Sofa so good for H&G's first 50 years

In recent years the words House & Garden have conjured up a reassuringly comfortable world of well-plumped cushions and floral chintz. In reality, Britain's leading interior design, gardens and food magazine, 50 this year, has always been rather more adventurous than you might expect - a pleasing mix of the new and the traditional. In 1947, Cecil Beaton's theatrical decor was compared with that of a Modernist flat in London's Highpoint; 50 years on, Richard and Ruthie Rogers's soaring, open-plan house complements a feature on Arundel Castle.

Like Vogue, House & Garden is a US import from the Conde Nast stable. American House & Garden first appeared in 1902, but England had to wait another 45 years for its own version after the war interrupted its planned launch in the late Thirties. As it was, austerity didn't stand a chance when in February 1947 the first polite, elegant copy of British House & Garden, price three shillings, descended on the nation's occasional tables. On its cover was a masculine, dark-green study with striped, swagged curtains, a rose-strewn carpet and a bright-red chair. It looks startling and modern even by today's standards, as does the cover of the subsequent issue, depicting two metal garden chairs posed against lemon-yellow walls. Thanks to the continuing paper shortage, early readers were rationed to four copies a year, with only seven colour pages. It was only in 1952 that the magazine began to appear monthly.

House & Garden has only ever had four editors, giving it a rare continuity. This is largely owing to the remarkable 36-year tenure of Robert Harling, at its helm from 1957 to 1993, after briefer stints by the founding editor, Anthony Hunt, and Michael Middleton. Harling's successor, the first woman in the post, is the high-spirited and youthful Sue Crewe.

The debonair Harling described editing House & Garden as "the most exhilarating non-toxic drug ever concocted outside a pharmacy" - so much so that, even at the age of 84, he is reported to have hated retiring. An elusive figure, about whom little is known, Harling arrived at House & Garden on the recommendation of James Bond creator Ian Fleming, with whom he served first in naval intelligence during the Second World War and afterwards on The Sunday Times - in between his stints editing the design magazines Typography, Alphabet & Image and Image.

Harling's vision shaped the House & Garden of today: the bold, two-line title; the international flavour; the plethora of photographs and classic typography. His stated preference was always for period houses and decoration, but he "steeled himself" to feature contemporary houses by architects such as Hugh Casson, James Stirling and Basil Spence. The result was a stimulating, sophisticated brew: Bridget Riley's Op-Art effects and David Hockney's fantasy flat alongside John Fowler's graceful country-house variations, Nancy Lancaster's gardens and Geoffrey Bennison's gentleman's- club look for Terence Stamp. Bold room sets by Olive Sullivan (H&G's lively decoration editor 1956-86) fizz with colour next to an article on garden paving around the world by Peter Coats who - amazingly - served as gardening editor from 1948 to 1990. (Coats's and Harling's dandified dress - cravats and drainpipe trousers - was a source of great delight at Vogue House in the 1980s.)

Harling presided over a tremendous transition in taste from the spiky Fifties (Terence Conran makes an early entry in 1951) through the swirling, geometric Sixties, luridly coloured Seventies, ritzy Eighties and back- to-the-natural Nineties. The magazine was the window for everyone in the design world, from David Hicks to Michael Hopkins, providing a fully illustrated history of the English room over the last 50 years. Under Harling's stewardship the circulation grew from 40,000 in 1957 to a then-high of 140,000 when he retired.

For many years House & Garden had the field of smart decorating to itself. By the Eighties however, as house prices galloped, a feverish interest in all aspects of design arose. House & Garden found its status threatened by a whole raft of brave new decorating magazines - The World of Interiors, Elle Decoration and Architectural Digest, to name but a few. Sue Crewe believes that House & Garden's strength is its ability to reflect the ethos of the time. Like its readers, House & Garden rapturously embraced the born-again country house look in the Eighties and like them, was reluctant to abandon it again. By the early Nineties, it was looking rather tired.

Today, a fresher, more vibrant look is back in vogue, which Sue Crewe is only too happy to reflect - along with giving prominence to young designers, and promoting the more tranquil and even one-room living its readers are moving towards. In the celebratory July issue she has gathered together 70 eminent architects, decorators, cooks and gardeners - "a visual 'who's who' of British design at the end of the millenium".

For the readers, it is a bumper-sized version of what House & Garden does so well: Mediterranean effects in an English garden; Mogens Tholstrup's Chelsea pad; an Irish castle's gardens; travel; shopping; modern picnic food. The formula evidently works: last year House & Garden's circulation overtook that of Homes & Gardens, its more down-to-earth 78-year old sister, while this summer it has soared to an all-time high of 168,000. A gratifyingly happy birthday indeedn