A Home Goods Empire Rises Again

Posted September 19, 2018 6:08 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — On the second Saturday in September, the new RH Gallery opened its doors to the Meatpacking District, looking just as you’d expect: a glowering, 90,000-square-foot landscape of poured concrete flecked with bronze, stone and glass, through which sails a flotilla of enormous gray velvet and white linen sofas. This shopper became entangled in the downy raft of a massive sectional called Cloud, and struggled to right herself. Alongside her, a pair of tween siblings were curled over their devices; when they lurched up and wandered away, sales associates darted in to fluff the pillows. Along the charcoal-colored walls, armies of classical statuary and framed plaster intaglios offered a whiff of the Grand Tour. (“Intaglios can flex modern and classic at the same time,” noted a design associate.)

Welcome to the latest iteration of what began as Restoration Hardware, a chain of home goods that in recent years has become best-known less for dependable fixtures than its cumbersome catalog mailings, once reaching 17 pounds.

But here were faux-shagreen consoles, chest-high urns stuffed with bright green moss and geodes glowing on the black bamboo tables, as if the Perseids had just whooshed through. Glassy conference rooms — more intaglios, more moss — were equipped with heavy black curtains, for those desiring to shop in private, with separate entrances to admit celebrities.

It was ostentatious, insistent and overwhelming. It was kind of familiar, too, the site of Keith McNally’s old Pastis restaurant, where sex workers once roamed the streets.

This is RH’s 85th store, and its biggest. It is architecturally quite lovely, the low-slung, hundred-year-old brick building erupting into a tough, industrial-looking glass and steel three-story structure with a rooftop garden and restaurant designed by Jim Gillam of Backen, Gillam & Kroeger, the St. Helena, California, firm that has designed 21 such emporiums. It opened the same week the parent company of Henri Bendel announced the closing of all its stores, marking both another death spasm of a certain kind of retail experience, and the unlikely success of a brand that has placed the same Belgian linen sofas, French caned beds and reproduction African objects in houses across the country.

Department stores like Bendel, with its Street of Shops, and Bloomingdale’s, with its themed extravaganzas, used to offer wares as an Indian bazaar does: a sensory overload of artisanal objects, along with pieces by upcoming designers. It’s clear that Gary Friedman, RH’s chairman, chief executive and brand avatar, is influenced by that model. But a closer match is the empire Ralph Lauren built, where stylists scout thrift stores and old magazines and produce simulacra of alternate worlds.

To make the business scalable, the worldview is pretty narrow.

“Remember in the ‘90s when everyone started saying they wanted to live in a hotel?” said Stephen Drucker, the longtime lifestyle editor. “Gary was the first person to put that idea into a brand. What if you could live in an Aman in Thailand all the time? The downside is that nobody can stomp a good idea like RH,” Drucker continued, invoking RH’s infamous catalogs. “You love it on Page 1, but you’re sick to death of it by Page 784.”

Michael Cox and Felipe Bastos, both interior designers, were also inspecting the Clouds that Saturday. Bastos liked the fact that the sofas looked like unmade beds. “They invite you to sit down again,” he said. Bastos was shopping, as was this reporter, against the advice of an opinionated friend who insisted that “white was the color of fear.” What did Cox think?

“It’s a Freudian thing,” he said with a grin. “It has to do with retention, and holding your breath.”

A Rags-to-Riches Story The designers responsible for the RH empire may be suffering from what Scottish artist David Batchelor describes as “chromophobia.” (Friedman would counter that neutrals are 80 percent of the furniture business.) In his book of the same name, from 2000, Batchelor warned of a creeping colorlessness in high-end interiors. “Strategic emptiness,” he wrote, was a Western problem — and a sign of intellectual sloth — that telegraphed a fear of the other. (Like Melville’s discourse on the whiteness of the whale, it’s worth a read.) Batchelor would likely be appalled by a visit to an RH Gallery.

In any case, Cox, a principal at the design firm Foley & Cox who in his youth was design director of furniture at Polo/Ralph Lauren, had other concerns besides the 50 shades of gray and white palette in the store. He was impressed by the designer collaborations — Fortuny chandeliers and tables by Wyeth — and yet, he said later, he was reminded of Garanimals, the ‘70s-era children’s clothing line you could mix and match. “It’s for someone who doesn’t feel confident putting together an interior on their own,” he said, “and so the pieces are simplified so that it’s almost impossible to go wrong. In some ways it’s related to the dumbing down of so much of life: an instant-pudding interior so you don’t have to think about what you want or define your personality.”

But social science has shown that humans can handle only so much choice. Recall the famous jam study that demonstrated how consumers confronted by too many options of the same thing tend to not buy anything at all.

The new RH store was seven years in the making. It opened with a flashy party that had caviar bars and dewy-faced models, Martha Stewart and Ryan Seacrest; and Friedman, now 61, said it brought tears to his eyes.

“I was a stock boy at the Gap,” he said, speaking from London, where he hopes to open more Galleries. “I got booted out of junior college. I thought being a store manager was the best it was going to get. I thought rich people had color TVs.”

Friedman’s origin story is worth knowing. His father died when he was 5, and he was raised by his mother in a one-bedroom apartment in Sonoma, California. She was schizophrenic and unable to work by the time he was 15. He carried a D-average at community college and supported himself and his mother by working at the Gap. There, he was spotted by Millard “Mickey” Drexler, the veteran retailer who was then remaking the Gap into a multibillion dollar company. Drexler promoted Friedman to store manager, and he then worked his way up to become the youngest regional manager there. After the Gap, Friedman was hired by Williams Sonoma, where he took over Pottery Barn, among other brands, and turned its tabletop business into a billion-dollar home furnishings company. He spent 14 years at Williams Sonoma, then left when he wasn’t chosen to be its CEO and took over a company that was careering toward bankruptcy.

Restoration Hardware opened in 1979 as a source for old house restorers but by the late ‘90s had been reimagined as a quirky housewares store, selling objects with nostalgic narratives — Italian fans and Stickley furniture, garden gnomes and office-style pencil sharpers, e.g. — to baby boomers pining for their lost youth. By 2001, it was floundering. When Friedman took it over, he shook out the gnomes and the pencil sharpeners and the board games and brought in supersize versions of stuff that was reminiscent of the work of designers like Axel Vervoordt or Christian Liaigre. There was a steam-punk period, where every object was made from riveted aluminum, and a deconstructed period, when he sold shredded French balloon chairs. It was easy to parody. It was also appealing to a new shopping cohort, men like Friedman, who wore bluejeans and T-shirts with their blazers and maybe a silver bracelet, and wanted interiors to match.

In August 2012, the year the company went public and rebranded itself as RH, Friedman, who was then divorced, stepped down as chief executive because he was having a relationship with a 26-year-old employee, a not uncommon practice for the time. Today, such a scenario might have played out quite differently. In its first day of trading, after Friedman rang the opening bell on the New York Stock Exchange, shares of the company rose 30 percent. Less than a year later, he was reinstated as CEO. It was in 2012, too, that Emeco, the maker of the aluminum Navy chair since the 1940s, sued Restoration Hardware for reproducing it without permission (the suit was settled out of court). RH is certainly not the only company to make ersatz versions of design classics, and many would argue that the practice benefits a consumer who has a taste for something more interesting than he can find at Room & Board but is unable to spend thousands of dollars on a leather-and-steel lounge chair by Mies van der Rohe, or does not have the time to find something truly vintage. But it’s a practice that still rankles many in the design community. Others, like Drucker, will tell you that there isn’t a house they’ve lived in or worked on in the last decade that doesn’t have at least one piece from the company.

“He identified a customer who appreciates good design and doesn’t have the budget to go to an interior designer and spend $15,000 on a couch,” said Warren Shoulberg, who covers the retail and trade furniture business, of Friedman. “More importantly, he’s created a physical environment that nobody else is doing in the home business that takes people off their computers and into a store where they buy more stuff.”

Never Say Narwhal

RH’s revenues soared, post-IPO, and dipped again two years ago. But then a few things happened: The company consolidated its back-end operations and introduced a membership model, like Amazon Prime or Costco: $100 a year for 25 percent off all sales. Those customers, 405,000 to date, are now driving 95 percent of revenue. Additionally, RH has morphed into a hospitality business, with profitable restaurants and even a food, wine, art and design compound, to use RH parlance, in the Napa Valley. Next year, its first hotel, the RH Guesthouse, is planned to open on Gansevoort Street. Last year, in a collision of lifestyle brands that surely tore some corner of the universe, an RH team designed the new Goop headquarters in Santa Monica.

RH projects sales of nearly $2.5 billion for 2018, up about a billion from 2013. According to Furniture Today, a trade publication that ranks furniture and mattress companies by revenue each year, RH was No. 6 in 2017, up from 13 five years ago. (Ashley HomeStore, a midpriced home store that also sells mattresses, was No. 1, with over $4 billion in sales. Ikea, No. 3.)

“I like to say that retail has a shelf life, but Gary is only in his third or fourth inning,” Drexler, who now runs his own venture capital firm, said of his former pupil. “It’s guaranteed that every fashion business will hit a wall, and frankly Gary has hit a number of walls, and he bounces back.”

Lately, RH’s appropriation efforts have gone into reproducing decorative items like spiral narwhal tusks, Congolese brass ankle bracelets and carved Ethiopian bowls. There are even a few originals to fit your inner Peter Beard, like antique fisherman’s paddles from Indonesia. The reproductions are quite good, but tablescaping your home with such very particular objects that nonetheless have been scaled for a company with sales in the billions does present a challenge, taste-wise. How many bachelor pads can or should sport the same narwhal tusk, set of framed intaglios and cluster of geodes?

On Saturday, Judith Bodnar, a semiretired internist from outside Albany, was trying out the Italia slope-arm sofa in white linen for a pied-à-terre she’s bought in Virginia Beach to be near her grandchildren. (“I don’t want to be Nana in the back bedroom,” she said.) Would she be buying the spiky purple geode in front of her, too? She would not, because it turns out she already has a few. Bodnar and her late husband were adventurous travelers, she said, and avid collectors. In addition to geodes, they amassed fossils of trilobites, ferns and fishes, as well as an authentic poison blow gun from the Amazon that includes a piranha jaw to sharpen the darts.

“All I need is a sofa my girlfriends can sleep on,” she said.