Catalog Talk: Pottery Barn

If you’re an American of a certain age, you might just now be discovering that Pottery Barn is a relic of your youth. Those days when you were in your early 20s, just out of college maybe. You moved into your first apartment — the first chance you had to paint your walls beige all by yourself, or buy a pillow with a big button in the center of it. And now things have changed. You’re older, you extensively moisturize, and you don’t know if it’s your newly-strengthened glasses prescription or what, but the stuff from Pottery Barn looks like crap.

Why should you care, you ask? Because, I would argue, Pottery Barn is important to America. Pottery Barn has become as central to our middle class (that vaunted and vanishing class) sense of style as Starbucks is to our middle class taste in coffee. We cannot afford to lose either place to the that slow and steady decline that came to Department Stores and Tiki restaurants 40 years ago.

Pottery Barn democratized relatively good taste in an all-pervasive way that was extremely helpful, especially in the early days of the company’s ascent. Pottery Barn made it seem possible for you to own a couch of proper proportions, an upholstered chair with classic lines and attractively muted fabrics. You, too, could buy that giant mirror with the square black frame and lean it against the wall, just so, and all your friends would know that it was okay because they had seen it in Pottery Barn.

Pottery Barn was like a Decorator-a-lator, a nifty sort of invention that would take your head full of jumbled ideas and opinions about what your interiors should look like — ideas that included very bad thoughts like ceramic picture frames and puffy sofas — and after a few moments with a Pottery Barn catalog or a half-hour in the store, you would suddenly realize that what you really wanted all along was a tailored, slipcovered couch (and in case you don’t recall this fact — repeated in every single magazine article you’ve ever read featuring slipcovered furniture — slipcovers are just so easy! When they get dirty from your Golden Retriever’s pesky pawprints, you just throw them in the wash!) and white kitchen cabinets with brushed nickel pulls. It was a sort of retail magic. And the company grew to hold an important place in the American imagination, with catalogs filled with rooms that seemed accessible and aspirational, all at the same time.

But now, Pottery Barn seems to be just another importer of cheap junk from Chindia, like a Dollar Store for stay-at-home moms who can’t get to the Dollar Store (I’m describing myself here, sadly enough). The Spring catalog is a shadow of its former self, the first several pages dedicated to Easter decorations. Now I’m all for seasonal decorating if that’s your thing, but there’s just something very depressing and false about fake-distressed bunnies made in Chindia — yet still somehow not cheap at all in terms of the Pottery Barn price — littering your Easter table. And the point of my Dollar Store reference is not to pick on the Dollar Store — because a lot of regular Americans depend on these stores (which is a topic for another day) — but to point out that if you want to buy your cheap imported junk, at least you know exactly what it is – cheap imported junk – when you buy it at the Dollar Store. But Pottery Barn just takes the same product, more or less, and slaps a premium on it, marketing it to the middle class who buy the overpriced fake-distressed bunny based on the last two decades of good will that Pottery Barn has generated, reassuring us that they are a company working hard to make good taste accessible.

The current state of affairs has reached a pinnacle, in a manner of speaking, with the company’s stylin’ depiction of a Pottery Barn Media Room in the Spring 2011 catalog. Not that there is anything wrong with a Media Room, if that’s what you choose to call the place where your family gathers to watch TV (a room formerly known as a Den or Family Room) using your favorite brand-name electronics. But instead of taking the opportunity to lead America to a better place, design-wise, when it comes to this new-fangled concept of a Media Room, Pottery Barn just appeals to the worst in our collective American conscience, managing to rip off both Lay-Z-boy and Homer Simpson in the process (remember the ideal TV-watchin’ chair Homer came up with? The one that comes equipped with multiple cup holders AND a toilet?). Pottery Barn thinks that if they line up a bunch of Lay-Z-boys — upholstering them in Leatheroid instead of tweed — slap a few artsy prints of camera lights and film reels, scatter a bit of popcorn around, along with the Betty Crocker-circa-1950s idea of Snacks-on-a-stick, then their job is done. We, the public, are supposed to sit back and accept this as the Gold Standard for the middle class, wearing our stubby little fingers out on our keyboards typing in online orders for our own Pottery Barn-inspired version of the Media Room.

This is the design equivalent of Starbucks dropping the whole fair-trade coffee schtick and just switching to Folger’s. Maybe this would be convenient and cheap for Starbucks, but what happens to those middle classers in the meantime? Their consciousness is not raised, their ability to digest super-acidic coffee lessened, and their fragile, tenuous connection to Third World coffee growers (for some of us our only connection to the Third World) is lost altogether. Starbucks may be imperfect, but middle America is even more imperfect, and we need Starbucks and Pottery Barn to help make us less imperfect, if you follow me. Which you probably don’t.

We need these places to give us something to aspire to. The reality is: America’s corporate overlords control access to all the stuff they tell us we want to buy. Since this is the case — with a few exceptions here and there of course (I mean, not everyone in America has access to a Starbucks, right? Right?) — our corporate overlords have a moral responsibility to give us good stuff that they tell us we want to buy.

So step it up Pottery Barn. America won’t be going back to artisan-made furniture on a massive scale anytime soon and in the meantime, we need you. We need you to distribute well-designed, well-made furnishings and accessories at price points that reflect your role in our society as one of our most beloved Corporate Overlords. Quit giving us crap. And you can start with the Easter Bunnies.

Comic Book Guy & Pottery Barn: a perfect match.

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