(This article was first published on 11/95 at Traffic, which no longer exists.)
Hand-crafting Consumer Desire
The retail homogenists have become such superb practitioners of their art, it is now possible to go to any mall in any city in America, and have no idea where you are. In these hermetic hamster mazes of consumerism, tradition and geography are assimilated into timeless, placeless, profit-proven corporate species: The Gap, Starbucks, CompUSA, The Good Guys. On occasion, a trace of regional identity - the Monterey Pasta Company, for example - is retained for marketing purposes.
Such homogenization significantly benefits shoppers, of course. Successful retail operations evolve into chains because they raise standards of quality, providing better products and service than their disorganized, poorly funded, visionless competitors. And yet, for some malcontents, there persists a tiny yearning in the heart for a return to the mom-and-pop shop past, that time of rugged retail individualism that existed before the chain-builders began to realize their dreams.
Forget convenience, they think. Forget economy and reliability and well-designed counter space. They want authenticity and tradition. They want craftsmanship.
If you sometimes find yourself afflicted with such desires, take heart; there is an antidote...
The Pottery Barn catalog.
The Early Fall 1995 issue is particularly therapeutic. Every page offers ample solace to the nostalgia-ridden consumer seeking tradition and craftsmanship. Because in the Pottery World universe, a piece of furniture is never simply a piece of furniture. By means of the copywriter's alchemy, even the humblest chair becomes an evocation of the past, a totem of authenticity. Candleholders are "reminiscent of lighting found in ancient castles." An adjustable lamp is "based on an age-old design." (The bulb and the extension cord, I assume, are recent additions.) Knives and forks recall "an era when everyday art was rendered by the village blacksmith."
Be forewarned, though. The illusion of craft and tradition the catalog creates only persists if you don't read too many pages at once. If you break this rule, you will discover that the catalog - which upon first glance seems a pleasant exercise in subtlety, with its muted colors and simple typography - is in fact relentlessly overbearing in its effort to promote certain moods and themes. Unsuspecting readers may begin to feel a bit like a fabric tack beneath the crushing hammer of one of those "Italian artisans" to whom the catalog keeps referring.
Indeed, with the practiced efficiency of master furniture-makers, the catalog's wordsmiths expertly construct the following themes in the first six pages: handmade craftsmanship, regionalism and tradition, and to a lesser extent, uniqueness and durability. And then for the next fifty-two pages, these tenacious copy artisans hone, sand, and lacquer their themes into a masterwork of 20th century advertising. Long before one reaches the final page, it becomes clear that the catalog is not, after all, an antidote to retail homogeny, but in fact, an outstanding example of one of the discipline's blacker arts: the commodification of authenticity.
Which probably should have been apparent from the start, given the clues on the catalog's cover, but sometimes the desire for an illusion is so strong, and the illusionist so determined to make you see things his way, that you ignore that inadvertent glimpse of the wires suspending the floating assistant.
The telltale clues on the cover are these: first, a caption in small white type beneath a tower of crushed-velvet pillows that reads We have a store near you; and second, the designation of this catalog as the the Early Fall 1995 edition. Any company that can mail out thousands of catalogs across the country and confidently claim "We have a store near you" is not really in the business of selling hand-made, one-of-a-kind items. Indeed, the Pottery Barn now has over 60 stores throughout America, with ambitious plans for many more. It is a big company, owned by an even bigger company - Williams-Sonoma. It purchases and/or produces items with production runs in the thousands, and then it sells these items to consumers via a sophisticated distribution network that utilizes all the tools of modern corporate industry. In addition, any company that markets its wares on a microseasonal basis (I expect the Late Fall edition of the catalog to hit my mailbox any day now, and the Early Winter one to follow in a few weeks) is not in the business of selling tradition.
Instead, the Pottery Barn - like so many companies in this product-saturated, post-necessity, hyper-consumerist era, is in the business of selling notions. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, but it does tend to make the copy in its catalog appear increasingly suspicious. For example, who exactly are the "Italian artisans" and "Indian textile artists" that receive such frequent mention within the catalog's pages? Is this the language they use to describe themselves? Or do they merely consider themselves factory workers cheaply turning out chairs for overseas markets? Or maybe even dirt-poor exploited laborers?
And what is this fetish for the hand-made? Throughout the catalog, items are variously described as being "hand-carved, hand-turned, hand-stitched, hand-hooked, hand-knit, hand-waxed, hand-hammered, hand-forged, hand-spun, hand-woven, hand-rubbed, hand-blown, hand-embroidered, hand-tufted, hand-finished, hand-quilted, hand-loomed, hand-trimmed, hand-painted, and hand-cut." O.K., O.K., we get the point: no sterile, prophylactic machines have come between the artisan and the object of his or her ardor. But beyond the kneejerk nostalgia this idea of the hand-made induces, are there any actual benefits to such piecemeal production? Didn't we invent machines because they could produce things better and less expensively than humans can? Certainly there are artisans whose handiwork is exceptional, with subtleties of character that machines cannot faithfully reproduce, but generally such artisans command much higher prices for their work than a company selling to the mass market is willing to pay.
After reading page after page of the catalog's allusive prose, it begins to seem faintly ludicrous. A bed has the "character of a family heirloom." A treasure chest has "all the charm of an antique." Except, of course, for the fact that part of a heirloom's character or an antique's charm derives from how old it is, from the way it has passed from generation to generation, becoming a part of each age and each age becoming a part of it, until it is no longer simply a piece of furniture but also a record of the past and the people who populated it.
It's enough to make a nostalgia-ridden consumer think dark, reactionary thoughts. I often see such people on my own trips to the Pottery Barn, where I like to covet colorful vases and admire lamps I don't really need. These would-be revolutionaries skulk into the bright store with bad intentions, they drift to remote corners, planning to add to the "one-of-a-kind" cachet of a big blue casserole dish by carefully hand-scratching it.
But they never go through with it. Before they act, some pretty object catches their eye, something they've seen in the catalog - a carriage house lantern perhaps - and they find that when they pick it up, its "lightly distressed weathered look" is indeed "reminiscent of English countryside lamps," even if the lantern itself was actually made a week ago in some drab industrial-town factory a thousand miles away from England. And often, the lantern - or whatever it is - is on sale, so the would-be revolutionaries can't resist. Instead of committing an act of defiance against corporate duplicty, they walk sheepishly to the counter and hand over their Visa cards to the waiting clerk.
While all of this is transpiring, I imagine, the homogenists are meeting in a boardroom somewhere in the corporate headquarters of the Pottery Barn, sitting on chairs that no doubt echo "some venerable English design," and studying the profit and loss sheets for the last quarter. And their faces, like the classic faces of 18th century European aristocrats, all show faint smiles of triumph.
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