That snippet from Monty Python’s Life of Brian is one of my all-time favorite movie scenes. But what’s funny in the cinema isn’t so humorous when it’s occurring for real, among some of our formerly most individualistic catalogs.
Case in point: Ballard Designs. The brainchild of master merchant Helen Ballard Weeks, the catalog specialized in home decor with a Continental flare. The spreads effortlessly mixed shades of apple green with black and white, floral patterns with leopard prints. The catalog sold toile accessories years before the fabric became ubiquitous. The pacing was leisurely and relaxed, as befitted the relatively high price points. And the lifestyle shots were so aspirational yet so accessible that you could envision your home, no matter how humble, resembling those depicted in the catalog if only you owned the needlepoint horse pillow or the French hotel-style clock featured in the pictures.
But Weeks left Ballard Designs a few years after selling it to Cornerstone Brands in 1997. And the June issue of the catalog that I’m looking at now resembles pretty much every other home decor book I receive. There’s toile, of course — lots of it, same as every other book. And loads of chandelier shades and rugs and doormats and wall prints, large quantities, as if the merchants decided not to edit the offerings but instead crammed every item they could, pell-mell, onto the pages. If there are unique products in the catalog, they’re lost among the clutter of me-too items.
In short, there’s no reason for me to buy from Ballard Designs than from any other catalog.
Just so it doesn’t seem that I’m picking on just one company, consider the redesigned Restoration Hardware catalog. Unlike Ballard Designs, it retains its “let’s take a few moments to pore over the pages and daydream” look and feel. But it has also taken on an additional look and feel: that of competitor Pottery Barn. (Not too surprising, given that Restoration Hardware’s CEO and COO are veterans of Pottery Barn’s parent company, Williams-Sonoma.) Pristine full-page photos of striped comforters adorning classic white beds and dining tables set oh-so-carefully for four are enough to make you flip to the front cover, just to be sure you’re reading the right catalog. The idiosyncratic, storylike copy is all but gone — even the company’s flagship silver-sage green is barely apparent. (Just try to imagine Tiffany & Co. without its trademark robin’s-egg blue!)
Perhaps it’s a case of capitalist Darwinism — only the fit survive, and if a catalog needs to adapt and evolve to survive, so be it. But I’d like to think that there’s still room for the unique, the individualistic. Don’t forget that despite confounding Darwin, the platypus has managed to survive.
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