If Amity Shlaes ever writes about Depression-era interior design, I wonder if she’d call her book, The Forgotten Ottoman?
A couple of days ago, I referenced Virginia Postrel’s great “Depression Lust, and Depression Porn” post from late 2008, specifically the first half, in which she indicted the Obama-supporting journalists who longed for a New Depression to accompany the president they had self-styled as the second coming of FDR. (A Sorelian myth if there ever was one). But the second half of Postrel’s post focused on designers and corporate artists who also lusted after a new seemingly-permanent Depression. As she wrote:
How might the current government stem the tide of economic and psychological depression? Can artists and designers help in similar ways today? It’s curious that the WPA style has been reprised in the recent past as a quaint retro conceit, but today may be an opportune time for a brand-new graphic language—equal in impact to the original initiative, but decidedly different—to help rally the cause of hope and optimism.
Oh the thrill of imagining a Great Depression. It’s an opportunity for Great Design and Really Cool Government.
That was almost two years ago, when designers and copywriters thought they saw a hot new trend to ride. You’d think by now they were ready for some Reagan-era sunny optimism, (or heck, even a little FDR-style sunny optimism) but what arrived in the mail yesterday was the greatest slab of retail Depression Porn I’ve seen yet.
In the past, Restoration Hardware had a sort of Ralph Lauren approach to furniture and design. Walking into their Palo Alto store in particular is like visiting one of Ralph’s stores: it’s the best of the mid-century past, but clean and shiny and stripped down and expensive. For hardware details and curios, it’s a great place to shop; I want to preface the rest of this post by saying I really like the place; a great deal of the accessories in my home, from the chrome numbers on the exterior of the house to the water glass holder in the master bath came from there.
I’m just not sure what got into the water supply at corporate HQ this year, though. To tie it in with another post earlier this week on journalists, Rush noted that they seem to be writing for themselves these days, not for any sort of audience — they’ve written them off by spending the last two years describing three-quarters of America as racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, etc. (As I joked to my wife yesterday, do I want to watch MSNBC tonight and be called a racist, or CNN and be dubbed an Islamophobe….?)
We know now that a great deal of the punitive tone of the ancien regime’s media for the past couple years first bubbled out of the JournoList, but was there also some meeting a few months ago where catalog copywriters also decided that, “Screw it, Christmas sales will likely suck like a Hoover this year, nobody’s buying anything, the GOP could take back Congress, life stinks, so let’s just write the craziest stuff we can think of and put it out there. Hey, at least we’ll have cool tearsheets in our scrapbooks to show off when looking for new jobs, when the economy finally does pick up.” Or perhaps they simply tried to imagine the mindset of the average Obama-voting Prius-driving resident of Palo Alto and Marin, and wrote accordingly.
If you haven’t seen it yet, the photos of the otherwise thin new Restoration Hardware catalog that arrived in the mail yesterday are a hoot: “BEHOLD OUR FALL COLLECTION” the cover blurts in all caps, but it’s all muted — oh boy is it muted — after that. I’m absolutely certain they actually punched the colors and contrast up on their Website; they’re much, much flatter looking in the printed catalog. (I adjusted the above photos to match their patina in the catalog.) Did you ever see Woody Allen’s Interiors, his first drama shot in 1978 and glacially paced, where Geraldine Page plays the film’s matriarch, a depressed middle aged wealthy New York interior decorator obsessed with beige and taupe and earth tones? If her medication permitted it, she’d be thrilled by this catalog’s arrival.
On his Bleat this morning, James Lileks wrote:
You know those scenes in horror movies where the heroine has a haunted dream, and everything’s desaturated, with dead leaves blowing around? Well: the new Restoration Hardware catalog arrived today. It’s like that.
Apologies if the bright, vivid colors sear your eyes. The dead muted palette has a purpose: the preface specifically ties the new look to “the global economic collapse,” and seems to suggest you should buy these things so you can position yourself as an aesthetic curator of the best of pre- and post-industrial civilization.
Click over for more photos at Lileks’ site; as James writes, “My God, who died?”
The desaturated monochromatic taupey-brown taupeness of all the rooms was just bizarre, but the catalog’s J. Peterman-style intro from the firm’s chairman reads like something out of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, Amity Shlaes’ The Forgotten Man, or in particular, that “Depression Lust/Depression Porn” from Virginia Postrel quoted above. It’s awfully subtle, but see if you can spot the theme of his introduction:
“Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.”
Pablo Picasso, one of the world’s preeminent artists and influencers of the 20th century, repeatedly broke down stylistic conventions and was undaunted by the art world’s status quo. His irreverent spirit, captured in the quote above, was unfettered as he pursued his calling and followed his muse – great art that answered to no one, yet inspired everyone.
During the collapse of the global economy, we drew inspiration from Picasso’s words and chose not to listen to the conventional wisdom encouraging us to follow the pack and lower quality to reduce prices. Instead, we saw an opportunity to be liberated, abandoning our past to embrace the future, one that has redefined the essence of who we are. No longer mere “retailers” of home furnishings, we are now “curators” of the best historical design the world has to offer.
We’ve destroyed the previous iteration of ourselves, clearing the way to express our brand in a never-before-seen fashion.
I know I’m about to violate 32 flavors and then some of Godwin’s Law with this, but I swear, when the catalog first arrived yesterday, and I read all those references to the benefits of destruction, I instantly recalled the ravings of Robert Ley, the head of the National Socialist Labor Front, who looked at the charred moonscape of Dresden in February of 1945 and claimed to see nothing but the “Starting From Zero” upside to it to all:
“After the destruction of beautiful Dresden, we almost breathe a sigh of relief. It is over now. In focusing on our struggle and victory we are no longer distracted by concerns for the monuments of German culture. Onward!…Now we march toward the German victory without any superfluous ballast and without the heavy spiritual and material bourgeois baggage”.
Fortunately, this time around, one can experience the Downfall with furniture truly fit for a pre-postmodern bourgeois-bohemian gauleiter.
Or maybe the retail chain knows where the California economy is really headed next year…
Related: No word yet if this currency is legal tender yet at Restoration Hardware.