You walk into a living room you’ve never been in before. There is a Barcelona chair catty-corner to a Le Corbusier chaise. There is a lacquered credenza that was made by a Danish person in the middle of last century. Your host opens a beer for you with a bright-red Alessi bottle opener. You set the beer down on a Saarinen side table, take a seat on the Knoll sofa, and sink into a reflective state of déjà vu. Where have you seen this tableau before? Oh. That’s where. On the toilet. Idly flipping through a Design Within Reach catalog.
If you haven’t had this experience yet, you will. In the past decade, due in part to the Starbucks-like proliferation of mid-century-modern dispenser Design Within Reach and purveyors of similarly clean-lined furniture, a conspicuous new breed of amateur decorators has emerged. Guys in their 20s and 30s who, flush with cash and square footage, kit out their lofts and houses by systematically turning the pages of a glossy catalog and circling pieces like items on a Chinese-takeout menu. They are confident that this approach to interior design demonstrates sophistication and informed taste. What it in fact demonstrates is an acute lack of vision.
“There’s no imagination involved,” says Steven Wagner, former design director at House Beautiful and an interior decorator in New York who recently steered a young banker away from the mail-order approach. “It’s like a return to the fifties, when people would get entire suites of furniture. Go into a Pottery Barn or a Design Within Reach on any given Saturday and you’ll see all these couples walking around, essentially buying whole apartments.”
Note that Wagner lumps the highbrow modern outfit in with the more pedantic Pottery Barn. Those of you reading this in a den appointed precisely like a page from the “lounge” section of DWR literature are no more highly evolved decorators than those watching TV from a “Greenwich” sectional in sage-brushed twill book-ended by “Metropolitan” cubes. You, like them, have put the same amount of energy into the interior of your home as you did into the placement of the halogen lamp in your dorm room.
“Buying the whole look is a very American thing to do,” says Emmanuel Plat, vice president at the Conran Shop in New York—one of several meccas of contemporary design ruled by British aesthete Sir Terence Conran. “People use decorators here much more than they do in Europe,” says Plat, who is French. “They need someone to validate their choices. They come in and see a furniture display and say, ‘I want exactly this. This table with the four chairs and the mirror in the back.’”
Albert Hadley, the octogenarian Interior Design Hall of Famer who has consulted for the Astors and the Gettys, is more sympathetic to the one-stop decorators. “Not everybody is wildly passionate about interior design. They just want to put it all in there and stop fussing. I rather applaud that,” he says.