Welcome to the Retail Revolution

Over Memorial Day weekend we were out in the Flint Hills with friends.  A guest at the party asked me what I considered the most intolerable trait, what was the one thing that would turn me off of someone immediately?  “Pretension,” I replied. “It makes me uncomfortable when people pretend they are something they are not.”

That weekend, the WSJ Magazine published a profile of Restoration Hardware and its co-CEO Gary Friedman.  (You can read the piece here.)  Friedman has stewarded the company to comeback.  From kitsch to something that reads success as sales are up.  Undoubtably, it has been a dramatic transformation from mass-consumer basics to Axel Vervoordt-land, though Friedman says he took no inspiration from the Belgian designer.

“We said, ‘Let’s forget about the customer for a minute,'” Friedman recounts as their philosophy for the makeover.  I find this an admirable start.  In tough times, “People need to be inspired to buy something.” So, with a clear go-ahead from the higher-ups, presumedly some capital to work with, Mr. Friedman preceded to copy Parisian chandeliers, 18th century Swedish and French chairs and Arne Jacobsen’s Egg Chair.

And it’s not as if I care, really.  I like Restoration Hardware.  I’ve bought cabinet hardware and lighting from them and have found them quality products.  It’s just disappointing when someone has the opportunity to really do something, to make an impact, and what he does is recreate the Sears & Roebuck catalogue.  For giants.  Or giants’ houses.  And call product designers “artisans.”

I agree that it is a good thing that if you are doing enough volume that you can offer linen that normally retails for $85/yd for $14/yd, that’s a nice service.  But to go on to say about your reproductions, “But is it better for the world if we make 50 or 500 of them, so there’s that many more people who get to enjoy it?” makes me think you have an inflated view of what you are actually doing.  Is it better for the world? I’d say it affects the world hardly at all.  It’s not changing the world; it’s making a buck.

Is it better for buyers?  Or “design?” Again, I don’t think it has an affect at all.  It’s just stuff.  And, no, I don’t think providing 500 of them (hundred?  thousands?) is better.  I would think creating really interesting, innovative product would be better.  Make something new.  Really create.  Craft something that someone will still want one hundred years from now.  That would be a genuine “transfer of happiness.”

Image of iconic Danish Modern chairs from Lars Bolander’s Scandinavian Design.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailFacebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmail      rssrss

40 thoughts on “Welcome to the Retail Revolution

  1. Oh thank you, thank you, Mrs. Blandings, for voicing an opinion on that subject. I feel the same way! xxpeggybraswelldesign.com

  2. I read the WSJ article too and thought it would be a cold day in you know where before I spend money at RHW- what an ego

  3. totally agree! I read the article in the WSJ. And how many of those giants he's creating for are going to bite? If I had their money I would buy one of a kind originals. Wouldn't you?

  4. I like RHW. I like that they have made trends affordable. Not everyone wants an original. I want to be able to change in time without feeling I cannot because of what I spent. Their philosophy does have a place in this retail world. I, for one ,am glad!

  5. Flo – I don't think the lawsuit will play out as the dealer didn't create the piece, but I appreciate the sentiment.

    Anon – I like Restoration, too, as I said and they do, indeed, make "trends" affordable. They are exactly the spot for the person who wants to toss every couple of years. I just wish he'd said that – we make trendy stuff less expensive (because it is not cheap) – instead of making it sound like they were doing something significant. They are not.

  6. The root problem, Mrs. Blandings, whenever we are confronted by this sort of pretentious copy, is that people think happiness can be commodified and bought. It can't be. And Restoration Hardware is definitely an offender, and an annoying one because they think they are doing a public service. But so are antiques dealers. And you. And me. It's part of the human condition. The difference is that they have a catalog and a profit to make.

    On another (somewhat contradictory) note, what I find intolerable is the way the Pottery Barn catalog describes its cheapo reproduction silverplate flatware and holloware as having the look and patina of well-loved sterling. It makes my blood pressure go up. It makes me want to burn every Pottery Barn to the ground.

  7. RHW has long been a favorite of mine…I disagree with the WSJ article that they have ever been "kitsch"…but their new lines do nothing for me. And I haven't been able to figure out why, exactly, that is, until now. There's just something dishonest about the items.

  8. Thank you! You said it so well. And thanks for your down-to-earth attitude about design: I love it, but it doesn't feed the hungry.

  9. very glad you brought this to light! if GF wanted more of the world to enjoy good design, then name the creator and explain why a particular chair or lighting fixture was significant for its time — form, materials, concept. honor the original creator and why he/she worked so hard to bring good design to the masses. glossing over history does a great disservice to the public. it keeps the public in the dark: knock-offs use cheaper materials and shoddier construction. it will further confuse people why the re-sale value will be a fraction of an original or even a later issue by an authorized distributor. lastly, it perpetuates the age-old tradition of the artist/creator remaining anonymous while those who market it rich and well known. in my eyes this is forgery. buying AJ's Egg chair from RH (to me) would be like buying a knock-off designer handbag from the trunk of someone's car on a sketchy side street.

  10. I like the RHW new look. I have spent many a year mooning over "Cote Sud" and "Cote Paris". I like that this look has really been put before the public. I also like that Ikea is there, Elm, Crate and Barrel and Pottery Barn. I think it is lovely if someone can buy a "forever" original but I also think dabbling with these various styles can lead to a more complex appreciation style and possibility.

  11. Todd, you're kinda rocking my world here. Next thing you'll tell me is that I won't be happy once I weigh 110 lbs. Stir up some G&Ts – I'm gonna need 'em.

  12. when any company does repros, copies-the most important thing is doing it well-is it hard to do it well & cost effectively? I am sure it is-but then look at Conran, always well done and within reach. The RH things are ill proportioned,just like a couch with a 20" arm-some people will by it because they just don't "see it". I can just imagine some designers standing in line to show off great ideas to RH. You are right-pgt

  13. You come on over to Bachelor's Hall, Mrs. Blandings,you know the G&Ts are always flowing here, there are elegant small sofas to sit on, small dogs to absentmindedly pet, and we can burn RHW and PB catalogs in the fireplace.

  14. I like your comments. I also think that they are just doing business. If you do not like the grey,as I have seen on these blogs that I enjoy. Paint it another color, pink or sky blue?

  15. Thank you, Patricia, for opening up this discussion. And they think they are good at what they do? Please, no more splinters in my industrial (not my taste at all) chic/ Belgium faux design/not appealing copy cat lighting and huge uncomfortable chairs and sofas. But thank you RH for what you do best ==and the linen ready to go drapes. Mary

  16. I've been a little miffed at RH as well. The whole point of their new line is to make things cheap with a huge profit margin. Why make everything in the same linen or the same color wood?…Because it's cheaper, less inventory left overs, and everything blends with everything else. I think is it the least inspired collection since Pottery Barn called the microfiber sofa good design. These big box stores are all about making money and they should just admit it! (and it's ok to make money…just don't call copies anything but what they are!) Thanks for bringing up the subject, Patricia.

  17. I had a very uncomfortable feeling as I read the article. It seemed to me that it's one man's vision, regardless of what their customer wants. How many people have the space for this massive furniture? What's the percentage of buyers who want something as specific as an airplane wing table? To completely change their entire look and feel for this strikes me as deadly for the company. IMHO

  18. I'd like to focus on one word you used: giant. The scale is insane. I generally like RH, and I actually get where the CEO is coming from in the article, although I'll agree he may have gone a little far. But many of the peices are farcically large…like Value-City-Furniture-recliner large.

    But I would also like to give a shout out for those with a little less money. I bet I never buy anything that costs more than a RH peice. I want a $5000 sofa to be reupholstered by my grandchildren…and according to the census, I'm in the top 10% of income earners. So, a little persepctive on the disposable/trendy comments, people. That is a shit-ton of money, even if it is less than the beautiful brands we covet.

  19. Re RH's new direction…I've witnessed the disparity between the absurd scale of some of these items in RH stores and potential customers who shake their heads and muse that maybe they'll come back when it's time to furnish that fantasy Napa vineyard castle!

  20. ROK – the cost v the long term value of the piece is actually part of my issue. It is certainly cheaper than a lot of high-end product, but it is not inexpensive. To that end, why buy something with such a price tag that you are not going to want in five years? I like inexpensive retailers like IKEA and CB2 and often buying vintage is a great look at a great price.

  21. I use to enjoy browsing in my local RH store until the furniture made for Sasquatch showed up. Even if you have antiques shipped from Belgium in the Axel look, it requires a certain architecture to make the furniture look logical. Most American homes can't digest it and Americans tend to fill their rooms with more furniture than Europeans appear to. RH is truly disappointing. It is one of the worst looks to come out of China to date.

  22. I totally agree with the sentiments you express in this post, especially about the value of RH products. RH used to manufacture a much higher quality item and most of it was made in the US. Now, everything is made in Asia and the quality has really suffered. I actually own one of their ginormous couches and shared my experience with it a blog I just started (insearchofquality.blogspot.com). I definitely think RH is expensive for the quality level and, with some hard work, you can find much better for your home. Thanks, Mrs Blandings!

  23. I didn't get the same impression from the article that you did. If he would have said, "We found this really neat one of kind antique, so we are making it ourselves so that many people can have one at a cheaper price," it might have been more palatable. I think his other comments are objectionable. Remember what follows pretention – hubris, which always leads to downfall. There is room in the design world for RH and any type of approach they want to take. They were just about bankrupt before, so they had to take a risk. At least their items are different. Time will tell if they are successful. Ann

  24. Charlotte Moss made a remark somewhere in the last week, she was responding to a query about the biggest decorating mistake we mortals make, she said "In two words: bad lampshades." Oh boy did I sit up straight. It was just enough to get me to go ahead and replace 4 tired coolies for, you guessed it, 4 Empire shades at Restoration Hardware. The creep is right there on the homepage, but I suppressed the gag reflex long enough to click to lighting; and then another one at the pomposity of calling standard sized shades "Custom Shades." I can't deny them their great plain linen lampshades, and in three shades of white to boot. On sale. Must not be a moneymaker, might even be flushing them out for good.

  25. I work at one of the RH stores in the Midwest. Here's what I think:

    Yes, GF is egotistical to an amazing degree. He is not a designer, either. Just an appropriator of other people's ideas. And yes, many of the marketing concepts are pompous to the point that I'm embarrassed.

    However, RH would be shuttered if it were not for him. It was literally on the brink. People are buying and designers are looking to us as an affordable, quick-ship resource.

    The furniture is not all for giants. The stores have large pieces on the floor, because it makes a dramatic statement. But most of the sofas are available in several sizes – including 6 foot versions, as well as loveseats.

    We offer other fabrics – it's not all just beige linen.

    What I find sad is that almost all of the product is now made overseas.

    What is even worse is having to watch tapes of the yearly sales meeting where company leaders gloat over increased sales and profits, not thinking how the $8.50 – $10.00 an hour part-time sales help feel about this as they watch.

  26. I was surprised to read in that WSJ article that sales have improved for RH as a result of their new products. I used to always browse in their store at my local Denver area mall but stopped once everything became huge and rough and beige. It's a look, but not one to my taste. Then, the last time I hit the mall, RH was gone, replaced by a store called "The Cozy Cottage." I think it will be interesting to see if RH's sales continue to grow once this undoubtedly trendy look falls out of favor. But I guess then they'll be on to the next fad.

  27. I finally went into the redone flagship RH store in Chicago for the first time a few weeks ago and what struck me most was not the gray on the walls (which I happened to like) or the rough upholstery and dessicated woods (which I hated on sight) but the grim, joyless vibe of the the place. That, combined with the lack of customers the morning I was there, made the lofty rooms seem like a deluxe prison cell–maybe Albert Speer's. A hopeful young woman spotted my skepticism and assured me that their new collection was very popular because its timeless quality would allow it to be enjoyed for years to come. I wanted to ask her why–if drab, rough pieces were truly 'timeless'–hadn't this look it always been popular? Would Don Draper have consider this stuff timeless? Dorothy Draper? Who, exactly?

    Any time somebody–especially somebody who wants to sell you a sofa the size of a tank–starts tossing around the word timeless, it's time to run.

  28. Anon – thanks for the catch and the heads-up. I am a horribly speller – as I've mentioned here a million times. I do try to pay attention, but it happens. I appreciate your bringing it to my attention.

  29. I used to love RH. The furniture was solid, good quality, and could meet any basic need. The house accessories were quirky and functional. It always seemed to strike a good balance between custom and affordable, and I appreciated how much of their product was made in North Carolina.

    Now, RH is the equivalent of a Coach bag with the logo all over it. Its furniture has gone from being the perfect role player to wanting to be the star, and screams 'branding' to me. Always a bit sad when a line you love changes; to me it is no consolation that they didn't go out of business, because the RH I loved is gone anyway.

  30. Glad to have a forum to rant against Restoration Hardware… I have found the new look to be pandering to the market of those with giant suburban homes who need space to fill. The scale doesn't work with my 100 year old house at all even if I wanted it to look like a Roman ruin.

    Mrs. B's take of wanting to do something daring rather than recreate is a much more postive take than mine. But if there's a daring retailer reading this who wants to focus on modern, smaller scale furnishings you'll have plenty of people to market to living in East Coast cities. (Could you imagine RHW in a Manhattan apt.?)

  31. Sadly I may never be able to afford some of the wonderful originals that have inspired the new RH line–or other originals* that I personally like. So I don't mind reproductions. But the GF/RH attitude?? Can do without it, thank you. (And I actually can't stand the new line itself. All the pieces are either SHOUTING at me or making fun of me for not being as cool as they are!)

    *I did find a vintage Danish PH5 lamp last year in Copenhagen for $90 and felt pretty smug about that! Small pleasures. : )

  32. Very interesting post and great discussion.RH to me is just another example of a big box mentality, where it's just more of what you see in any other store. I just looked at their site and as a designer and retailer absolutely nothing stood out as unique or original. As usual its all in one colour, and the majority of the styles are ones that can be found in any design shop. I can custom make a couch locally for 5000, from real hardwood, and nails not press board and staples. I think the idea of disposable decor has led to the a reluctance to invest in quality. Ninety five percent of what is on the market today is is made in China today from sub standard materials, in unregulated factories. Design decisions are made from top down ( in fiance and marketing) and its all about cost and profit. What has been sacrificed is design,originality and choice. Its cheaper to make things square and in one colour. And if it falls apart in a few years who cares, we will just buy another. Its a throw away society. Its why I love vintage, the real thing and its why I custom make every thing I do, and it comes it comes in every colour. People are thirsting for different and unique. I think the big retailers out there are totally under estimating the consumers level of boredom.

  33. I think that every store/chain should only sell original designs, period. It is entirely possible to have a lower cost original design – ask Vera Wang and Kohl's. To copy something and mass market it seems idiotic. Mass market your own design.

    It's okay that I can't afford certain pieces and can afford others. Who says I need to buy a knockoff of something to be happy, instead of just browsing among the items I can afford? Love can certainly be found there, too.

    The analogy of buying knock off purses from the trunk of a car is spot on; a cute, low cost, no name bag can make an outfit just as well as any brand if you just give it a try.

    Do I own knockoffs? I'm sure I do, due to lack of research. But I minimize my purchases from retailers who shamelessly take the lazy route whenever I can.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *