The Pottery Barn Revolution

The way things look.
June 18 1998 3:30 AM

The Pottery Barn Revolution

There's hope for American furniture.

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In the ritual bashing of wildly successful retail outlets, Pottery Barn has received its share of scorn. In-the-know consumers mock the home furnishing chain for its buy-a-lamp, get-a-lifestyle attitude and its antiqued, weathered, color-coordinated pseudostyle. The omnipresent store has also been accused of inducing a bland homogenization in home design. "Everything seems more and more the same, wherever you are," wrote architecture critic Paul Goldberger in a New York Times Magazine article last year. "The stuff may be good but it ain't special."

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Goldberger, while rejoicing that sophisticated design has finally reached the American masses, rightly lamented that it has come at the price of individual variation and taste. Just as the Gap look has become as much of a uniform now as the preppy aesthetic it replaced, so also has the Pottery Barn look standardized our homes as vacuously as any traditional style. But in the big picture, the Gapping of American furniture has actually been one of the most welcome developments in recent years. It has made good design easily accessible and, paradoxically, opened opportunities for American manufacturing that may help consumers develop a sense of personal style.

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A mericans have always had bad taste in furniture. It's been hard to say, though, whether we're innately philistine in our artistic judgments or have merely been deprived of decent choices. Until the 1930s, most furniture that was well designed came from Europe, was priced accordingly, and was off-limits to most consumers. Then things started to change, slowly. The Bauhaus design school introduced the idea that good design could be had by anyone; in the 1950s the Bauhaus aesthetic led to the American manufacture of such modernist (but still too pricey) classics as Charles Eames' lounge chair and ottoman and Arne Jacobsen's Egg Chair. In the '60s, an Englishman named Terence Conran opened a store in London called Habitat, selling what has come to be called "transitional" furniture--mixable pieces so neutral and inoffensive they could fit into any environment. Conran brought the idea to the United States in 1977, opening his chain. Still, big manufacturers such as Ethan Allen, Broyhill, and Drexel continued to dominate the market with safe, conservative styles or traditional looks from the last century.

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What finally ended the reign of the big manufacturers was the proliferation of such high-design/low-price stores as Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, and IKEA. In the last decade, Pottery Barn, et al., have realized the ideas of the Bauhaus and Conran, and then some. Furniture has been Gapped--streamlined to its purest lines in a way that appeals both to people with sophisticated tastes and to those without a lot of money. And while this standardization has produced a certain monotony, it has also generated some good design. Many a dish or chair at IKEA or Pottery Barn is of better design quality--with simpler forms and purer colors--than its counterpart at Bloomingdale's (although the manufacturing quality may be not as good). Take, for example, Pottery Barn's wide-brimmed Capri bowls, which come in bone or light periwinkle. Resembling, yet not flatly derivative of, an Asian rice dish, a Capri bowl confidently walks that fine line between elegance and edge--and was on sale last weekend for $4.99.

Pottery Barn and the others have turned Americans on to furniture. According to Barnard's Retail Trend Report, since mid-1996, consumers have been spending more on the home than on apparel ($296.3 billion vs. $277.9 billion in 1997). This sudden interest can also be attributed to other causes--we're older and nesting; we're spending more time at home; we're making bolder purchases because of a better economy. But what's noteworthy is that it's young people who have developed a taste for cool places to sit and sleep. A survey by the Home Furnishings Council found that consumers under 35 were most likely to agree with the statement "I like to shop for furniture." Young buyers are growing up with good design around them--in clothes, in advertisements, in movie sets--and this improved climate surely makes them more discriminating shoppers.

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Paradoxically, the Gapping of furniture has made it easier for new, innovative design companies to thrive. You could see the stirrings of a creative revolution at this year's International Contemporary Furniture Fair, held a few weeks ago in Manhattan. The fair still showcased some of the arts-and-craftsy "novelty" elements (lights in the shape of pigs or brassieres, chairs made from shopping carts or traffic barricades) that earned it the "bad flea market" label when it began a decade ago. But there were also a dozen small designer-manufacturers producing funky yet rational design at affordable prices. Even though these items cost a bit more than Pottery Barn fare, they were no doubt affected by the success of that store's clean, simple lines. Blu Dot Design, for instance, offered its handsome and functional Uptown series: a cocktail table ($499), sideboard ($899), and media cabinet ($649) of cherry, chrome, and sandblasted glass that discreetly allow for both storage and display. Although the Minneapolis-based company is just a year old, its three twentysomething founders have already got orders from more than 100 retailers around the country. They've been written up in Newsweek, the New York Times, and an array of design magazines. Most telling of all, the series' cocktail table and sideboard are now part of Chandler and Joey's living room on Friends.

In addition, medium-size companies such as Directions are now offering sophisticated design and manufacturing quality at department-store prices, retaining an attention to fine detail that the mass chains lack. Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and Donna Karan have also got in on the act, introducing their high-quality (though far from original) "home collections." Lauren has already covered a quarter of Bloomingdale's furniture department with haute preppy ensembles of paisley, tartan plaid, and corduroy. The rise of "boomer casual" has even forced the major manufacturers to move beyond their perennial colonial reproductions. Their more "modernized" furniture looks as if it were designed by a committee tallying up market research, but it's a start.

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A home swathed in Karan, of course, is no better than a home swathed in Pottery Barn. But the next stage in America's design evolution may not be far off. In New York, one hip SoHo store, called Troy, offers new stuff next to classics by Jacobsen and Alvar Aalto. A Tribeca store, Totem, showcases a slew of young designers who will individualize pieces according to your home and character. Totem's first line of its own--the Surface Collection by Lloyd Schwan--is both playful and versatile, consisting of building-blocklike tables, credenzas, and cabinets with interchangeable parts and colors, depending on whether the pieces are going in an office or a kid's room. The collection won a Best Furniture award at this year's International Contemporary Furniture Fair. Soon, Americans will no longer be able to blame bad taste in furniture on a lack of choice.

Karen Lehrman is editor of the online journal civnet.

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