Restoration Hardware Restoration

Here in Connecticut, Thanksgiving means Christmas.

And Christmas means catalogs.

And catalogs mean everything.  Here in Connecticut.

We gather together by the fireplace and take turns reading.

When my turn came, it was the Restoration Hardware catalog.  Thrilling.

My favorite part of Restoration Hardware were always the retro gadgets.  Messages in a bottle.  Things straight from popular culture.  Returned from memory to circulation, from childhood to retail.

Before the discovery of “experience marketing,” before the discovery of “artisanal marketing,” before the discovery of “Chief Culture Officer,” Restoration Hardware was featuring consumer products that floated up out of someone’s childhood on to the retail tide. When so much of capitalism, especially big business retail, was virtually tone deaf to culture, Restoration Hardware somehow managed to be note perfect.

I did a little investigating and discovered that the author of this innovative approach to retail was a guy called Stephen Gordon.  Gordon was the founder of Renovation Hardware.  At the moment of investigation I was teaching at the Harvard Business School.  I thought to myself, “This guy is the perfect topic for a Harvard Business School Case Study.”  Mr. Gordon very graciously agreed to do an interview and then life got complicated and I left HBS and the case study never got written.

I heard Gordon left Restoration Hardware and it showed.  I would visit the Restortation Hardware, at retail and in catalogue, and the small, perfect object approach to objects seemed to flicker and disappear.   Clearly, this was an idea that sprang Zeus-like from his consciousness and distinctly not from the managers who replaced him.  (And honestly what were the chances that it would.  I mean, this guy was unexampled in retail at the time.  Of course, his tradition was not going to survive his departure.)

So it was a great pleasure to see that the current Restoration Hardware catalogue is once more object rich.  The approach now is bundled by a lifestyle logic.  The object march in groups.  There is Vintage Games (antique Bingo!), Inner Child (complete with a slinky), Angler (with a Stanley Flask).  This is not quite as evocative as one would like.  One feels that if Stephen Gordon were still in charge at least one of these lifestyle kits would be called “gum shoe” and it would include everything required of a Noir detective on a stake out (with a Stanley Flask!)

But the spirit of Gordon is stirring once more.  The RH catalogue is normally disaggregated objects: lamps, sofas, art objects.  They are gathered together for the catalog photograph, but otherwise they are completely modular.  This Christmas catalog sends objects out in groups, in flight, the collective effect of which is to give them all additional meaning, evocative meaning.

The Gordon approach is deeply cultural.  It delivers cultural meanings that are present in our lives but mostly missing from our retail experience.  What a pleasure to see Restoration Hardware glimpsing a restoration of its own.


McCracken, Grant.  1988.  Diderot Unities and the Diderot Effect.  Culture and Consumption. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

For more on this contribution of Stephen Gordon and Restoration Hardware, go here

5 thoughts on “Restoration Hardware Restoration

  1. Steve Portigal

    The appearance of Restoration Hardware on University Ave. in Palo Alto (no idea where that was in their span of expansion) is intimately tied to my own personal development; a dawning awareness of culture and its relationship to consumption, a growing ability to observe, interpret, and parse culture in support of my professional work, a developing sense of what I was in for as relatively-fresh Canadian-in-exile, grappling with Americana, etc. etc.

    This post is just delightful to read, even without the catalog (sorry I’m going for the local spelling) in hand, reminds me of the sense of wonder I didn’t even realize I was having at the time. Thanks for retroscripting my young adulthood 🙂

  2. Stuart Buck

    Have you seen the blog Catalog Living? The writer takes trendy pictures from catalogs and then describes them under the pretense that an actual married couple named Elaine and Gary actually live there. Very funny.

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