Handcraft and the politics of marketing

Pottery Barn Farmhouse Table

The other day I stumbled upon an add for a desk on craigslist that had been copied verbatim from the original Pottery Barn add. Unbelievingly, I found the item at PotteryBarn (no longer available, but here) to ensure that the marketing copy was indeed real. Even though we are exposed by the same sort of dishonest marketing every day as Americans, the description for this item for some reason really got under my skin. Are we really as a society so uneducated as consumers that we fall for this stuff? Judging by the success of stores like PotteryBarn, I’d guess the answer is “yes”. For that reason, I’d like to point out what bothers me about the copy, line-by-line. The original copy is in bold text, and my comments are in italics;

With its timeless sensibility, our Farmhouse Desk & Hutch is at once beautiful and practical.

  • Expertly crafted with solid wood turned legs. (Why this is a feature worth pointing out is beyond me. I guess these days, if any portion of a a piece of furniture is actually made of real wood it is worth highlighting, as it’s so rare. By the way, the type of wood is never specified, most likely because it is made of a low quality species- a hunch substantiated by the heavy stains used on their furniture
  • Optional hutch (sold separately) features slots to keep smaller items organized. (Wow! Real slots!)
  • Our exclusive finishes are applied by hand for exceptional richness, durability and depth of color. (I’m certain that the phrase “applied by hand” means applied by spray gun in a factory by a technician staining hundreds of pieces at once).
  • Rigorously tested to meet or exceed the highest industry safety standards. (This means that the desk does not have sharp corners, lead paint, protruding nails, etc. This is NOT a mark of quality, rather it highlights the fact that without these standards, companies like this would happily injure or poison our children if it meant they could make another buck.  By the way, any product sold in large quantities in the USA has to meet these standards, so why this a “feature” is beyond me)
  • Masterfully crafted with triangle corner blocking for structural integrity. (Seriously; masterly crafted? Corner blocking is a small piece of wood added behind the table aprons to solidify the joint where the legs meet the table. The need for triangle corner joints hints at the fact that the joinery in this spot is sub-standard. A properly executed mortise and tenon joint would have no need for triangle corner blocking. What is so “masterly” about that?)
  • Built from solid wood, wood veneers and MDF, an engineered wood that lends exceptional strength and ensures that the desk and hutch will endure over time. (Oh. My. God. These people have no shame at all. MDF is basically sawdust that is held together with glue. It is hands down the lowest quality and cheapest way to build a piece of furniture. It is not a strong substance, and will NOT endure over time. Screws placed in MDF will pull out and MDF will sag when any substantial weight is applied. MDF’s one advantage is that is does not expand and contract with seasonal weather changes, so it is an ideal substrate for veneer. Modern veneers, by the way, are about 1/32 an inch thick or less. They scratch easy, and once a scratch penetrates the veneer thickness into the MDF, it can not be easily repaired. Forget about ever refinishing an item with modern veneer. The act of sanding will quickly wear through the veneer and expose the underlying MDF).
  • All wood is kiln dried for added strength and lasting beauty. (Wow; kiln dried! Most furniture these days is made from kiln dried wood. Kiln drying, by the way, adds no strength or durability to wood compared to the same species that has been air-dried. In fact, air-dried wood has many advantages – kiln drying can often lead to stress cracks inside a piece of lumber).
  • Drawers feature English dovetail joinery and smooth glides. (I’ve no beef with dovetails. However, I have no idea what an “english” dovetail is. More marketing schlock).
  • The use of veneers results in high-quality furniture with flawless surfaces and consistent color tones. (Here is a tip; if you see a piece of modern production furniture for sale with veneers; run, don’t walk away from it. It’s crap. Antique pieces often used veneers, but the veneers were much thicker and would stand up to abuse over time. Custom pieces built with veneers usually use shop-made veneers, which will be cut the same way as those used on antique pieces).

While researching this blog post, I stumbled upon an excellent article written for Smart Money magazine called Pottery Barn Unstuffed. The author took several pieces of furniture from stores like Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware and Crate and Barrel, and tore them apart with a team of craftsmen to investigate how they were made and from what. It’s an eye-opening read. It seems these stores used to sell low quality furniture for low prices -a reasonable proposition in my mind. However, the stores have changed their marketing ploys to appeal to a wealthier demographic and have increased their prices without increasing the quality of their furniture. Now you can spend $6000 on crap at these stores and be none the wiser (until the piece falls apart that is). It’s all about marketing these days, and as I’ve shown above, the marketing is full of lies and other deceptions.

So, surprise, surprise; marketers think most consumers are idiots (perhaps they are right).  But what do handcrafts have to do with politics? A recent article in the New York Times regarding the decline of craftsmanship in the USA (here) sheds some light on the issue. I won’t summarize, other than to say that the decline of manufacturing in America was a trend encouraged by both political parties (who are after all equally beholden to their wealthy overlords).

I found another excellent read about the value of having real handmade items in our homes by a blogger and furniture maker named German Roy (here). It offers a bit of respite from all the negativity swirling around my brain after writing all that stuff above.

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