Louis Oliver Gropp Dies at 88; Led Shelter Magazines Through Turmoil
Louis Oliver Gropp, a steady shepherd of shelter magazines through decades of turmoil as editor in chief of House & Garden, Elle Décor and House Beautiful, died on Oct. 17 at his home in Greenport, N.Y., on Long Island. He was 88.
His daughter Lauren Gropp Lowry announced the death. No cause was given.
In 1981, Condé Nast Publications decided to renovate House & Garden, its 80-year-old decorating magazine, and chose Mr. Gropp to be its new editor. Like its competitor, House Beautiful, House & Garden was then a middlebrow publication devoted to recipes, D.I.Y. decorating and handicrafts.
But Ronald Reagan had just begun his first term as president, and the culture was shifting. The luxury market — the affluent reader — beckoned. Architectural Digest had already begun to chronicle the good life as lived by heads of state, movie stars and Hollywood machers. House & Garden would do the same.
Mr. Gropp was perhaps not an intuitive choice to oversee the transformation. He was a gracious and practical Midwesterner with a modest, Methodist upbringing who collected midcentury modern furniture, admiring the ethos behind those clean, functional lines. Since the late 1960s, he had been editing the House & Garden Guides, single-topic magazines on solar houses, building and renovation, kitchens, decorating how-to, and home storage. They were useful and popular and met the D.I.Y. spirit of the times.
The new House & Garden, which was launched in January 1983 as “the magazine of creative living,” looked nothing like its old self. It was very grown up, very highbrow and very elegant. Gone were the jumble of cover lines — “Paint Your Own Fabric Patterns!” — and the pet food and classified ads. There were no stories about decorating in a small space, crocheting towel edges or turning your closet into an indoor garden.
The mix was perhaps not exactly to Mr. Gropp’s taste, particularly as the 1980s rolled along and the interiors of the rich grew fussier and more elaborate; the new emphasis reflected more the influence and interests — and social circle — of Alexander Liberman, the Russian-born émigré and artist, who was the fearsome editorial director of Condé Nast.
Yet Mr. Gropp’s great talent was his ability to adapt to the vision of others, and to support and sell that vision. His editors adored him, and so did the advertisers.
“Lou was incredibly good-natured and open-minded,” said Shelley Wanger, Mr. Gropp’s articles editor, who coaxed many writers from her former employer, The New York Review of Books, to contribute.
Stephen Drucker, the veteran shelter magazine editor who worked for Mr. Gropp in the 1970s, said by phone: “Lou saw himself as a business head. He didn’t think for a minute about being a star himself.” He added, “He showed that you could be successful — and you could be kind.”
In 1984, House & Garden won two National Magazine Awards for design and general excellence. It was the only magazine in its category — magazines with circulations between 400,000 and 1 million — to do so.
By 1987, however, Mr. Liberman and S.I. Newhouse, Condé Nast’s quirky and recessive owner, had soured on the magazine, and its editor. (The stock market would crash later that year, and advertisers were already spooked.) The two men had been courting a young British fashion editor named Anna Wintour, whose ambition was to run American Vogue. They gave her House & Garden instead.
Mr. Gropp was abruptly — and, in the industry, famously — fired while on vacation with his family in Newport Beach, Calif. His dismissal followed that of William Shawn at The New Yorker and preceded that of Grace Mirabella at Vogue. The firing blitz of these respected editors within a year became part of Condé Nast’s grisly lore as a snake pit, and added to Mr. Newhouse’s reputation “as a sort of troglodyte who enjoyed humbling his top talent,” as Dodie Kazanjian and Calvin Tomkins wrote in “Alex: The Life of Alexander Liberman” (1993).
Mr. Gropp was typically sanguine. He always said he went on to better things, as editor of the American version of Elle Décor, the French decorating magazine, and then House Beautiful, which he ran from 1991 until his retirement in 2000. There, he preserved the magazine’s DNA — accessible design for a wide audience — but broadened its focus and refined its look.
“I always thought of Lou as the Walter Cronkite of the shelter magazine world,” Warren Shoulberg, a design industry consultant, wrote in an email. “I don’t believe anybody else of that era had the credibility and gravitas Lou did. He was also a really nice person and never seemed to flaunt his stature.” (Though he was a dapper dresser, Mr. Shoulberg added.)
Ms. Wintour’s House & Garden, which she renamed HG, became a snappy, fashion-inflected publication — notably putting people in elegant interiors — yet it alienated many subscribers and advertisers. Condé Nast had to set up an 800 number to handle all the complaints and cancellations.
Within a year, though, Mr. Liberman and Mr. Newhouse decided the time was right to eject Ms. Mirabella at Vogue and replace her with Ms. Wintour. House & Garden was shuttered in 1993, revived in 1996 and closed for good in 2007, a victim of the housing slump and the looming recession.
Louis Oliver Gropp was born on June 6, 1935, in La Porte, in northern Indiana, and grew up just over the border, in New Buffalo, Mich. His mother, Carol (Pagel) Gropp, was a homemaker. His father, Hosea Gropp, shoveled coal for the railroad.
Louis studied communications at Michigan State University. As a journalist, he thought he might write about religion; instead, his first job offer was from Home Furnishings News, a trade magazine. He had already fallen in love with modernism, after walking into a Chicago furniture store while on his job search and seeing pieces by Charles Eames, Harry Bertoia and Eero Saarinen.
“I had never seen things like that,” he told The Chicago Tribune in 1991, recalling the nondescript furniture he grew up with. “You didn’t have a style in a small Midwestern town,” he said. “You had a sofa and a matching chair.”
He moved to Manhattan in the 1960s and married Jane Goodwin after meeting her at Riverside Church in 1965. In addition to his daughter Lauren, he is survived by his wife; another daughter, Amy Gropp Forbes; and five grandchildren.
In December 1993, Interior Design magazine included Mr. Gropp in its Design Hall of Fame, singling him out for his thoughtful approach to design coverage.
“Design journalism, so often fueled by image and flash, has always produced its share of shrill pronouncements and hyperbole,” Mayer Rus, the magazine’s editor, wrote at the time. Yet Mr. Gropp, he said, “has managed to navigate the industry’s minefield of egos and chintz with probity, grace and an overriding adherence to the highest editorial standards.”
“Uninterested in bumptious rhetoric and affected poses,” Mr. Rus added, “Gropp’s work has always placed a premium on the celebration of good design.”