Father Christmas?

A poet at age 8, the first non-European Nobel Prize winner in 1913, writer of novels, essays, short stories, dramas and 2,230 songs, Rabindranath Tagore was a Bengali, Indian writer who reshaped his region’s literature and music.  He emulated his quote above [“Life is given to us, we earn it by giving it.”] by documenting discoveries and insights from travels to more than 30 countries on five continents and sharing them across cultures and generations.  He demonstrated his uncanny foresight in the following passage written in 1915.  “Who are you, reader, reading my poems a hundred years hence?  I cannot send you one flower from the wealth of the spring, one single streak of gold from yonder clouds.  Open your doors and look abroad.  From your blossoming garden gather fragrant memories of the vanished flowers of a hundred years before.  In the joy of your heart may you feel the living joy that sang one spring morning, sending its glad voice across a hundred years.”

Okay, so what is this?  The opening to an undergraduate term paper for Professor Gordon’s “Eastern Religions 130:  Yet Another Series of Soon-To-Be-Forgotten Subcontinental Mystics?”   Your little sister’s reading from your wedding in 1972? 

No.  This is the opening copy — a letter from the CEO — of Restoration Hardware’s Christmas catalogue.  Our jaw dropped.  We have seen some novel marketing approaches in our time, but this one is a real stunner.  Rabindranath Tagore?  Somehow, not a name steeped in Yuletide.  Is this supposed to put me in mind of chestnuts roasting on an open fire?  Jack Frost nipping at my nose?

Most certainly not.  For Gary Friedman, the latest CEO of Restoration Hardware, there shall be no tacky “ho ho hos” or tinkling of little bells, unless they happen to be attached to prayer wheels.  Daring to be different, and shying from the trite, Mr. Friedman opens his catalogue with a stunning portrait — of himself — gazing warmly into a distance, deep in contemplation, with just a hint of stubble on his bronzed cheeks.  On the opposite page is his “letter” to his readers.  The quote above is the entire first paragraph.

This is clearly a confident man.  A strong man. One who is completely convinced that the power of his presence and his mastery of male grooming will taser the restless consumer into a trace-like state, which is the only human condition permitting the possibility that someone would actually read that hogwash all the way through.

Flowers?  Sunbeams?  Come on.  “Life is given to us; we earn it by giving it?”  Does our fine-tuned ear detect a perfect example of mystic gibberish?

But fear not.  In spite of the lofty tone, the path to spiritual enlightenment, according to Friedman, is more accessible than one might think.  In fact, if you turn the page, you will find that satori is just a pair of faux-fur lined booties away, and at $29, a far sight cheaper than a week in an ashram.  Unless you would care to pop for the “lux fur hot water bottle,” at the same price, or, if you feel like plunging, and really ringing up the kharmic credits, you could give the special someone in your life a $395 fur bean bag.

If you sense a disconnect here, you’re not alone.   But who cares?  We’re constantly assaulted by all manner of absurdity these days, from politicians and talking heads and advertisements and the rest of the Demons of Disinformation — why should this stand out?  We do our part to yell “Bullshit” when we hear it, but why does this deserve our attention?

Well, for two reasons:  This is the first non-name brand we recall using a hypothetical cult of personality to sell a product.  Martha Stewart?  Okay, she’s Martha Stewart.  But this gilded snake isn’t really anybody, as far as we can tell.  Yet there he is, breathing “Be like me….”

Second, we have had some reason to follow the fortunes of Restoration Hardware.  The company began as a single hardware store in Eureka, CA, selling real hardware and other interesting bits of merchandise.  Its success encouraged the founder to open two more stores in CA in more prosperous suburbs of larger cities, and the game was on.  “Resto” grew very quickly, went public, and then ran into problems.  While they were structural and therefore fixable, the board had lost confidence in the founder and CEO, so out he went.  Others came and went.  At some point the public went private again, and new ownership installed Mr. Friedman as Co-CEO about a year and a half ago.   Friedman announced that the old Restoration Hardware, with its maybe-too-midcult attitude and almost folksy demeanor, was dead, dead, dead.

Now, Friedman declared,  Resto would be a really hip boutique of unique artisanal productions, like that hand-made tin-framed distressed-industrial mirror, or this oh-god-please-help-us  what the hell is that thingie.  But apparently the market for snakeskin hand mirrors and vintage birdcage chandeliers wasn’t quite as strong as expected, so now the company is back selling its hallmark mix of products, including a healthy mix of the nostalgia-oriented items that were so airily dismissed as tired and outdated.

All of which makes us happy, as we always had a soft spot for Resto and its odd mix of the ordinary and eclectic.  Walk in and you could buy a perfect classic showerhead, or a beautiful wooden sailboat model.  In fact, the company’s merchandise always sold briskly, and that was the at least part of the company’s difficulties:  Resto had problems meeting orders, and long delivery delays pissed off many of its customers.   Repudiating a merchandising concept whose success was legendary seemed to us to be a misguided strategy at best; this misfire appears now to have been itself repudiated, but:

We are still left with serpent guy, whose chief talent seems to be self-promotion.  I don’t want to be like him.  I don’t want to hear third-rate mysticism masquerading as profound, and I don’t want to buy anything from a post-teen idol wannabe who can’t be bothered with shaving.  Who knows what else he finds unworthy of his attention?   Do those tables have all their screws?  Is the vintage Monopoly set missing the iron and the race car?

Maybe this is what we are these days:  a hapless group of dispirited followers in desperate search of one who can lead us to aesthetic and spiritual enlightenment in just one catalogue.  If so, and Gary Friedman is the answer, we need to take a very close look at our questions.  In the meantime, going from “Bite the Man” chew toys to spiritual fulfillment through chenille throws is a little too much of a leap for us.  With or without the chin whiskers.