1. Archive


Published Sep. 10, 2005

Sometimes you look at the Pottery Barn catalog after a glass too many of cheap pinot grigio, and you get freaked out. You see things where they shouldn't be, such as: Who is this spectral woman on Page 6 of the fall catalog, and why is she there?

Her presence violates what until now had been a central tenet of the Pottery Barn way, an aesthetic that for better or worse defined our lives in a state of faux, the neo-modern cocoon. The rule was this: There are never any people in these perfect, perfect rooms.

Candles burn unattended; fireplaces are left fully ablaze; pillows sit just so upon leather easy chairs; beds await, unrumpled and cat-hair-free; tables are set, for nobody.

And yet here she is, in a strange blur of holy sunlight: the first actual person ever pictured in a Pottery Barn catalog. (She's also in the company's holiday catalog, same shot, Page 42.) She's almost like a painted figure. Her straight, golden hair is center-parted like a Byzantine Christ's, and she has large, almost Mannerist hands, placing a pillow on a $1,399 camel crepe Jackson sofa.

Then she's gone. Seventeen pages later, a different woman, moving in a faster blur, passes by a $4,999 Manhattan chocolate-color leather sectional. The scene is bathed in the same mysteriousness.

Poof. In 135 pages, just these two glimpses of ethereal beings. But what are they telling us?

Do they presage fundamental change at the venerable, tightly sphinctered home furnishings empire? (Is Pottery Barn becoming . . . human?)

Are they yupscale ghosts who don't know they're ghosts, just like some of the spirits in the Nicole Kidman sleeper hit movie The Others _ living and decorating and fussing about in some nether realm?

Finally, a more goose-bumpy thought: Are these women only showing up in my copy of the catalog?

A parapsychological and somewhat journalistic investigation follows.

"Actually, we have laughed about it before: Where are the people?!" admitted Clay Ide, Pottery Barn's vice president for creative services. "We joke that the people who are living in these rooms have just stepped out for a minute. They've always just stepped out.

"We thought it was time for people to come into the environment."

It takes 22 weeks for Ide and his team to produce the fall catalog and its multiple permutations, with photo sessions lasting 70 days. You can almost imagine the creative tension when a couch won't behave. Real people would mess it up more.

With a slight redesign of the catalog this fall, Ide decided, somewhat tentatively, to include humans. Of dozens who were posed with the furniture, almost all were edited out of the final result.

"We've experimented with using people before, but in a limited way," he said. "The woman walking by the (Manhattan sectional) gives it scale. It's bigger than it looks, and you can tell by how big it looks next to her. That's a simple way to use people."

But it can also harm sales. "It's another element that customers react to. They might not like the person and therefore not like the product. It's very tricky."

Ide thinks the blurring works. During a photo shoot, film is typically exposed for about a minute to drink in all that meticulous Pottery Barn warmth and light. The models were encouraged to move, becoming wispy, unrecognizable: "It's just a nice way to add more warmth, and not focus too much on any feature on the person. If the girl is a redhead, and you don't like redheads, then you don't really wind up focusing on that feature of her person."

So you look at the furniture.

Pottery Barn's customers, 70 to 80 percent of whom are women with middle to upper incomes, cannot ever get enough of looking at this particular furniture. It doesn't really matter how many times you look at the Sonoma Media Cabinet ($1,099 _ no, wait, marked down now to $999), how many different ways they pose it. These pictures are a benign mental conveyance to someplace else. They may be, generations from now, the surest portrayal of conspicuous consumption at the millennial turn. They may one day beam into museums.

Pottery Barn has also used, sparingly, some humans in its offshoot Pottery Barn Kids catalog.

On some level, in the Pottery Barn universe, children are sort of like furniture, aren't they? They go with the stuff. They're as cute as the stuff. Your neighbors have one, and you want one.

Leftover shots of humans from the fall catalog, Ide noted, will be used in the company's in-store bridal registry computer displays. Getting married is much like the child-furniture fantasy. You need to understand Cinderella less as a narrative and more as a visual stimulus, a full-color storybook about getting it all: Look at her. Look at the prince. Look at the castle. Look at the castle's bathrooms, its entryway sconces. Oh, look.

Since its 1987 debut, the Pottery Barn catalog has had no small effect on the way some people feel about themselves, and their homes. Around 80-million Pottery Barn catalogs are mailed to customers annually; another 20-million or so are given away at Pottery Barn's 136 stores nationwide.

Some look at the catalog in an upbeat mood, with confident notions of classic beauty and winning the game of Life. This is Pottery Barn as panacea. (After all, your president wants you to shop.)

Others _ especially with hard times coming on _ like to examine the "Poverty Barn" catalog in a state of jaded depression, or deep debt, or drunkenness, or, ideally, some combination of the three. They know Pottery Barn cannot furnish the soul, yet they go on believing. This is Pottery Barn as gnostic gospel.

It was telling that there were never any people in the Pottery Barn catalog; or the Williams-Sonoma catalog, with its enviable kitchenscapes; or its nearest competitor, Crate & Barrel. These environments work because no one is there to monkey-wrench the fantasy. No one is blond or makes you feel fat.

It was easy to believe the occupants of Pottery Barn houses were all outside, participating in J. Crew's endless, giddy snowball fights. They were on jaunts to the lake, wearing distressed weekend chinos.

So gaze upon her, this fuzzy embodiment of an "us": Maybe she hates herself for buying this sofa, even as she loves the sofa itself.

As with so much of modern life, the inner crisis of faith is ably summarized in a rerun of Friends:

Rachel tries to convince Phoebe that she found a genuine "apothecary" coffee table for their shared apartment at a flea market. Phoebe, avowedly anti-Pottery Barn, marvels at Rachel's good fortune, even as Rachel keeps showing up with "vintage" chairs and lamps that match the apothecary table ($499). Finally Rachel confesses _ it's all from Pottery Barn.

Phoebe, distraught, wants to take the furniture back. Finally a floor lamp in the store's showroom tempts her into a blithe acceptance.

Or maybe it was a voice from beyond?

This is what the spirits of Pottery Barn do. They whisper. They move and whisper. They say, Get the lamp. Floating in, floating out, fluffing pillows in a blur and then disappearing. Seeing them on Pages 6 and 23, or 42, is like capturing a ghost with a time-lapse camera.

Transparence, transference: the perfect match.

All our fleeting emotions, all that repression, all this economic recession. All that human comfort just slightly out of reach.