Vanity, thy name is hardware.
Like Trader Joe's, Restoration Hardware does not carry "lines" but rather selects individual items that seem to capture the store's "spirit," many of which are made exclusively for the chain. The presentation of these items is hushed and museumlike, with just dash of whimsy. The little identifying cards psychologist Gordon sets beside each item display an impressive mastery of the manipulative arts. "FOUR GENERATIONS OF MAINE FISHERMEN COULD BE WRONG ... BUT WE DOUBT IT," reads a card beside four sizes of woven metal baskets in Restoration Hardware's Georgetown store. To refrain from purchasing one would insult the working class and dishonor the labor of our fathers' fathers! "Hey ... we, like you, secretly covet recliners," purrs the card beside a 1952-style Metro Finer Recliner, priced at $990. But there are only "a few of us who possess a stout enough psychological profile to allow ourselves or even imagine ourselves purchasing a big cushy wonder boy or girl reclining chair." Let's pause for a moment to map the nuances of that pitch. 1) Snob appeal: We all know recliners are tacky. 2) Sympathy: And yet you secretly desire one so you can capture some magical moments from your childhood. 3) Challenge: Dare you rise to the occasion, like Raskolnikov, and reject the petty rules that govern lesser men? 4) Smugness: You may be buying your dad's chair, but you are not going to play that gender dominance game that he played. It's your wife's chair too! Wonder boy indeed!
The editors of the Baffler, a little magazine of cultural criticism, have coined an extremely handy term to describe the spirit of stores like Restoration Hardware and Trader Joe's: "Commodify your dissent." In a book of essays with that title, the process of turning counterculture rebellion into profit-making opportunity that does absolutely nothing to challenge the status quo is described in various settings, such as Nike (which used William S. Burroughs to sell sneakers) and the films of Quentin Tarantino ("always hip but scrupulously content-free"). In the case of Restoration Hardware and Trader Joe's, the dissent (hence the commodification) is a bit more subtle and has more to do with the harnessing of postgrad hauteur mingled with a longing for simpler times. But in both stores, one is similarly invited to live out vain fantasies about who one is, or should be. The spell is broken only when you leave the store, realize that you've just bought $200 worth of merchandise, and understand you're just another schmuck consumer.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.