Chris Madden’s Moment

By Jura Koncius
from USA Today — March 3rd, 2005

PORT CHESTER, NY –Chris Madden has been an avid Oscar-watcher since she was a kid. So when a JCPenney ad featuring her furniture collection was slotted to run on last Sunday’s telecast, she figured it merited a little celebratory glam. Although she and her husband had worked at home all day, she threw a black cashmere robe over her sweats, set up Asian lamb takeout on trays and settled in to wait for her 30- second brush with Hollywood.

“I heard the opening music and started to see all the pieces I have worked on for the last year and half,” says Madden. “If you can’t be out there like Chris Rock and Cate Blanchett, this is the next best thing. I gotta say, it was a real rush.”

After more than 20 years in the lifestyle biz, the 56-year-old designer is ready for her close-up. Author of 16 books, host of her own HGTV show and syndicated newspaper columnist, Madden has decorated for Oprah and Katie Couric. Her home furnishings collection for JCPenney called Chris Madden Home has grown to 2,000 pieces, from leopard-print carpeting to pesto green bath rugs. And on May 3, she gets the prize piece of the lifestyle portrait: a magazine with the working title At Home With Chris Madden.

Madden’s move into the spotlight comes at a moment of high drama on the domestic diva front. Martha Stewart, who has commanded that pinnacle for 20 years, is set to be released from her five-month prison stay on March 6 — or possibly earlier. The formidable Martha spin machine is in overdrive trumpeting the homecoming as a new chapter filled with reality TV shows and renewed energy for the designer’s line at Kmart stores.

There’s no telling how America will take to a post-prison Martha. Despite the recent stock comeback, her company, which began as a one- woman catering business and grew to become a media and merchandising powerhouse, just posted a fourth-quarter loss last year of $9.5 million. Martha Stewart Living magazine has dropped precipitously in advertising and circulation.

Madden, meanwhile, has been busy honing her message, increasing her visibility and building her empire. Although Chris Madden Inc.’s $2.5 million 2004 revenues are minuscule compared with Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia’s, which totaled $187.4 million last year, Madden’s message is more focused. She does not challenge Martha’s mastery of all things domestic. Her aim, she says, is to “demystify” decorating, with an emphasis on personal spaces and comfort and calm — and no guilt trips about not embroidering your own dish towels or tending homemade compost.

“Your home should be a nurturing haven for everyone, starting with yourself,” she says. “I’m not looking to add any more obligations to women’s lives. But I’m trying to help consumers not to be overwhelmed by all the choices out there.”

When Martha Stewart’s legal troubles began, Madden was annoyed to find herself lumped in with less-qualified contenders for the home decorating doyenne title.

“I’ve been working in this business for three decades. Martha and I had many similarities: the same book publisher, the TV shows and newspaper columns. Even the fact that we were both blondes. But it made me cranky that the media saw me as an overnight sensation. I’ve been in the trenches designing, writing, photographing and speaking.”

That time has produced both a reputation for solid design smarts and a keen understanding of the multifaceted lives that many women lead. She has been married for 30 years to Kevin Madden, 66, former publisher of House & Garden and now CEO of Chris Madden Inc. They have two sons, Nick, 20, a sophomore at Skidmore College in New York, and Patrick, 24, who works for C-SPAN and lives in Georgetown (with a Chris Madden pine Somerset bed and accessories he and his mom bought at the Wheaton JCPenney). When family schedules allow, they hike and snowshoe together at their mid-century modern getaway in Vermont.

The Madden homestead, about an hour north of Manhattan, is furnished in her hallmark understated classic style: taupe and tan walls and fabrics, sisal rugs, English antiques, stacks of books, collections of shells and tasteful beds for her three West Highland terriers. Menus from favorite restaurants hang in the yellow breakfast room. Her own haven, which Madden calls her “sanctuary,” is a small space off the master bedroom personalized with a tray of growing grass, candles, a wooden cross that belonged to her father and a tiny Singer sewing machine she once used to make doll clothes.

It is here she starts her day with yoga before heading out with Kevin for the short drive to the headquarters of Chris Madden Inc., lugging three L.L. Bean canvas boat totes monogrammed “CM to Office,” “CM to New York” and “CM to Vermont.”

The Port Chester office, in an old Fruit of the Loom factory above a tortilleria and laundromat, is a honeycomb of sample rooms and design labs. Amid a hubbub of phone calls, deliveries and brainstorming sessions, Madden’s own office is welcoming, orderly and homey. Toile-covered binders line shelves. Her desk is a huge white dining table stacked with books, red leather boxes and an urn of red roses. A needlepoint pillow proclaims, “There can only be one queen and I’m it.”

This day’s agenda includes a staff meeting, design meeting, magazine meeting and book meeting. The staff (which has swelled to 12) gathers around a JCPenney table to hear the big news of the day: Madden has inked a deal with Bulfinch Press to do her 17th book, billed as a 21st-century decorating bible. Her senior vice president of marketing, Barbara Marks, says it will be the design version of Julia Child’s “How to Cook.”

“I’m going at Concorde pace right now,” says Madden, who read her office Christmas cards on a car trip in February. While she was negotiating deals in 2004, both of her parents died. “So many wonderful things were happening to me last year as my heart was breaking.”

Annchristine Casson grew up on Long Island in an Irish Catholic family of nine children. Her mother taught the kids to sew, cut their hair, upholstered furniture and cooked huge meals. “She really was Martha Stewart before Martha Stewart,” says Madden. Her father, an executive at Mohawk Brush, kept a daily roster of family chores.

Madden, 5 feet 4 inches tall, modeled until she was 16. “But then I was too short for Eileen Ford.” She got a scholarship to Fashion Institute of Technology then landed a job at Sports Illustrated before moving on to doing publicity for book publishers. In 1974 she married Kevin Madden, a partnership that has withstood 10 years of working together. Says Kevin, “We’ve been through the highs and the lows together.”

In 1976, Chris Madden started her own public relations firm and began writing books on decorating and show houses. She hit her stride with her “Bathrooms” and “Kitchens” for Clarkson Potter. In 1995, HGTV selected Madden to be one of the network’s four original hosts; her program, Interiors by Design, ran for eight years.

Two years later, Madden wrote a breakthrough book that struck a chord with many women: “A Room of her Own: Women’s Personal Spaces.” It sold more than 100,000 copies, launching her into the big-name design arena. Like many of her readers, she faced stress and loss at midlife, including the death of a sister and her own near-death rafting accident with one of her sons.

During these years, she became a regular guest on Oprah’s TV show (she also did some decorating for Oprah, who shared Madden’s number with pal Toni Morrison). Partnering with Bassett Furniture in 2000, she produced a collection that sold $100 million in two years; the Bassett line was discontinued when Madden signed with JCPenney.

Having watched the success of Martha Stewart at Kmart and Michael Graves and Isaac Mizrahi at Target, JCPenney officials were looking for a design voice to bring a wow factor to their home-furnishings aisles. What Madden lacked in name recognition, company research found, she made up for with a high trust factor among consumers.

“She has a tremendous history, lots of experience and is somebody who is approachable and in touch with our customers,” says Charlie Chinni, a JCPenney executive vice president.

The line aims to unite quality with affordability: 400-thread- count sheets ($140 for a queen set), extra-thick spa towels ($9.99), stylish crackle-glazed lamps ($160). By the end of 2005, according to Chinni, Madden’s metal beds and velvet chaises will make up 75 percent of furniture sold at JCPenney, far outpacing original projections.

All this on the shoulders of a relatively unknown personality. Vanessa Hiller, 37, of Ashburn, was shopping at JCPenney at Fair Oaks Mall on a recent afternoon when Madden was making a drive-by store visit. While the sales clerks were lining up for autographs and photo ops, Hiller wasn’t clued in. “The name Chris Madden doesn’t mean anything to me,” said Hiller. “But the fact that Penney’s is using a designer shows me that these new products are style-conscious.”

In her magazine, published by Hachette Filipacchi, which also puts out Elle Decor and Metropolitan Home, Madden plans to show her way of decorating, organizing and shopping to get the look that will help women relax and decompress. “There is something about Chris that is uniquely American and comforting. It’s that vision of classic American functionality and sophistication,” says Jack Kliger, president and chief executive officer of Hachette Filipacchi.

“Will this magazine take her over the top?,” he says. “I hope so.” But he insists this is not an attempt to dethrone Martha. “We are not doing this to replace anyone. There is room for more than one diva out there. Look at the opera.”