It started out innocently enough.
In 1962, a plucky young couple in their early twenties, Gordon and Carole Segal, using their keen eyes for design, got the idea to sell inexpensive but attractive European housewares out of a disused elevator factory in Chicago. The charming, bohemian presentation the Segals pioneered — housewares displayed on their actual shipping-crates-with-spilling-excelsior in a post-industrial-setting — has long been replaced with the recognizable Crate&Barrel “vignette” style, to wit: a lot of square footage, with all of the narrowly customizable furniture and safely humorless, non-ethnic tchotchkes staged in little home arrangements, like decor ‘serving suggestions’. (Put glass pebbles and white porcelain pumpkins all over your reclaimed French country Thanksgiving table!Your children will forgive you for being cold.)
This was the influence of the Otto Group, a German mail-order company, which acquired a majority stake in Crate & Barrel in 1998, with expansionist goals in mind. By 2011, when the Otto Group became the sole owner of Crate&Barrel, the 59 locations the Segals had pioneered had boomed into into over 100 locations.
Crate & Barrel has managed to remain alive through rolling financial crashes, although a number of locations have closed.
There was a quiet but somewhat dramatic CEO shuffling in 2017 after disappointing holiday sales; their flagship store in Chicago closed in January of 2018. Still, there are currently ninety Crate and Barrel stores internationally. This survival seems to have been achieved by the store settling into a very particular niche (or perhaps, dare we say, a rut.)
CB2, the junior edition of Crate & Barrel that is allegedly affordable (i.e. the PBTeen < Pottery Barn solution to the Crate & Barrel affordability problem) enjoyed some success with their Lenny Kravitz endorsement line; so, it would seem an obvious move to have a popular celebrity create a signature collection for the elder Crate&Barrel. Hence, Crate&Barrel’s exclusive Reese Witherspoon signature line, named “Draper James” (which sounds like the Lifetime Channel spinoff to Elizabeth & James, a clothing line created by the Olsen Twins in 2007, e.g. James discovers the joy of drapery after overcoming his drug problem and finally reconciles with Elizabeth after years of trolling her Facebook page).
When I first visited a Crate&Barrel in the nineties, in New York. it seemed impossibly posh and advanced; I had never seen turquoise cappuccino machines, bespoke armchairs or matching napkin-rings up-close before. Spiffy yuppies were doing things to their living spaces that had never been imagined by people who mainly used paper coffee filters when the bathroom roll hit cardboard, and the effect was sea-changing.
Two years ago, in Marin County, a suburb just North of San Francisco, the vast Crate&Barrel space was largely devoid of humanity, apart from a collection of blue-aproned employees, most hovering around the age of sixty.
The soundtrack piping through was the type of calm, exsambanated Brazilian music one expects to hear in a Las Vegas elevator while going down to the pool.
Right by the front door, there was an immediate oasis for geriatrics keen to get a jump on the holidays: Christmas decor, two solid weeks before Halloween. (I was grateful that the Brazilian eunuchs weren’t singing a bossa-nova ‘Silver Bells,’ particularly when I was told that evening that Costco was already abusing Bing Crosby.)
It would not be out-of-line to describe today’s Crate&Barrel inventory as paleo-conservative. There are no elements of the international “Brooklyn” flavor that pervade most design outlets.
There are no jarringly exotic elements, and nothing alarmingly moorish, pattern wise. (All such elements have been relegated behind the aesthetic firewall of CB2). There is no color louder than ochre that isn’t a kicky ‘accent.’ Neither shabby nor industrial chics are evident. Nothing is “distressed.”
Crate&Barrel’s offerings are decidedly aimed at the type of financially perma-secure, status-conscious home-maker that has 16 matching sets of everything, including things you’ve never dreamt were necessary (even if your boss came to dinner every third night) such as ceramic dip platters in the shape of the vegetable of which said dip is composed.
The tasteful, sturdy, inoffensive furniture arrangements resemble mid-level sedans crammed into an office parking lot, due to the fact that there are at least 50 shades of grey, and virtually nothing else going on to disturb the color chart.
I wondered if the Marin county location was responsible for the inventory being so particularly grandparental; Marin customers do tend to be older and largely Caucasian. This came into particularly clear focus when I realized that the small succulent plants whimsically tipping out of a farmer’s market basket were all wrought in hassle-free latex.
I asked a fatherly man in an apron about the customer response to Witherspoon’s Draper James line. He shrugged, and gave a so-so wobble of the hand. “That stuff kinda came and went,” he said, noncommittally. “But there is a Christmas selection of stuff she, ya know, ‘picked out,’” he added, kindly walking me toward the display.
The soul and essence of La Witherspoon was not hugely evident in her Christmas selections of the Crate&Barrel inventory, which were cordoned off in a chrome gift corral.
At the top of the display: fierce, molar-baring nutcrackers dressed like the Finnish ski-brigade that defeated Stalin (starting at $99). These stood guard in front of Le Creuset dutch ovens in holiday patterns (5.5 quart size, $340.00). She also approved a set of Wusthof steak knives, ($79.95), a 52 oz. copper tea kettle, and a lot of barware.
A Carrera marble tic-tac-toe set, $39.50 was apparently selected for friends and business associates too dumb for Connect Four.
I secretly hoped that Ms. Witherspoon was secretly freezing these tic-tac-toe pieces and putting them in her gin.
The store attendant, aiding my quest for the design geist of Draper James, guided me to the in-store “design studio” area to watch her appearance on one of their promotional videos, which shows continuously on a ten minute loop.
I sat at a table surrounded by racks of upholstery and drapery samples, which were grey, beige, greige….and noticed one daring little rack of orange, gold and vermillion swatches, ostensibly there to add a potentially daring pop of color to an otherwise grey area - a pop as rare in the living rooms of Crate&Barrel shoppers as getting shot by a potato gun at point-blank range. Nobody ever chooses the vermillion, I thought. It’s just there to look hep.
On the video, La Witherspoon, wearing a high-collared tuxedo-blouse with a ribbon tie at the neck that made her look like the trophy-bride of a cryogenically frozen Colonel Sanders, was chirpily mixing and matching throw-cushions by hurling them toward a grey sofa in one of the ersatz living-room settings the chain pioneered… and missing, over and over again. For comedy effect.
OK, I get it, I thought. Reese is truly the most geriatric-friendly of the young movie stars. She’s a well-bred protestant mom who dresses like Maria von Trapp, with just a twinkling of Lucille Ball.
“Everyone loves my Christmas party, even though I only serve ham and biscuits!” Witherspoon purred, before manhandling a chihuahua.
(I wondered if Crate&Barrel would ever consider any celebrity as radical as Lena Dunham for CB2. A Rolodex-style menstrual calendar. An equestrian-style Lithium-lick. Decorative drams of Cuban dove blood for your Santeria stocking.)
At the Union Square Crate & Barrel in San Francisco, a Joan Didion-lady gave me her skinny on the Witherspoon collection: “Well, in the summer, there was a whole thing; beach balls and plastic pitchers. Hats,” she shrugged. “Now, we just have that little area.”
The Draper James collection, as it had been in Marin, was relegated to one mini-shrine, next to an even-smaller Hanukkah display.
Reese Witherspoon’s creations are indigo and white bowls and plates, in either a floral Rorschach-blot — evocative of the omnipresent, brutalist, red coral-Limoges-ripoffs that West Elm did such a good job impersonating around 2013 — or a crisp blue and white New England gingham/plaid mashup that looks like something John Ashcroft’s patriotic barbershop quartet all would have worn on Independence Day.
There are matching napkins.
There main difference between the city Crate&Barrel and the suburban Crate&Barrel — only the San Francisco location featured healthy-looking containers of rubber wheat grass, next to the ersatz succulents.
Q. What makes the glass tumblers of Crate&Barrel so starkly different from the glass tumblers at Target or IKEA that they merit being virtually the same glasses at nearly 200% of the price-point?
A: The Crate & Barrel shopper doesn’t have to go to Target, or IKEA suckahs. Let the ordeals be had by the Godless bargain hordes. The C&B customer wears endangered fur ponchos and will not be endangering them further on the Emeryville Ikea shuttle bus, honey. Nooo.
The real product on sale at Crate & Barrel: the ability to shop in a near total avoidance of your fellow man.
In trying to figure out why the energy of both stores felt so stagnant, I came to a harsh, basic realization: the customers of Crate&Barrel will not be moving anywhere, ever again. They are already living in the houses they are planning to die in. They are furnishing their tombs for the afterlife, like King Tut.
Nothing underlined this more than the “Build Your Own Headboard” displays, in both stores. The code: headstones.
All gothic tall and grey-upholstered, lacking only your epitaph.
Crate&Barrel has at least figured out one important secret of its target demographic: If you can’t take it with you, you can at least make it so tastefully dull your kids won’t fight over it.
Everybody slo mo samba!