The Decorative Arts

Pottery Barn recommends bar stools for Casual Entertaining. The picture in the catalog depicts a full bar in a wine warehouse, old wood barrels stacked in the background. Just like we all have in our vineyard, for casual wine-tasting events.

In interior shots of rooms in catalogs, windows often have no curtains or blinds, presumably to let the light in unimpeded. It’s a bit of a stretch because at some point the owners of a room would surely want to draw the curtains or close the blinds, unless those owners happen to be exhibitionists or live on a private island, and even then there would be occasions in which they needed to mediate the effects of the sun.

In a catalog of storage items, the basket drawers in a pantry are labeled “Pancake Mixes” and through the mesh I can make out rows of green, yellow, and pink boxes.

One of the strangest conventions in the photography of catalogs and online stores is the room with a bed positioned directly in front of an enormous window. As if anyone would block their view and source of light with a headboard! The bedroom windows never have curtains, either, so if you were to actually sleep on the bed in that room, chances are good you’d wake up with the sun in your eyes.

But all this is merely the conundrum of “example” rooms; what serves as decorative cannot, by its very nature, be functional. You have to make a leap to try to picture the depicted items in your life. In fact, the blankness of the sets facilitates this process: your mind takes hold of the ciphers and imbues them with meaning. You say to yourself, “I will come home and place my hand bag on this silver metallic telephone table in the foyer, and then relax on my linen-slip-covered armchair and put my feet up next to the carved wooden bowl piled with blown-glass balls.” And be content, if not fulfilled. (You can never be fulfilled, or else why would you replace the glass balls with twigs in the shape of safari animals next year?)

One catalog drops the hint that a Fall Must-Have is The Leather Mirror.

Another photographic convention I regard with wonder is the depiction of open cabinet shelves in kitchens, doorless, where every piece on display is evenly spaced and artfully angled. Cooking and serving on these items is not possible: each item is part of the installation. Just think if you removed enough of the dishes to host a dinner party; you’d never be able to reproduce the original configuration unless you had a photograph to refer to or a detailed grid, and even then you’d spend untold time tweaking the arrangement of the soup tureen.

These are sets, display floors with a veneer of personality. And yet I imbue them with life; I inevitably find myself imagining the people that would live there, the parties they would host on their rattan wrap-around sofa that involve a pyramid of strawberries at each setting, with a green popsicle lanced through the apex.

Let me be clear: I love catalogs. Home goods and furniture brands present their advertising as a fiction, a framework to which I can attach a story. One of my favorite games is to go through the pages and pretend every bedroom is the guest bedroom in my home. I decide which family member will stay where and ask myself if they’ll find the coral ikat drapery appropriately relaxing.

A home goods catalog advertises No-Iron Sateen. A practical purchase, to save us from all the time we spend ironing our sheets.

The catalogs remind me of food photography, in which the food is sprayed with chemicals and augmented with dyes and generally made inedible before being presented as the ideal version of itself. I could even make an analogy to fashion photography and unrealistic body types but I think we all get the idea. The aspirational version is a caricature, not on the same continent as reality. And what are we to think of this elaborate posing, this consistent (and extraordinarily successful) trend that we do not want what we think we want? At the very least, that the cynicism surrounding the marketing and advertising professions is no accident.

To call this kind of communication a code or say it’s operating under our radar on a subliminal level is at once simplistic and a bit overwrought, too weighted and ominous. There’s no conspiracy. The marketing in catalogs functions as a shorthand, a conversation that takes place through cultural connections our brains make about travel, education, luxury, and class. If we cannot follow the shorthand, we understand we’re just not part of the audience. Decorators can only speak to us in a shared language.

What if we concede the divorce of the presentation from the reality for good and all, elevate the falseness to a kind of art, a louche Warholian surrender at the urging of the Land of Nod summer white sale? Or does that just make us the ultimate suckers, willing to literally buy what they’re selling if they strategize their pitch to the nth nuance. Art or not, I am wary of someone trying to convince me of my own desires.

I leave you with the mystery of the napkin ring, that most extraneous of the dinner table accessories, which by its fussy existence calls into question every other accoutrement, from the tablecloth to the salad fork. The napkin ring demands we admit that nothing has any meaning; all we do on this plane of consciousness is mere gesture. Our material aspirations are pure fantasy and even the implements by which we feed ourselves are arcane semaphores. The napkin ring is a passport to the abyss—especially when you’re unpacking a set and asking yourself what the hell you were thinking bringing them 3,000 miles to another place where they will gather dust. With all humility I say to you the napkin ring mocks us; that is what it was created to do.