The retirement of Architectural Digest editor in chief Paige Rense Noland, age 81, has been a long time coming, so when the formal announcement was made on Thursday morning, chatter quickly turned to who will succeed her and turn around what has traditionally been a big profit house for Condé Nast — at least until recently. Last year the shelter title suffered setbacks in circulation (down 20 percent in the second half alone to 65,167) and advertising pages, which dropped a staggering 50 percent in the 12 months, as the Great Recession bit into its base of decorators and interior products. But Rense isn’t going off into the California sunset where the title is based: she’ll step down in August after some 40 years at the magazine but will remain on the masthead as editor emeritus.

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One of the issues in seeking her successor (beyond reversing the ad slide) is who can strike as much fear as she did. The tough-as-nails Rense, who’s been editor since 1975, is known for demanding loyalty from the designers she worked with (translation: decorators would be cut off from the magazine if they spoke to a competing one) and, given her long tenure, has a list of industry contacts and sources second to none. It was well known, for example, that if a decorator was included in the AD 100 list, it would be the kiss of death if his work appeared in another shelter title.

Many firmly believe Condé Nast chairman S.I. Newhouse Jr. will look for someone with the same kind of stubborn reputation to step into the role. “I can’t imagine that he’s going to roll the dice and take a risk,” said one industry source. “This is a magazine for middle-age people who want to create the homes of their dreams. He’s going to want someone who will be a brand steward.”

So the guessing game begins on who that might be. Margaret Russell, editor in chief of Elle Decor, is an obvious choice and within the past 18 months has apparently spoken with the top brass at Condé Nast. As one source put it, “Sometimes the obvious choice is the right choice. The downside is someone may not like her at the company.” Vogue’s Hamish Bowles has been mentioned but the appointment all depends on Anna Wintour — and whether the closure of the much-hyped Vogue Living, which he formerly edited, won’t be held against him. “It all hinges on her,” allowed one source. “If she wants it, he’ll be the next editor.” Former Domino editor in chief Deborah Needleman also has been noted as a contender but her list of contacts isn’t as impressive and she could have burned some bridges on her way out the door (not to mention that, again, she couldn’t make a go of it at her former title).

Former Architectural Digest executive editor Michael Wollaeger, now at Luxe, is also a possibility, and, like Russell, has been in touch in recent months with Condé execs. In the dark horse category, Pilar Viladas, design editor of the New York Times Magazine, and Wendy Goodman, design editor at New York magazine, are possibilities. “No one has more talent [than Goodman] and she has the contacts but she’s never been an editor in chief and I’m not sure they will go that route,” noted one source. Finally, Mayer Rus, former design editor of House & Garden and current design & culture editor at the Los Angeles Times Magazine, could compete for the top job, and the editors from Architectural Digest’s international editions will apparently garner more than an initial glance.

That’s enough of a list to keep the chattering classes busy for a while — and more names are sure to be added. Besides, Condé Nast hasn’t set a timetable on replacing Rense, said editorial director Tom Wallace. “It will be a long and methodical search,” he said, noting the new editor will not necessarily have to work and live in Los Angeles, as Rense has. “We have a good staff in place there so we’re going to take our time.”

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