by The Design of Things
In 1998, I remember looking out my office window and seeing a woman trying to get out of her car, clutching an enormous drink, wearing an enormous parka, tumbling out of an SUV that was too big for her. My mind flashed to all the other oversized items cluttering up our lives – like giant candles with seven wicks from Pottery Barn – and thought, “We’re going to look back on this time and think…‘big’.”
It was the heyday of no limits, presided over by President Bill with his cheeseburgers and his outsized appetite for “is”-ness. The Rainforest Action Network was turning us on to forests through caramelized nuts, leading us to believe we could save them by eating candy. The stock market banged along taking us all with it crazily upward – just grab a leaf on the vine, whichever one makes sense to you! Starbucks! Microsoft! ExxonMobil!
That flying high lasted another ten years until the whole debt-laden tower fell with a crash. We’re still climbing out of the rubble. The Asian rainforests, as predicted in 1998, are largely gone, replaced by plantations to fuel our thirst for hardwood and palm oil. McMansion production has stopped, with 40 million of those homes (the destination of much of the rainforest wood) standing empty after foreclosure. The carbon from those forests has now irretrievably been added to the atmosphere.
Enter the Restoration Hardware catalog, relaunched last year amid the Great Global Bubble Burst. A company that used to offer Mission furniture with witty accessories, the new RH is full-on romance, blazing forward with a “limits be damned!” gigantic attitude. The new CEO looks like a Ralph Lauren model who takes himself very, very seriously. His letter opens the door to 654 pages of distressed wood and linen neutrals all shaped to remind us of various eras of the past. The references are slightly unclear: Amelia Earhart biopic with some Midnight in Paris thrown in, a little Gatsby, perhaps? The English Patient, complete with leather-covered cigar case dressers? I’m not sure. But all of these are presented as imagined and rebuilt on a Universal Studios set because, as the dresses and gloves from my great Aunt Agnes tell me, things (and people) were much, much smaller back then.
The 188 inch sofas, the ceiling fans that look like they are from the front of a prop plane (though possibly bigger than the ones Roald Dahl flew for the RAF), the $3000 3 foot birdcage chandeliers, and the tall hooded armchairs that might have a tiny vial propped in the middle for Alice, labeled “EAT ME”, all scream big is best.
The catalog seems to hope we are sitting in McMansions trying to find the perfect 15 foot sofa just before the house is, in the parlance of easy money, “flipped”. It seems to think there is no reason, no reason whatsoever, to eschew the excesses of the past.
Instead, it suggests we can repent with nods to naturalness, such as using colorless rough linens and making the furniture from plantations where rain forests once stood. Or from salvaged wood, or just from wood meant to look salvaged.
This no-limits nostalgia leaves the whole 654 page package somehow not all that interesting. Make the catalog heavy enough to give the mail carrier bursitis? Fill it with furniture that could break your foot? That doesn’t translate to real sophistication.
The historic reference that’s missing is to the last ten years – the need to do more with less, to scale down while bringing quality up, to add wit to indulgent whimsy.
The overarching reference – revealed in the French Empire section of the children’s catalog – is to Versailles. The Louis XIV chairs clothed in pale linen look like the ghosts of opulence.