IF YOU HAVE been alive and alert in this city over the past five years, you cannot have failed to hear the legends of the

"/>

Rising incomes, rising tastes

The Silicon gold rush has forever altered what we buy and why.

IF YOU HAVE been alive and alert in this city over the past five years, you cannot have failed to hear the legends of the silicon gold rush: the Microsoft millionaire who dropped $50,000 on a home entertainment system; the Microsoft millionaire who spent hundreds of thousands on a state-of-the-art kitchen for his new home even though he never cooks at home, because "they told me I'd need a kitchen if I ever wanted to sell this house"; the former bookstore clerk who pulled up to the old brick-and-mortar store in a spanking new Miata purchased with Amazon.com stock options. . . . We tell these can-you-believe-it tales as a way of deflecting envy, setting up as fools—"Fifty grand on a TV and stereo?!"—those whose riches have come a little too easily and a lot too early. The tales, I suspect, also justify our own increasingly affluent shopping habits. For while the success of Microsoft, Amazon, Adobe, RealNetworks, and their e-kin have minted millionaires by the dozen, much of the rest of the city's middle class have seen their own boats rise on the same tide.

That prosperity has combined with another trend, the marketing downward of "good taste," to create a plague of consumers who descend every weekend upon University Village, Pacific Place, and other temples of the new good taste. They might be called, collectively, Pottery Barn Nation. Having been trained at the Gap and Ikea, they now set their sights a notch higher on the price and design scale. They've got the money—now they want quality with a capital Q. Until now, purveyors of the finer things in life have always been something of a clannish secret, a kind of knowledge passed from generation to generation among Seattle's well-heeled families. An outsider would scarcely notice the abundance of plain brown boxes at a wedding shower, for instance, but a woman with the knowledge would recognize it as the trademark of Miller-Pollard and understand that the bride also "knew." The Seattle ethos required that you spent your money quietly and with taste. Flaunt your doubloons, indulge a penchant for Graceland-style decor, and you'd be harrumphed out of town. As evidence, I offer two words: Ken Behring.

But over the past 12 months, such taste has become an open secret. Old Seattle didn't give up its discreet knowledge. Instead, more than a dozen national upscale retailers invaded the city, intent on satisfying New Seattle's craving for affluent taste. Tiffany, Cartier, and Max Mara have set up shop at Pacific Place. W Hotels, a tastefully hip chain of "boutique" hotels catering to plugged-in twenty- and thirtysomething business travelers—the Pottery Barn of hotels—is scheduled to open its downtown Seattle location next month. A quartet of home specialty chains—Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware, Anthropologie, and Sundance—offer "lifestyle" furniture and housewares at University Village, creating a new niche of upscale home shop between the Ikea/Pier One level of affordability and the Miller-Pollard level of unsurpassed, and very expensive, quality. Perhaps nowhere is the change more apparent than in the northwest corner of U Village, where the old Ernst hardware and garden store has been replaced by a row of smart boutiques, including Abercrombie & Fitch (a.k.a. the fancy lad's Old Navy); Ann Taylor; the upscale kitchen retailer Williams-Sonoma; and Sephora, an exclusive perfumery whose only two other American outlets boast addresses in SoHo and Coconut Grove.

Like a late bloomer, Seattle has finally made it onto the national retail map. "National brands finally realized people don't wear mukluks and live under umbrellas out here," says J'Amy Owens, president of the Retail Group, a Seattle-based retail consulting firm.

Those who lured these shops to town explain that they're filling a void in the shopping life of the city. "Our market doesn't have, for instance, the density of home furnishings that other markets do," says University Village general manager Jennifer Severson. "We've got [the shops along] Western Avenue, but there's no Crate & Barrel, no ABC Carpet and Home, and only one Ethan Allen." Matt Griffin, managing partner of Pine Street Development (which created Pacific Place) and a co-owner of University Village, talks about the opportunity to purchase a Max Mara coat or a Tiffany bracelet as a right the city had for too long been denied. "It wasn't fair that Seattle people had to get on a plane and go to Chicago, San Francisco, or New York to go to those shops," says Griffin. "They deserve to have those shops in their backyard. They deserve to have those choices."

But they're doing something more than merely filling a void. They are, for better or worse, changing the culture of Seattle. A little of the city's humble character has vanished. It's not enough to buy a pretty necklace, a comfortable chair, a useful lamp anymore. Now you've got to buy with Taste, and these national stores are happy to make the choice easy for us. A year ago a husband might have actually shopped for an anniversary necklace; asked around and maybe gone to Turgeon Raine or Fox's downtown instead of visiting his friend in the business, Mr. Shane. This year he doesn't have to ask. Whatever he gets will be fine—as long as it arrives in the robin's-egg-blue Tiffany & Co. box. At Turgeon Raine or Fox's (which already had, those with the knowledge knew, a Tiffany boutique), the affluence was quiet and implicit. At Tiffany it's displayed like an orange safety vest.

GROUND ZERO: Saturday afternoon at Pottery Barn in University Village. Thirtysomething women in expensive white T-shirts turn wall-hung kilims and sisal rugs like pages in a giant's book. A young man wearing an Abercrombie & Fitch cap tinkers with a harbor lantern. A young couple in their twenties—he in Vans sneakers and standard-issue facial hair, she in Gap shorts and top—inquire at the desk about the $1699 Belvedere sofa. The young clerk comes alive.

"D'ya ever see Frasier?" he asks, bustling over to the floor model. Like most clerks in the store, he is completely jazzed about working here, despite having to wear one of those ridiculous wireless headsets.

"On their set?" he continues. "It's the exact same sofa, except another color. And I think they do something different with the pillows."

The couple hem and haw, but I'm sold. Not on the couch but the pitch itself, which strikes a note that perfectly captures the city's fever for all things tasteful, affluent, and house proud. Not only is the couch chic enough to draw Nielsen ratings, it draws them as an integral part of Frasier Crane's fantasy Seattle condominium. This is the same Frasier Crane who, saddled with downmarket ancestry, had to bootstrap his own sense of discernment to become the erudite, cultured gentleman we laugh at every Thursday. We're acutely aware of his struggle because he lives with his d飬ass頦ather, whose raw proclivities are displayed every episode in the form of his beloved and hideously ratty yellow-brown chair.

Frasier's struggle has become our own. Thanks to nine years of economic expansion, the late baby boomers and early Gen-Xers, who 10 years ago thought their chances of buying a first home were slipping away, are now buying their second or adding a master suite to the first. Since the beginning of 1995 the stock market has created more than $5 trillion in new wealth. Household net worth has risen about 50 percent since 1992. And we're spending the dough. Economist Lester Thurow now proclaims that Rule Number One for building wealth in the new economy is to not save money, and we're following it to a tee: In 1997 the nation's savings rate was 3.8 percent, the lowest in decades. We're moving on up. Jean Godden recently ran a snippet of conversation overheard in this same Pottery Barn. "You know I really like shopping at Pottery Barn. It's such a cool store," one woman said to a friend. To which the friend replied: "Well, you know the economy's good when people like us are looking at stores like this one."

IN HIS NEW BOOK Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess, Cornell University economics professor Robert Frank argues that the spending habits of the superrich set the pattern for the rest of us. In Seattle his thesis has proven to be uncannily accurate. Bill Gates and his vested legions aren't flashing diamond-encrusted Rolexes. They aren't wearing Louis Vuitton and Prada. Where's the one place we know Gates is putting his money? Into his house. It's a perfectly Seattle solution. We like our money spent sensibly—so it all goes into the house. Oh sober, practical us. The beneficiaries of this trend are contractors ("You won't find a contractor who isn't booked at least three months out," a friend in the business told me recently, "and if you do, you probably don't want to hire him"), high-end appliance dealers, and specialty home furnishing retailers.

One of the new retail carpetbaggers, Restoration Hardware, so perfectly captures this zeitgeist that some days I wander into its University Village store and—I swear to god—want to weep. For those unfamiliar with the store, understand that it has as much to do with hardware as the Seattle Supersonics have to do with supersonic jets. A $900 oak-and-leather chair sits next to a handsome Craftsman-style end table, upon which rests a $175 Arts and Crafts-era reproduction table lamp. Sprinkled among the pricey furniture and old-fashioned mops are bite-size pieces of nostalgia—kazoos, Moon Pies, a 1955-style Duncan yo-yo—and gee-whiz gadgets that stir the curiosity but always stay barely this side of tacky. Just as the overpriced vulgarity of the Sharper Image epitomized the mid-1980s, Restoration Hardware's fetishization of high-quality, tasteful, and useful items epitomizes the late 1990s. The store has been described as "Pottery Barn for boys," but it's more than merely a guy-friendly housewares boutique. There's enough class and cultural play going on in a single Restoration Hardware store to keep a postmodern theory class chattering for weeks.

Restoration has expanded so fast—from 11 stores in 1995 to 47 last year to 71 last month to 87 (about as many as Pottery Barn) by the end of the year—that it's hard to believe it's been around for 20 years. The store began as the frustration of Stephen Gordon, who in 1978 bought and began restoring a Queen Anne Victorian house in Eureka, California. After spending weeks tracking down authentic period hardware and lighting fixtures, Gordon realized there might be a market for others doing the same thing. Gordon built a small chain of Bay Area stores through the 1980s, then took the concept nationwide in the mid-'90s.

Gordon's genius lies in selling the sizzle as much as in picking out the prime cuts of steak. Just about every item in the store is accompanied by its own wall placard or stand-up card containing a 100-word essay, usually written by Gordon himself, expounding upon the product's history. The essays are perfectly pitched, neither too mundane nor too exotically J. Petermanesque. (That way, Peterman discovered earlier this year, lies Chapter 11.) The card accompanying a display of tea is typical: Marta, an RH buyer, was on her way to a conference in London when she tracked down these tins of Earl Grey and English Breakfast, made by Taylors of Harrogate. "This tea is so remarkable," Marta gushed to her colleagues, "that I must bring some home every time I hit London." Your own worldly affluence is implied in the setup. Marta is that friend you ask to bring back a small tin of tea from the shop you discovered on your last trip to London. Restoration Hardware is filled with such "acquaintances"; another found this exquisite dust mop "on a recent trip to Italy." Of course—I always borrow the maid's duster at our favorite pensione in Siena.

THE FORM REACHES perfection in the placard that accompanies a $1,395 black leather club chair. This is more or less the same plush smoker sold a few doors away, for more or less the same price, at Pottery Barn, Anthropologie, and Sundance. (Miller-Pollard's version will run you $2,400 and may outlive your grandchildren.) But at those stores the chair sits mute and anonymous, its name and price often hidden under the cushion. At Restoration Hardware it becomes the "Coco" chair. The name both flatters the cultural intelligence of Gordon's customer—if you need to be told "Chanel," you're in the wrong store—and bestows an aura of smoky French style upon the object. As if that weren't enough, Monsieur Gordon adds an American in Paris spin: "Ed was on his honeymoon (or maybe it was his pre-honeymoon . . . I can't remember which) with Lucy. Ed spotted a number of chairs that look remarkably similar to the Coco chair he later designed post-honeymoon. . . ."

It sounds cheesy but it works. After browsing through Restoration Hardware, stepping into another housewares store seems like wandering into a warehouse of naked products. The unstoried tables, chairs, and glassware suddenly seem so common, without provenance or letters of reference. Gordon has found a way to reproduce and mass-market the work that high-end furniture dealers have always done. At Seattle's better independent home stores—Keeg's, Eggbert's, Miller-Pollard, David Smith & Co.—the owners and buyers have better stories than Gordon. David Smith, a Seattle-based importer of Indonesian furniture whose business has increased fourfold in the last two years (Pottery Barn sometimes buys from him and then sells it to you), can tell you about tracking down that teak dining table last month in Java or stumbling upon those pieces of folk art in Bali—if you happen to catch him in his South Lake Union store. Trouble is, he's working in Bali and Java six months of the year. At Restoration Hardware, Stephen Gordon offers the simulacrum of that story in 71 stores at once.

This trade-off—losing authenticity for the sake of convenience—has become almost second nature to consumers in the late 1990s. We made it first at Borders and Barnes & Noble, where national chains simulated the independent bookstore experience and found that buyers were willing to overlook clueless clerks as long as the selection was good, the stores were open late, and they could hang out in overstuffed chairs. Now we're doing it at Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware, where you can pay $1,300 for a chair and have the sales clerk, whom you suspect was folding turtlenecks at the Gap a year earlier, tell you nothing more about the product than, "Yeah, I reeally like this chair." This is the quintessential Pottery Barn Nation moment: to lay down serious cash for a tasteful upmarket item and still have to fight off the feeling that you've purchased something about as unique as a pair of Old Navy cargo pants.

IT'S NOT ONLY that more middle-class consumers, finding themselves flush with cash, are strutting through the chichi shops at Pacific Place. They're also being met—wherever they shop—by a new wave of well-designed goods driven further down the retail food chain. What began as the mass marketing of refined white T-shirts and khakis at the Gap has spread into the hard-good departments of our lives.

Go anywhere. Go to Fred Meyer. A few months ago ago I went shopping for a dustbin to put beside the bathroom sink. No big deal. At Freddie's I stood before an island of functional plastic receptacles, a Rubbermaid roundup, in the midst of which sat a cool sky-blue number, totally unlike its neighbors, with soothing curves and egg-shaped handle cutouts. Looked like something out of the MoMA gift shop. I bought it. Turns out I was like the million-and-oneth customer to discover the "Garbo" wastebasket, a smash hit manufactured by Umbra, a Toronto-based housewares manufacturer. I called up the company and asked about it.

"When we came into the housewares business in the late 1970s, well-designed products were treated like museum pieces," Umbra's founder and president Les Mandelbaum told me on the phone from Toronto. "We took the approach that said, 'Hey, you can apply good design to all sorts of things.' It doesn't have to be a vase; you can apply it to a trash can or a drapery rod or a picture frame. And it doesn't have to be that much more expensive." As with the Garbo, Mandelbaum manufactures highly designed products and sells them to the masses, driving good taste and challenging design into downmarket outlets like Freddie's. And they're getting rich doing it.

Nobody has gotten more media play out of this downmarket drive than architect Michael Graves, whose signature line of toasters and tea kettles premiered earlier this year in 851 Target stores. But what's fascinating about Graves' Target venture is not how the revered architect is slumming with the polyester masses but how his products are so overdesigned, so straining to signify upscalitude that they actually become vulgar.

See for yourself. Drive out to Target in West Seattle. Walk the linoleum squares, smell the yellow popcorn, listen to mothers warn sullen young sons: "Don't start with me!" A few aisles north of the Britney Spears T-shirts and Star Wars slap bands you'll find the Michael Graves section, announced with a Pottery Barnish black-on-blonde-wood sign. There's Graves' signature toaster ($39.99), its cartoonish egg handle suggestive of Goofy fixing breakfast; there's his whimsically rounded can opener ($19.99), his mixer ($29.99), paper-towel holder ($14.99), and ice bucket ($29.99). It's all very . . . condescending. Target displays Graves' designs apart from all the other ice buckets and can openers, as if to lecture its customers: This, you uneducated clods, is good design. But the very fact that Graves' products announce their "designness" like barkers on the midway turns them cheap and tasteless. Good design and tasteful products can, in fact, be found at Target. They're just a few aisles away where, for instance, the sensuous chrome lines of the DeLonghi toaster can be had for that same $39.99.

AFTER WITNESSING THE Graves debacle at Target, I return to Restoration Hardware, where my eyes are opened to the most subtle layer of Stephen Gordon's game. His placards not only give Restoration's products a storied history, they lend the entire store the air of an art gallery. The drawer knobs are displayed against polished fir like works of conceptual art. A single white castor hangs mounted on the wall like a Duchamp readymade. A German-manufactured tape measure is touted as a "Metropolitan Museum award winner." (Of what? It doesn't matter.) It's as if Gordon has hidden an annex to MoMA's design collection in every store. There is exactly one dustpan for sale. It's $15, aluminum, and has exquisite scalloped sides and a beautifully curved handle. There's an old-fashioned corn broom. A can of Zippo lighter fluid. Trust your eye, Gordon tells his customers. Good design is all around you. Follow my lead.

I can handle the corn broom and dustpan, but the shop towels stop me cold. Wrapped like bright red napkins in a wire bucket are a couple dozen "Buffalo Shop Towels," priced at three bucks a five-pack. These are the same cheap rags stored in a bin near the cash register at Schuck's (for $1.99), but Stephen Gordon has lifted them into objets d'art. They are "what your mechanic probably employs for grubby grease and oil messes," the placard tells us, but Gordon's message is unmistakable: It's all about seeing the red. I see and am sold. I walk out of the store with a bag containing five red shop towels, feeling as though my education in good taste has just begun, and that my citizenship in Pottery Barn Nation has been confirmed.

 
comments powered by Disqus