A brief meditation on the Restoration Hardware catalog

By Caitlin Kelly

And so it arrived — all 4.5 inches of it — and all seven editions:

Have you seen it?

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For those of you living beyond the U.S., RH offers one-stop shopping for all manner of weathered, patinated objects, from enormous replicas of German lighting and railway clocks to a wall-hung glowing ampersand. (Do I really want to sleep beside a piece of punctuation?)

The tone is regal, imperial, seigneurial — and the scale of many of the objects and furniture designed for people who inhabit extremely large homes and estates. Their catalog named “small spaces” offers tableaux named for a Chelsea penthouse and Tribeca loft, each of whose entry point is about $2 million, in cash.

It’s exhaustingly aspirational, and references abound to “landed gentry” and “boarding school”, clearly meant to appeal to people who have experience of neither. (As Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary said, witheringly, to her self-made suitor, Sir Richard Carlisle: “Your lot buys things. Mine inherits them.”)

What to make of it all?

1) Fly into shopping frenzy, wanting allofitrightnow!

2) Read the descriptions in wonder and dismay:

“Crafted with Italian Berkshire leather…” — it’s an ice bucket, people. And it’s $199.

3) Sneer at the hopeless addiction to more stuff it inculcates and rewards

4) Dog-ear a few of the pages, however guiltily, because some of it — yes — is really gorgeous, like this bed, oddly featured in the baby and child catalog.

5) Wonder why our possessions are deemed “treasured” and whether or not they even should be; (see: Buddhist teachings and the ideal of non-attachment)

6) Consider attending an auction to watch the detritus of a hundred other lives, wondering when this stuff will end up there, too

7) Might children raised in these formal and fully-designed rooms, amid thousands of dollars worth of wood and linen and velvet, emerge into the real world of independence and employment with overly hopeful notions of pay and working conditions? Let alone college dorm facilities?

8) If a baby projectile vomits or poops or pees onto the immaculate washed linen and velvet beds, chairs and cribs shown here, how elegant will they really look (or smell)? Much as I love the idea of refined aesthetics (not pink or plastic everything), this seems a little…excessive.

9) I love their restrained neutral palette — pale gray, cream, brown, white, black — and their industrial designs for lighting. But if I were six or eight or 14? Maybe not so much. Your kids have decades ahead of them to stare at wire baskets and faux-Dickensian light fixtures.

10) Have you ever noticed the echt-WASP names included in these catalogs, as would-be monograms or examples of personalization? You won’t ever find a Graciela or Jose or Ahmed or Dasani here, my dears. Instead: Addison, Brady, Lucas, Mason, Ethan, Grace, Charlotte, Chloe, Sarah. Such a 19th-century white-bread version of “reality” ! Am I the only one who finds this pretentious, silly — and very outdated marketing? Many people of color have money to spend on these items as well. My husband’s name is Jose and he’s got great taste and good credit. Include him, dammit!

11) OK, OK. I admit it. I love this chair. After a long crappy day, even a putative adult might enjoy the soft and furry embrace of a stuffed elephant.

12) “Understated grandeur” and “Directoire-style daybed” — in a nursery?!

13) People put taxidermied animal heads on your walls to prove that: a) you  know how to shoot accurately; b) you own guns; c) you can afford to spend time in some foreign land on safari; d) you enjoy killing things; e) you have no shame showing this to others. Putting up faux images of wood, paper and metal like these ones seems a little beside the point.

14) Do you really want to eat your food with a replica of the cutlery used aboard the Titanic, and named for it? What’s next — the Hindenberg armchair?

15) As someone addicted to great fabric, I do think these linen tablecloths are both well-priced and hard to find. And their glass and metal bath accessories — dishes, canisters and jars — are handsome enough to use on your desk or in a kitchen.

16) Dimensions? It’s a total time-suck to have to go on-line to determine furniture sizes.

17) For $25, this is the chic-est beach towel you’ll see this season. (I bought one of theirs a few years ago and the quality is excellent.)

18) Did the designer or copywriter even snicker when including a $139 “industrial style” basket marked “Stuff”?

The expectation of attention

By Caitlin Kelly

Do you expect to be listened to?

I’ve been writing for a living since 1978, when I was still an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, and started writing for national magazines and Canada’s national newspaper The Globe and Mail.

I spent my teens attending summer camp, where every month we’d put on a musical, some fab creation from the 1950s like Flower Drum Song or Hello Dolly. I almost always won the lead.

Flower Drum Song
Flower Drum Song (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every Sunday evening, we’d put on a Talent Show and I’d get up with my guitar and a song I’d written that day to sing it to 300 people.

It only struck me — reading Sue Healy’s brilliant blog about writing, (and she’s a former journalist) — that, as a default position, I expect to be able to hold and keep people’s attention.

Before you all un-follow, with snorts of dismay and derision, let me explain why this is a huge advantage, especially for ambitious writers and bloggers.

Newer writers seem to fear rejection, or fear that whatever it is you hope to convey just isn’t all that interesting.

Pshaw!

You have to assume someone does want to hear/read you, that you have the talent and guile and charm and story to woo and win them for 20 or 30 or 100 minutes.

OK, maybe five, on the Internet!

Journalism offers phenomenal preparation for other attention-seeking work, whether dance, music or more writing. You have to produce something every day, sometimes every hour. (I once had to write a television news story in the two minutes of a commercial break.)

You have to crank out a ton of stuff, certainly if you work for a daily paper or, worse, a wire service or web site.

Some of it is really shitty. Some of it is amazing, stuff you read decades later with pride. You will also see other writers (grrrrr) win front page and fellowships and awards and make the best-seller list.

You, oh misery, do not.

But you must wake up the next day and re-assume the same confident stance, that your work and your ideas are worth the attention of others. What’s the alternative? Lying in bed weeping in the fetal position?

Not you!

I was lucky, in some ways, to be an only child, never competing for my parents’ attention with a crowd of siblings. I had a sort of brassy self-confidence I’ve never really understood, although I’m damn grateful for it. I rarely worry about putting my stuff out there (even if I should!)

The standard American cliche is “stepping up to the plate” — i.e. home plate, where you stand in order to hit a baseball or softball. As someone who still plays softball (and can hit to the outfield), I know how nervous it can make you.

Everyone’s watching! What if you miss? What if you can’t even make it to first base? What if you hit a fly and someone catches it?

NOTICEME
NOTICEME (Photo credit: Beadzoid)

But what happens when you hit a single/double/triple — or home run? Huzzah!

If you’re still feeling nervous about blogging, or sending your creations into the world for approval/sale/attention, just do it.

(But do not, I beg you, be all foot-shuffling and hand-wringing and ‘I don’t know what to blog about.’ Don’t be boring. Take a risk!)

Yes, some of your work will be ignored and rejected. My third book proposal goes out this week, (shriek), and has already been rejected by the people who published “Malled.” I asked my editor why and received a short, polite and helpful reply.

In the old days, I would never have asked.

My first two books, when their proposals were sent to major publishers, each received 25 rejections before the 26th. said yes. Both have won terrific reviews and been bought by libraries world-wide.

So I anticipate, (albeit pre-cringing at how nasty some of the rejections can be), more of the same. I hope not. But it happens. Rejection is the cost of doing this business.

This essay, about my divorce, won the Canadian National Magazine Award for humor — after being laughingly dismissed by an editor at one of the U.S.’s biggest women’s magazines.

Focused attention has become one of the world’s most precious resources.

But, oh, the joy when you’ve won it!

And again.

And again…

What’s your personal brand?

Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon, July 20, 1969
Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon, July 20, 1969 (Photo credit: Wikipedia) I’m also a fearless explorer, minus the helmet.

I recently attended a writers’ conference and listened to a panel teaching us “Brand You.”

Not the hot metal mark seared into your butt kind.

The “I’m unique because” kind.

I’m lousy at sound-bite self-definition, which is driving American business as never before, thanks to Twitter, (which I don’t use), Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media.

And tomorrow in Manhattan I’m attending a huge blogging conference, BlogHer, where I’ll have to tout yourself in a few pithy syllables.

I was raised, culturally (Canada) and by my (accomplished but quiet about it) family and by my profession (journalism) not to toot my horn all the damn time.

Have you ever heard of “tall poppy” syndrome? In Australia, the tallest poppy — i.e. the boastful braggart — gets its pretty little head lopped off for its temerity. The Japanese and Swedes have their own expressions for this as well.

Canadians just find chest-beating socially gauche, and assume you’re a pushy American. So that whole brand-building thing, there, is often considered about as attractive as passing wind. Modesty is highly prized, so how to “be a brand” and do so in a low-key way, somehow escapes me.

(Being modest is easier in a smaller nation with tighter social and professional networks. There are more than 300 million Americans, some of them breathtakingly aggressive. Remaining invisible often means professional suicide.)

I still think (yes, I know I’m wrong!), that the quality of my body of work should speak for itself. This constant, tedious “watchmewatchmewatchmeeeeeeee!” of a three-year-old at the pool — now considered part of “building your personal brand” — remains a behavior I find a little infantile. Even after 20+ years in the U.S. and near New York City, where sharp elbows are a pre-requisite for survival.

Here are a few phrases I think define me and my work:

passionate authenticity

insatiable curiosity

nuanced investigation

I love this song, Helplessness Blues, by Fleet Foxes:

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me

But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be
I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see

What’s my name, what’s my station, oh, just tell me what I should do

Do you have a brand?

What is it?

How did you arrive at it?

Brand Me — Not, Not With A Hot Iron. How Do You Become A 'Brand'?

Detail of 7 WTC installation
Image via Wikipedia

Independent writers these days, we are told, must create, nurture and sell our “brand.”

If only I had one.

Great piece on that issue  — I can’t link to it, sorry! — in this month’s GQ, by Shalom Auslander: funny, moving, bitter, thoughtful. He finds the whole idea of becoming a brand, as do I, freaking nuts — sorry, risible; (if my brand is smart-girl, I had best select thoughtful, erudite diction.)

I understand, and get, style, voice, consistency. Monet and Manet look as different from one another, equally gorgeous and immediately identifiable to my eye, as Jenny Holzer and Damien Hirst. The Eagles aren’t Arcade Fire. Rachael Ray isn’t Julia Child.

But branding one’s writing? That’s a tough one, as every plagiarist apologizing these days, and it’s almost daily, points out. You can be rilly pretentious and write in so florid and bizarre a way that it’s your brand — but who wants to read it?

The idea of a personal brand is also deeply abhorrent to anyone who believes in complexity and in modesty. Any intelligent writer knows that stringing words together is damned difficult to do well, in the best way, which is in a way so deeply unbranded, so unobtrusive your readers slide seamlessly into it without ooohing and aaahing at its “watchwatchme-ness” as they read.

Great writing never tells you it’s great. It just takes your damn breath away.

An intelligent writer, in my view, does not pretend to compare themselves, nor wishes to, to a can of sugary beverage or a gleaming new SUV. Reduced, say, to three tidy adjectives. (Or is this a good thing? Is complexity over-rated?)

A brand is known by its easily-defined characteristics, wherein lies the problem.

I’ve always been, and hope to be for a few more decades, a mix of silly, deeply serious, compassionate, brutally practical, geeky, adventurous, curious, technophobic — but attached to my new Itouch. I read by candle-light, am passionate about using objects that pre-date the 19th. century but thrill to the smell of jet fuel, my heart beating faster at the exquisite design of an Embraer jet wing.

Born in June, I’m a Gemini, the twins’ sign, so I’m allowed, astrologically speaking, to be two people. That’s on a slow day…

A brand is consistent. I am consistently — not.

Who’s that simple? Who wants to be?

Women Want More — New Global Survey/Book Finds Many Marketers Clueless

The Proposition or Man Offering a Woman Money
Honey, what can I get you? Image via Wikipedia

There is upheaval in the workplace, radical change in the marketplace and a struggle for influence in govermment and society as a whole. It is a revolution of, by and for women — driven by a desire for more: for ongoing education, better ways to nurture themselves and their families, increased success as executives and entrepreneurs, higher earnings and better ways to manage and leverage their accumulated wealth.

So begins a fascinating new book, “Women Want More: How to Capture Your Share of the World’s Largest, Fastest-Growing Market” by Michael J. Silverstein and Kate Sayre, of the Boston Consulting Group.

It is a revolution of dissatisfaction in which women are using their checkbooks to vote no on large sectors of the economy, including financial services, consumer electronics, consumer durables and healthcare…Too many companies continue to make poorly conceived products, offer services that take up way too much of women’s precious time and serve up outdated marketing narratives that portray women as stereotypes.

According to the authors, women control $20 trillion of consumer spending — likely to climb to $28 trillion in the next few years. Yet only a very few companies, some familiar to Americans like Gerber and Banana Republic, really get women, they argue. These companies, they say, follow the four R’s:

They recognize the value of women consumers and research their needs, studying carefully how their product or service is consumed. Whatever feedback they get, they respond, and refine their offerings.

The worst offenders, (not surprisingly to any woman who’s ever used them) in order:

Investments, cars, banking, life insurance, physicians, car insurance, work clothes, hospitals, personal computers and lodging. I can certainly vouch personally for the first two categories. In both instances, ready to hand over significant sums of hard-won, carefully-saved cash, I was treated like a very slow three-year-old, in both instances by male salesmen. The first, trying to sell me investment products, I blew off. The second, a car salesman who started explaining the car’s features to my boyfriend instead of me, didn’t deter me from buying the vehicle, but, really, what a moron. I enjoyed watching his reaction when I paid cash.

Like men, women work hard for their money. Unlike some men, though — often also juggling what sociologist Arlie Hochschild called “the second shift” of childcare, eldercare and/or housework — they face severely limited time and energy.

As a consequence, they’re short of patience and hungry for understanding and respect  for these severe limits on their energies; anyone hoping to part them from their cash needs to get it. But they don’t. Seems pretty basic to me, but apparently few businesses still  understand these essential drivers of female consumption — or resistance to the most seductive and costly of advertising or marketing campaigns — whether in Calcutta, Beijing or Orlando.

I went to Home Depot last weekend, dreading the whole thing. I wanted to get in and out, fast. A lively, fun, super-competent sales associate named Marilyn, a woman my age, sped me through the aisles within minutes, helping me locate and buy hardware, light bulbs, lumber, a saw, hinges. I was delighted. I was also stunned. When was the last time anyone gave you such efficient, knowledgeable and friendly service?

This book, which isn’t a quick read but packed with interesting data for anyone interested in how and where women around the world spend their money,  is based on a survey of 12,000 women in more than 40 geographic areas, who were willing to answer a staggering 120 questions. Women everywhere told the researchers they’re overwhelmed, tired and worried about money; managing household finances was the top challenge for 48 percent of respondents, and not enough time, said 45 percent.

Time is the most important lever that suppliers can use to win women over to their products and services. If they can reduce the time it takes to buy or use a product — while still delivering the other necessary benefits — they can change from being an inflicter of pain and frustration to being a provider of leverage and convenience.

What makes women extremely happy? Pets — 42 percent. Sex — 27 percent. Food — 19 percent.

Check out the survey here.