Paige Rense, the influential editor of Architectural Digest, who turned it from a local Los Angeles trade magazine into a prestigious design publication with global reach, died Friday at her home in West Palm Beach, Florida. She was 91 years old.
The cause was a heart problem said Victoria K. Woodhull, who said she had managed Ms. Rense’s business and personal affairs.
In nearly 40 years as “Archduchess of Decorating” as she was once called, Ms. Rense made Architectural Digest the most popular publication in the shelter market, focusing on the work of interior designers and architects – often making stars out of them – and highlighting them Homes of movie stars, world leaders and international brokers.
With colorful prose and eye-catching photography, the magazine featured the lavish homes of celebrities like Katharine Hepburn, Elton John, Julia Child, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Barbra Streisand, King Hussein of Jordan and countless others. Celebrities really wanted to appear in the magazine.
An exclusive broadcast of a visit to the private quarters of President Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s White House in 1981 set the tone for Ms. Rense’s efforts to expand the magazine’s reach and influence.
She hired well-known writers and award-winning photographers and tried to make them a “design bible” for the industry worldwide. She succeeded for the most part. She created a network of international correspondents to give world leaders and celebrities a presence in the magazine, adding issues in half a dozen countries.
The New York Times Magazine named Architectural Digest in 1990 “National Geographic for Interior Design, Art and Antiques”.
Special themes became her hallmarks – Hollywood homes, country houses and exotic homes around the world, to name a few.
Its critics, and there were many, viewed the contents of the magazine as presumptuous and its sensitivity as nouveau riche, but devoted readers valued it, and that criticism only fueled Ms. Rense’s determination.
In Architectural Digest: Autobiography of a Magazine 1920-2010, her 2018 book about her tenure, Ms. Rense made her vision clear. “I was not interested in trends, and certainly not in fads,” she wrote. “I preferred to speak of style that is really a way of seeing and living the world creatively.”
Ms. Rense was known as an extremely competitive, sometimes malicious, tastemaker who insisted on exclusivity and would not tolerate backlash from designers who berated her. Those who crossed it are often said to have been banned from the pages of the magazine forever.
Quite a few designers who longed to be included in their annual AD100, which lists the top 100 designers in the world, were dismayed to be left out.
So popular was a placement in the magazine that designers were known for sending expensive gifts in order to win them over. In the Times Magazine’s 1990 profile, she admitted accepting gifts from decorators who were her friends, but denied that she could be easily bought by what her critics called “ratpack designer friends.”
“It never occurs to designers that they’re turned down because they’re not good enough,” she said. “Everyone who knows me knows you can give me 20 fur coats and diamonds – that won’t get you in the magazine.”
A high school dropout, Ms. Rense had no formal training in design, but over time her intuitive judgment became widely recognized, as was her determination and total control: her word was final whenever it was circulated in the magazine.
“The lack of give and take is great,” said Times Magazine.
In the world of lifestyle magazines, where journalistic standards can be sloppy, Ms. Rense adhered to certain principles and, for example, refused to send editors armed with accessories to act as stylists at photo shoots, as was the norm in the industry.
“We report,” she wrote in her last editorial message in 2010. “We don’t send producers, stylists, or even editors when we photograph a residence.”
Paige Rense was born on May 4, 1929 in Des Moines to a mother of Danish descent who she gave up for adoption at the age of one. Her adoptive parents, Lloyd R. Pashong, a custodian in Des Moines public schools, and his wife Margaret May Smith named her Patricia Louise Pashong.
When the family moved to Los Angeles in the early 1940s, she dropped out of ninth grade and ran away from home at the age of 15 to escape her father, who had become abusive. She changed her name to Paige and became a trailblazer in cinemas who, after reporting their age, lie to get work.
In 1950 she married Richard Gardner, an advertising professional whom she later divorced. Her marriage to David Thomas in the early 1950s also ended in divorce.
Her editorial career began in mid-1950 with a skin-diving magazine called Water World, where Arthur Rense, a former sports journalist and father of three sons, was the managing editor. The two would get married and, over time, divorce and remarry. Mr Rense died in 1990.
Ms. Rense married the artist Kenneth Noland in 1994 and they stayed together until his death in 2010. He had four children from previous marriages.
Ms. Rense’s survivors include her seven stepchildren: Kirk, Jeff, and Rip Rense, and William, Samuel, Cady, and Lyn Noland.
Ms. Rense joined Architectural Digest in 1970 when it was a local trade magazine owned by Cleon T. Knapp, known as Bud. She quickly took on increasingly important roles in a small staff. “In those early years, I wrote every issue myself,” she said in the preface to her 2018 book.
Then, in 1971, the magazine’s editor, Bradley Little, was murdered in a restaurant parking lot, a shootout that was never resolved, and Mr. Knapp asked Ms. Rense to take over the helm and gave her the title of editor-in-chief. (He waited until 1975 to officially name their editor-in-chief.)
Although Ms. Rense had barely known Mr. Little – “I’ve never had a cup of coffee with him,” she said – she wrote a novel, Manor House, published in 1997, loosely based on his murder.
As top editor of Architectural Digest, she was hired to redesign the publication, which is now based in New York. “I knew what it could be and how to get it there – a clear vision that never changed, although it took a long time to get implemented,” she wrote.
Condé Nast acquired the magazine in 1993, but not before its chairman, SI Newhouse, required the deal, with Ms. Rense’s approval, to remain as editor. She received several design awards and resigned in 2010.
“She had the absolute end of the interior design business under control for decades,” said architect and designer Campion Platt in an article in Business of Home magazine. Mr. Platt was just one of many designers who attributed the start of her career to Ms. Rense.
“It was very special to win an audience for her,” he said, “that she would like to visit your projects.”