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The Beautiful Tyranny of the Restoration Hardware Catalog

It's heavy, it's not good for the environment, it's too expensive for all but a select few—and yet, every year, the 17-pound catalog arrives again.
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(Photo: wicker-furniture/Flickr)

(Photo: wicker-furniture/Flickr)

Someone has forgotten the Objects of Curiosity. There are supposed to be four lifestyle books and nine category books here, but only nine books arrived. I know what I am missing because this shrink-wrapped package came with an introductory sheet, an inventory of sorts: if it were a 13-course meal, then this would be the menu, and four of my advertised courses are missing.

The annual Restoration Hardware catalog, if it can be called that, which Restoration Hardware insists that it cannot, arrived last week. I knew that the source books, as Restoration Hardware asks that they should be called, were coming because I had already read reports of their arrival in cities around the country. Like dispatches from the front of some war yet to reach my borders, those in the North and the West bemoaned the glossy giants at their gates.

The enemy is, by design, 17 pounds: 13 separate catalogs, each with more than 115 but fewer than 515 pages. Mine weighs slightly less, just under 12 pounds, because it is missing Objects of Curiosity, Outdoor, Tableware, and Baby & Child. I say mine, but I have never purchased anything from Restoration Hardware, and I have not requested this catalog. It is addressed to my sister, whose apartment in Washington, D.C., is decorated so splendidly that any one of its rooms might appear in these pages, though because she is often at work and nowhere near her apartment to receive deliveries, she has things shipped here, so here is where the catalog, like the deliveries before it, is sent.

It kills trees. It wastes carbon. It ruins the backs of the persons who deliver it. It annoys the building managers who have to move it from vestibules and hallways. It ruins the backs of the persons who carry it off with the recycling or, worse, the trash.

I cannot afford anything in this catalog, but that doesn't stop me from admiring it. Lighting informs me: “The typical 4-bedroom home has 47 light fixtures. The following pages have 3,254.” I don’t have that many bedrooms and I wouldn’t have that much lighting if I put a fixture in every closet and cabinet of my house. Bath invites me to “Reimagine. Reinvent. Rejuvenate.” Small Spaces allows me to survey 18 places “Where Space Matters & Design Prevails,” including a Montreal atelier, a Barcelona flat, a Chicago row house, a Paris pied-a-terre, a West Hollywood apartment, and a Portland warehouse. My favorite is Rugs, which every few pages juxtaposes between two and six patterns like a printed tapestry museum.

RESTORATION HARDWARE HAS ALWAYS printed a catalog, though until very recently it followed the guerrilla tactics of direct mailings with a thin attack every season. Its thick blitz strategy began in 2011, with an inaugural source book that was just over 600 pages; a year later, it was over 900 pages; this year’s was more than 3,000 pages. Most companies have taken their inventories online, which Restoration Hardware has done, too, with a Web version of the catalog and an app that allows sourcebook browsing and bookmarking, but it has also focused its sales strategy on printed catalogs: adding more pages, designing more sourcebooks, and mailing them to even more households.

The Restoration Hardware catalog is considered by many to be the worst catalog in the world. It kills trees. It wastes carbon. It ruins the backs of the persons who deliver it. It annoys the building managers who have to move it from vestibules and hallways. It ruins the backs of the persons who carry it off with the recycling or, worse, the trash.

Many say it is the worst catalog in the world, but Restoration Hardware has heard this for three years already, so they sent a preemptive explanation with every single one of this year’s catalogs. “Our Commitment to the Environment” explains that the source books are mailed once a year, the paper on which they are printed is “forest certified,” and by purchasing carbon offsets the shipping, at least, is carbon neutral. Other companies send more pages cumulatively through multiple mailings; other companies exercise no care in the choice of paper; other companies neglect these carbon offsets. Other companies and their catalogs may well be worse, but many still call Restoration Hardware’s catalog the worst.

I am sensitive to such accusations, though I also suspect that I am the target audience for this anachronistic marketing strategy. Already in these last few days, I have spent quite a lot of time looking at colors and fabrics, textures and patterns, materials and finishes. I’ve folded corners to mark pages and copied bits of description into my notebook.

It reminds me of the catalog in the opening chapter of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Little James Ramsay cuts pictures from it: a refrigerator, a lawnmower, a gentleman’s evening dress. His mother, Mrs. Ramsay, watches his serious blue eyes as he focuses his scissors around the outline of those objects. Because she watches and because the Army and Navy catalog has been saved for just this purpose, Woolf writes that: “It was fringed with joy.”

Later in the novel, Mrs. Ramsay looks for a picture of a rake or something intricate enough to challenge her son. My own mother would collect catalogs for us as children. Long before we had a computer or a printer, we had catalogs for cutting letters and pictures for collages and posters and cards. Those handmade ransom fonts and awkward arrangements of persons, places, and things were how we entertained ourselves, but also how we completed school assignments and 4-H projects.

The Restoration Hardware catalog, though, is more than a catalog. Like a telephone book, it organizes similar things: gradations of leather; veins of marble; colorations of velvet. Like a dictionary, it defines dissimilar things: A chandelier is not a sconce; a steamer trunk differs from an heirloom silver trunk; ottomans and benches and stools may serve the same purpose but they are not the same piece of furniture. There are even little profiles of some of the designers and manufacturers.

An encyclopedia of objects, the catalog illustrates and defines, names and explains. It also, of course, sells, which is difficult to forget when you are never more than a few inches away from a price listing. Fringed with joy, perhaps, but also definitely decorated with dollar signs. And that is why Restoration Hardware continues to mail a catalog that many consider the worst in the world: Direct to consumer sales still, well, sell.