a recipe that not only showcased talented designers but the big-name celebrities and power brokers who hired them and had the money to build the dream homes they envisioned. Political persuasions didn’t necessarily matter. Everyone from Barbra Streisand and Cher to Julia Child and Nancy Reagan wanted to be on the cover.

To help extend the magazine’s reach and appeal, Rense created a series of themed issues, such as “Hollywood at Home” and “Exotic Homes Around the World.” She hosted design symposiums and forums, and enlisted well-known writers to contribute to the magazine, including Truman Capote, Kurt Vonnegut, William Styron, and John Updike. Even Britain’s Prince Charles, back when he was peddling his views about architecture, wrote a column.

Every month, Rense whipped up a frothy confection that was part celebrity gossip and eye candy, part lush imagery and wordplay, and part design porn – with more than a little snob appeal sprinkled in — and Americans ate it up. By the 1980s, total circulation exceeded half a million, eventually surpassing 800,000. No doctor’s waiting room was complete without it.

In the process, Rense helped more than a few designers build careers by highlighting their work, names such as Mark Hampton, Angelo Donghia, and Robert A. M. Stern.

To be sure, some of the most gifted architects in the country have gone their whole lives without appearing in AD and perhaps never cared to or had a chance to, because they didn’t do the sort of work Rense featured.

But for others, being included on her annual list of the AD100 was tantamount to winning the Pritzker Prize—and she knew it and used it to score exclusive rights to publish the projects she wanted. She both fed and leaned into the “starchitect” system. The exposure she provided in turn led to more commissions for the designers she favored and publicized, making her the ultimate architectural influencer, the “archduchess of decorating.”

“In the world of design and architecture, no list is held in higher esteem than the AD100, now entering its fourth decade,” the AD website stated last month when the publication’s 2021 list of top designers was introduced. “This year, 22 firms from around the globe make their first appearances here. These are the names to know now!”

“That magazine made the careers of many outstanding architects and designers, such as Shope Reno Wharton, Ike Kligerman Barkley, Dennis Wedlick and Mario Buatta, and photographers like Durston Saylor,” wrote Connecticut-based architect and writer Duo Dickinson, in an article for “AD sanctified the more famous as well, anointing Robert A. M. Stern, Frank Gehry, Richard Meier and Bunny Williams, among many others.”

In his article “Paige Rense, Architectural Digest and the End of 20th Century Architecture,” Dickinson compares Rense to the late publisher of Playboy, calling her “the Hugh Hefner of Home Media” and AD “the print equivalent of the hit TV show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” He said the pages of AD during her tenure offered “a sort of high-end architectural pornographic fantasy,” especially for Baby Boomers with money to spend.

“Celebrity was Rense’s coin of the realm,” Dickinson wrote. “If Jane Fonda and Ted Turner had a house, we all wanted to see it. And if their house had a ‘name’ designer attached, even better. From about 1975 until she left publishing in 2010, her magazine fed a cultural fantasy. An entire generation of Baby Boomers saw where they wanted to be – better than their parents, rich, famous even – in the pages of Architectural Digest. Rense’s pages.”

Dickinson writes that while Rense’s publication may have been “denigrated as a ‘decorating magazine’ by serious architects, there was no doubt that publication in AD had real pull and power” for designers and that “additional work inevitably flowed.” He relates an anecdote that former Progressive Architecture (P/A) editor Mark Branch tells about vying with AD, which demanded exclusive publishing rights, to feature work by Robert Stern.

“When I was at P/A, one of our editors was always trying to get Stern’s latest houses, only to be told it was going to Digest.” Branch recalled. “Stern would say, ‘When I’m published in Digest, I get 10 new clients. When I’m published in P/A, I get a hundred letters from students looking for a job.”

Paige Rense was born on May 4, 1929, in Des Moines, Iowa, to a mother of Danish descent who gave her up for adoption when she was one year old. Her adoptive parents, Lloyd R. Pashong and Margaret May Smith, named her Patricia Louise Pashong.

“When the family moved to Los Angeles in the early 1940s, she dropped out of 9th grade and ran away from home at age 15 to escape her father, who had become abusive,” Glenn Rifkin wrote of Rense in the New York Times. “She changed her name to Paige and became an usher in movie theaters, lying about her age to get work, by her account.”

Paige Pashong never completed high school and was married and divorced twice before she was 30. Her career in journalism began in the mid-1950s at Water World, a skin-diving magazine whose managing editor was a former sportswriter named Arthur Rense. She married him, becoming Paige Rense, divorced him, and married him again before he died in 1990.

In 1994, Paige Rense married Kenneth Noland, an artist, and they lived together until his death in 2010. In West Palm Beach, after stepping down from AD, she was known as Paige Rense Noland. Among her survivors are three stepchildren from her marriage to Arthur Rense and four stepchildren from her marriage to Noland.

AD was founded in southern California in 1920 as a quarterly trade directory whose full name was The Architectural Digest: A Pictorial Digest of California’s Best Architecture. When Rense joined it in 1970, it was still a local publication with a small staff and Rense filled a variety of roles. “In those early years, I wrote every issue myself,” she said in her 2018 book Architectural Digest, Autobiography of a Magazine 1920-2010.

The next year, the magazine’s top editor was murdered in a shooting that was never solved, and the owner made Rense the executive editor. The same year, it gained a new subtitle: The Connoisseur’s Magazine of Fine Interior Design and put more focus on celebrity homes and celebrity culture. In 1975, she was named editor-in-chief. The next year, it got another subtitle that shows she was thinking big: The International Magazine of Fine Interior Design.

As the top editor, Rense was charged with revamping the publication and broadening its reach. In response, she moved its offices to New York City, where many of the country’s leading designers were based. Taking advantage of the move, the publication began to compete more aggressively with other shelter magazines and grow into a publishing juggernaut. There was more emphasis not only on homes of movie stars and musicians but also fashion designers, artists, corporate titans, and world leaders.

The growth continued when Conde Nast purchased the magazine in 1993 and the sister publication she founded, Bon Appetit, on the condition that Rense continue as editor-in-chief of AD. She stayed on the job until she stepped down in 2010, taking the title of editor emerita. In between, along with everything else, she found time to write a 1997 novel, Manor House, inspired by the murder of AD’s former editor.

One characteristic that set AD apart from some other shelter magazines is that Rense took a serious journalistic approach to the articles she ran. Editors at some publications had a reputation for bringing in pillows and bedspreads and shifting furniture around and setting up lights to create a certain mood or ambiance, but Rense didn’t go for that.

“In the world of life-style magazines, in which journalistic standards can be lax, Ms. Rense held to certain principles, refusing, for example, to send editors armed with accessories to act as stylists at photoshoots, as was standard industry practice,” Rifkin wrote in his obituary.

“We report,” he quoted her from her final editorial message in 2010. “We do not send producers, stylists, or even editors when we photograph a residence.“

Although she had no formal training in design, Rense was involved in every important decision, relying on her own instincts, intuition, and relationships. She was a perfectionist who wanted to show spaces the way an architect or designer meant them to be, not someone else’s interpretation or stylized version.

“Paige built a stable of super-talented people that were also longtime, loyal friends,” architect and designer Campion Platt said in a 2018 profile of Rense in Business of Home magazine.

“It worked both ways: She was going to be loyal to you and build your career; in return, you were going to hold the line and come to her first. I know people who stepped the wrong way and were shut out. She had an absolute grip on the top end of the interior design business for decades. To get an audience with her, to have her want to visit your projects, was a very special thing.”

Platt credits Rense for helping him launch his career, when she featured a residence he designed in Manhattan’s Olympic Tower high-rise for a Malaysian princess, and the article brought him seven new clients.

“It was a different time–there were no blogs, no social media,” he told Business of Home editor in chief Kaitlin Petersen. “You were lucky if you were published once a year, and AD was the most important place to be on the planet.”

“The world of art, architecture, landscape and design has lost one of its founding members with the passing of legendary Paige Rense,” said architect Lee Mindel, in a statement to AD. “She solely and from the ground up created a portal that would document a wide variety of aspirational design that reflected the social and political climate through the lenses of the greatest photographers and with the words of esteemed writers.”

Others remembered Rense just as fondly.

“Paige Rense didn’t just elevate the magazine she ran from a small, regional trade publication to an internationally recognized brand,” David Rockwell told AN, “she elevated an entire industry into an art form. She understood the transformative power of design, and had a singular gift for translating its nuances to the readers she served for more than four decades. Her aesthetic intuition was unmatched, and I think we live in a more beautiful world because of it.”

Annabelle Selldorf agreed, saying “I am indeed very sad to hear of her passing. I met her many times and had a very warm and friendly relationship with her; she was always incredibly supportive of me. She had a very keen and quick understanding of what different Designers brought to the table and she also had a great sense of quality. She liked to bring people together no matter how different their mode of style might be and she enjoyed good writing. She had a great sense of humor and I certainly remember gratefully the first time when she chose to publish an early project of ours, knowing how much being in AD mattered. I will miss her.”

By the time Rense stepped down from her position at AD, the publishing world had changed dramatically, and that affected her formula for covering design. With the advent of the internet, more people were reading articles online, and print subscriptions were on the decline industrywide. The costs of printing and distributing monthly magazines, especially lavish “books” such as AD, were taking a toll on budgets.

“At the turn of the 21st century, digital technology began to steadily erode the power of print and its dominance as the only way for architects to promote their work,” Dickinson wrote. “Of course magazines (including AD) and books remain today, but none without internet manifestations that reach far more readers than the paper versions do.”

In addition, it became more difficult for editors to demand exclusive rights to publish a project and proclaim who were the ‘correct’ designers, when more information was online and everyone was handing out awards. With the internet, designers could publish their own work, or go to any number of outlets, and reach the audience they wanted.

“Sites like Houzz launched and made top-down publishing somewhat obsolete,” Dickinson wrote. “If you had the money to promote it, you got placement of your work before millions of viewers. So the print engine of fame that floated the boat of architectural journalism since World War 2 ended in a one-two punch of economic crash and internet revolution.”

The star system lingers on, Dickinson says, but “editors that once anointed stardom have been replaced by editors that facilitate page views.”

In her 2018 book, published by Rizzoli, Rense reflected on her career and role as a tastemaker.

“I was not interested in trends, and certainly not in fads,” she said. “I preferred to speak of style, which is really a way of seeing and living creatively in the world.”

Paige Rense had her detractors and her blind spots. She may not have tackled some of the thorniest issues faced by designers and the pendulum has been swinging away from the starchitect system for some time. But it’s hard to deny that she had a legion of loyal followers. And many of them are still drawing inspiration, and taking their cues for living creatively, from the “design bible” she composed.