Hail the Conquering Catalog Hero

Damn if L.L. Bean didn’t make me fall in love with an Adirondack chair.

To give you a sense of the unlikelihood of such an action, consider this: 1) I try to spend as little time outdoors as possible, and 2) I’m not a fan of New England style (but out of respect for those who are, I’ll refrain from stating that New England style is itself oxymoronic).

Yet in its Summer 2011 Home catalog, Bean made me long for an Adirondack chair, especially the cheery orange or bold red one found on page 10, though the sunny blue one on pages 14-15 would do.

How did Bean manage this feat?

* It treated the chairs—and the other styles of outdoor furniture in the pages leading up to them—as heroes. The objects in question dominated not just the main photographs on each spread but the spreads themselves. The others items for sale on those pages were relevant accessories to those heroes: coordinating seat cushions and outdoor lanterns in the same festive colors, for instance.

* The products differed just enough from similar items available elsewhere to be a novelty—and to distinguish Bean from the other merchants. Remember the old commercials for Trix, where the rabbit waxes orgasmic about the cereal’s vivid colors: “Cherry red! Lemon yellow! Orange orange!” That’s almost how I felt upon coming across those orange, red, and blue chairs. Having lived on the Eastern Seaboard most of my adult life, I’ve seen and sat upon scores of Adirondack chairs in my time, but never in such bright, glossy hues.

* Yet in key ways, the products were no different from other Bean merchandise. I could, of course, just pick up a cheap imitation Adirondack chair and spray-paint it a glossy color myself. But leaving aside the fact that I already have major DIYs project to take care of (anyone want to help me paint a deck this weekend?), this chair boasts the much-vaunted Bean quality that makes its products worth paying more for. According to the copy, “Our All-Weather Furniture is built in America—and built to last a lifetime. It will not rot, warp, splinter, absorb moisture or ever need painting.” Never need painting?! Does L.L. Bean make decks? 

And on the off chance that after ordering the chair I didn’t like it, Bean has its famed iron-clad, unconditional return policy.

Ooh, look, on the back cover, there’s another gorgeous photo, of matching side tables in the same fabulous colors! Bean gets me coming and going.

The May 2011 Ballard Designs catalog arrived in my mailbox the same day at the Bean book. The front covers of both catalogs showed furniture on a porch or deck overlooking water. And in terms of decor styles, I have more of an affinity to Ballard’s somewhat lyrical, European-influenced furnishings than Bean’s Yankee utilitarianism.

Yet nothing in the Ballard catalog struck me the way Bean’s Adirondack chairs did. One reason is Ballard has no real hero products. That’s because the page layouts are denser than Homer Simpson.

One could charitably say that Ballard aims to make the room, rather than any individual piece, the hero. That would be fine, if Ballard were selling the room rather than the individual items within. There’s such a thing as creating a mise-en-scène in order to persuade the customer that by purchasing one or several of the items in that scene, he too could achieve that glorious abode—nay, lifestyle; it’s what Pottery Barn does so well, in its stores and its catalogs alike. 

And then there’s cramming a lot of merchandise in a room, photographing it, putting it on a spread with several other cluttered photos, and then littering said photos with letter keys to correspond to the copy blocks plopped in the scraps of remaining white space. I contend that Ballard veers much closer to the latter than to the former. 

Clutter in my home drives me mad (which is why I spend most of my waking hours in a state of semi-rage). So I’m certainly not inclined to purchase from a home furnishing catalog whose pages are nearly as jumbled and crowded and overflowing with stuff as my husband’s bedside table.  

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