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The Color of No Money

by James Lileks

In the previous depression, the government employed serious writers at the WPA to keep them from doing something rash, like writing popular books people might actually enjoy. Many were sent around to write guides to the states; I’ve looked at just a few, but they’re so leaden the only possible purpose they served was to be stuffed in the pockets of a body you wanted to dump in the Hudson. My favorite resource for understanding ’30s culture isn’t a government guide or an economic treatise, but a Sears Roebuck catalogue from 1934. The goods spill off the pages; the men are sharp and cheerful, the women lovely and begowned — or trussed to the point of asphyxiation by their undergarments. Best of all, there are pages of vivid color, which surprises those who thought FDR passed a National Monochrome Act. Times were hard, but the trees were still green, the flowers still bright, the sky still blue. If you’re headed to hell in a handbasket, why not tie a ribbon to the handle?

Which brings us to the most depressing article to arrive in mailboxes this month: the new Restoration Hardware furniture catalog. Predominant colors: death, decay, rot, ennui, collapse, and brown.

To be fair, the company hasn’t been known for riotous Day-Glo schemes; they cater to people who want to spend a half-dozen grand on beige sofas and conveniently pre-distressed replicas of old leather chairs so everything just makes that Warhol painting pop off the wall. Think someone with new money wanting to make someone with newer money feel bad for shopping at Pottery Barn. But this is a remarkable series of pictures — the plants have no blossoms, the bookends hail from the early phase of the industrial revolution, the furniture looks like it’s dragged from a farmhouse at the outmost perimeter of a nuclear blast. Natural light floods the rooms, as though electricity were just a memory. It’s the sort of room Charlton Heston would set up if The Omega Man took place on Martha’s Vineyard.

It’s unwise to read too much into these things, of course. Unless the catalogue has a preface explicitly stating why everything looks like it was influenced by the movie The Road. The head of the company, Gary Friedman, greets you on page two and describes the company’s new look as a response to “the collapse of the global economy.” This ties in to a Picasso quote emblazoned on the page: “Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.” Heavy, dude. Apparently they used the credit crunch to ask themselves whether they should do away with oldthink: “No longer mere ‘retailers’ of home furnishings, we are now ‘curators’ of the best historical design the world has to offer.”

This means a lot of stuff based on stuff from 19th-century France — including a “faithfully reproduced dentist’s chair from France circa 1890.” You can’t tell from the picture, but perhaps there are marks in the armrest where the patient dug in his fingernails as a molar was teased out. There are also busts of sad contemplative people, reproductions of desks used by French postal bureaucrats, and an enormous seven-foot-tall tweezer described as a “reproduction of calipers used to measure the diameter of tree trunks in 1800s France.” Useful. Also, claw-foot stools with metal seats from 19th-century tractors. Honest! Simple! Timeless! Like a knuckle in the tailbone, but Authentically so!

The absence of color is not only striking, it’s amusing; the busts are plain, as we expect museum pieces to be, but we know they were painted once, and new technologies have managed to tell us what those colors might have been. The Greeks in particular were wild. (This is . . . garish. No! This — is — SPARTA!) If the French desks and French dentist chairs were dull, it may be because no one considered that these commonplace objects should be gay — in the old sense — as well as useful. But now their plain unadorned utility speaks of virtues for the Age of Less. Somehow the crash may have taken away our right to color. We’re all paying for irrational ex-hue-berance, apparently.

Colors rise and fall in popularity. They’re the visual equivalent of carbon dating: When you see a picture of an office with teal, puce, and mauve cubicles, you know you’re in the Tootsie era of interior design. Those terrible twins, harvest gold and avocado green, tell you the appliance hailed from the Nixon/Ford era. Brown and orange: the slump-shouldered trough of the Carter years. Turquoise and pink: Nifty Fifties. No one can chart the exact moment when a color slips out of vogue, but one day you look around and realize the entire palette has shifted, and the very catalogues that made you want to paint the kitchen endive green have decided that Madagascar red is la mode. The process is insidious, and systemic, until people find themselves standing in the kitchen they loved last year thinking that green just has to go.

But this may be the first time last year’s color is replaced by no color at all. No one’s redoing the rumpus room in Obama-bright blue and white, are they? The magnitude of the economic slump, and the fading of the hopes so many placed in the New Dawn, have literally made the color drain from their faces. There’s a song by the Police: “When the world is running down, you make the best of what’s still around.” Someone has to curate the leavings of our civilization, but a 19th-century French tree calipers seems like a case of misplaced priorities.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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