Excess is the New Dreary: Restoration Hardware’s Fall 2012 “Source Book”

"Restoration Hardware catalog", "Restoration Hardware Fall 2012 Source Book"
Pretentious much?

Last Friday afternoon, I opened my front door to collect my mail and discovered that the postman had left one piece of mail on the ledge next to our mailbox. The piece was so large it did not fit in the mailbox.

“What the hell?” I said (I talk to myself a lot when I’m home alone), and stepped outside to collect it.

Of course. Only Restoration Hardware would have the arrogance to send a mailing so large it doesn’t fit inside a standard mailbox.

Encased in plastic and containing multiple pieces, it was by far the largest piece of unsolicited mail I have ever received.

I wrestled the thing inside and put it on my kitchen scale. It weighed almost four pounds.

"Restoration Hardware mailing"
Four pounds of junk mail

I tore apart the plastic wrap to find three pieces: a 690-page “Source Book”; a 154-page supplemental catalog called “Big Style, Small Spaces” that purports to showcase their products in seven tony apartments around the world; and a coated card-stock insert that reads, amazingly and without irony, “GREEN IS THE NEW BLACK,” touting the company’s commitment to the environment.

Green is the new black? As my thirteen-year-old says anytime I say something absurd, which is apparently pretty often: “Are you kidding me?”

I promptly went to Facebook to inveigh against this preposterous and hypocritical abuse of the mails and heard back from friends near and far that the mailing had landed on them as well. My friend Rae quite aptly called it “mail order terrorism.” Many people wondered how they ended up on RH’s mailing list as they’d never bought anything from them before. The four pounds of paper had already gone unlooked-at into nearly everyone’s recycling bins.

I decided to sit down and actually examine the contents of this “mailer.”

"Restoration Hardware"
A spread from the fall 2012 Restoration Hardware catalog.

First, there’s the behemoth they call their “Source Book.” In our Facebook rants about this, Rae described the catalog as “bougie furn porn,” which is about right, although porn is supposed to titillate or entertain or something, whereas this thing….I think I’ve seen catalogs for mortuary supplies that were more cheerful than this grim inventory of ponderous, overpriced stuff in its fifty shades of neutral.

The eye searches in vain through these pages for any spot of color—a houseplant or vase of daffodils or accent pillow. Or really any evidence at all that human beings might occupy these rooms, sit on these Belgian linen sofas, read under these outsized chandeliers. Even the spaces in the “Big Style, Small Spaces” supplement, which supposedly shows the products in “real” apartments, are notable only for their impersonal, monochromatic interchangeability.

"Restoration Hardware", "Collection of Epic Proportions"
I’m not sure that word means what you think it means

I’m not a critic of design or architecture or really, of anything visual. But what strikes me about this “Collection of Epic Proportions” (seriously: epic?) is that it’s about selling the veneer of tradition and authenticity. Everything is aged, antiqued, antiquarian, distressed, reclaimed, replicated, reproduction, salvaged, vintage, weathered. It’s all neoclassical this and Louis XVI that (hey, RH: you guys do remember what happened to that guy, right?) and every period in the last six centuries is invoked in everything from 15th-c. dual baluster oak consoles to 1950s Copenhagen chairs.

So what’s wrong with that, you ask? Nothing, maybe. Except that it deserves to be mocked and skewered.

"Restoration Hardware Antler Chair", "Black Forest Antler Chair"
For that man-versus-nature vibe in your house

The names alone are over-the-top. We have the historically off-kilter: 19th-c. Rococo. 1890 English Baroque. And the obnoxious though unsurprising gentrification of labor: Machinist’s lighting (from $149). Baker’s rack (from $795). Steel pharmacy cabinet ($995 and up). Railroad tie dining table (starts at $2495). Dutch shipyard shelving ($2795 and up). And the ones that simply beggar belief: Gun barrel salvaged wood dining table. Architect’s canoe maquette. Black Forest antler chair (see left). Sputnik filament chandelier.

There’s also a distinctly grabby, I-looted-this-from-a-war-zone-or-fallen-civilization vibe to some of it. How else to account for the Hand-carved Corinthian column floor lamps? Or the 5-Foot French tower clock? Or the sheer quantity of oak “salvaged” from “decades-old buildings in Russia”? Decades-old buildings in Russia: Don’t you mean Soviet?

"Restoration Hardware", "Corinthian column floor lamp"
Faux antiquities say “classy” like nothing else

I don’t know whether to cry or laugh imagining people out there who want to give the impression that they’ve gone to Greece or Rome, picked up some spare columns, and turned them into floor lamps. Or—click to enlarge the photo to the right and look at the background—people who would buy a reproduction (fake!) Roman bust and then feel compelled to protect it under a (fake!) 1920s French glass cloche.

"Iron scissor lift table", "restoration hardware"
Torture device or coffee table?

One could go on identifying absurdities in this publication: The books wrapped in white or brown paper—you know, so you can ignore books as containers of ideas and just treat them as props. Or the Deconstructed Collection, the post-modern name given to furniture they forgot to finish making. Or the Industrial Scissor Lift Table (left), a medieval torture device masquerading as a coffee table.

But here’s the thing: Fully half of this tome is devoted to the “Resource Guide,” a pretty straightforward listing of every sofa, table, chair, shelf, light fixture, curtain, and comforter RH offers. I can see how a retailer might want to send out a slick print piece showing off their wares arranged to advantage. But how, how, how, in the Internet Age can anyone justify the resource expenditure involved in printing and mailing a 300+-page list?

"Green is the new black."
Say what?

Which brings me to Restoration Hardware’s utterly disingenuous “GREEN IS THE NEW BLACK” insert. Their claim to be “green” is based on their use of “PEFC-certified paper,” their restraint in mailing the “Source Book” just twice a year rather than monthly (thank God for small favors!), and their willingness to remove you from their mailing list if you don’t want to be on it.

What is PEFC-certified paper, I wondered. Well, it’s a real thing. PEFC stands for “Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification,” and according to Wikipedia, it’s the largest such system in the world. But a little Internet sleuthing got me to a pretty thorough 2011 Greenpeace study of on-the-ground PEFC pratices, which basically charges the program with engaging in large-scale “greenwashing.”

So there’s that.

But who cares? Would even the soundest forestry and paper-making practices justify the printing of unsolicited mailings of this size?

And now it only remains for me to take RH up on its offer to remove me from their mailing list. They actually make it pretty easy: You go to restorationhardware.com, scroll down to “Customer Service” at the bottom of the page, click on “Cancel Catalog Delivery” on the left-hand navigation bar, then fill in your address and click “Submit.”

And then this message pops up on your screen: “You will now be removed from our catalog mailing list. Our catalogs are printed in advance so you may receive 3-4 catalogs before the cancellation takes full effect.”

Three to four catalogs before the cancellation takes full effect?

Are you kidding me?

Your giant card-stock insert says you drop these catalogs only twice a year. So “three to four catalogs” is one-and-a-half to two years’ worth of catalogs. No self-respecting mail-order business uses fulfillment services that slow. If I were to request a catalog, would it take that long before I got one? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Screw you, Restoration Hardware.

And now excuse me while I haul all three pieces of this regrettable mailing to the recycling bin.

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