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Too late to slam barn door on this decor trend

March 04, 2007|By Mary Umberger

How the heck did "Pottery Barn" get to be a real estate term?
Once, it was merely the name of a very successful furniture retailer and mail-order catalog. Now, it seems, it's also a real estate descriptive, right up there with "dollhouse" or "fixer-upper." Search for the phrase in the real-estate listings of, say,, and you'll likely find more than a dozen Chicago-area properties for sale that purport to have "Pottery Barn decor" or "Pottery Barn flair" or are "Pottery Barn cute."
I take it this is supposed to be a good thing. Not that I have anything against Pottery Barn, but I'm curious about how it entered the real estate lexicon, and I'm downright puzzled as to how it sells houses--after all, once the deal closes, most of that "Pottery Barn decor" is destined to end up in a moving van.
Doesn't matter, says Leigh Oshirak, a spokesman for the San Francisco-based furniture company, who says that the name telegraphs a certain kind of good taste with a segment of the population.
Oshirak says the Pottery Barn brand took off six or seven years ago after it became part of the plot line in episodes of the "Friends" and "Seinfeld" television series, pushing it right into the consciousness of that young adult demographic sponsors find indescribably desirable.
"That was when Pottery Barn came to the forefront of popular culture," Oshirak said. "After that, it became a positive [attribute] in a real estate ad."
But, aside from sporting truckloads of candlesticks (and very little pottery, come to think of it), what is it, exactly?
"It's a very well-appointed, warm, comfortable home," she said. "It's the way the home is finished. The way we depict it, you can immediately look at the [catalog] page and see how the family lives in that space."
Uh-huh. I'm not sure Ms. Oshirak has looked too closely at some of the real estate ads that flaunt her company's name. The other day, I squinted at one such ad and failed to make the connection, as the house's only discernible comparison to a Pottery Barn catalog layout seemed to be that drapery panels dangled from the window frames and there was a sofa to sit on.
I wondered whether the owners were trying to sell the house just to get away from the furniture.
Oshirak, though, is magnanimous and diplomatic and says her company doesn't mind being on a lot of people's lips. "[Pottery Barn's name] is, perhaps, aspirational," she said. She means that even if you don't quite achieve "the look," at least you're trying.
"It's always flattering when someone uses your brand with a positive connotation," she said. "That the Pottery Barn look is something that helps market your home, well, that's a good thing."
Brand recognition, of course, is a good thing, and it plays out on a broader scale than even Oshirak might imagine.
Mary Cook is a Chicago interior designer--correction, she is a "real estate merchandiser" whose stock in trade is outfitting model homes for major builders so a "target buyer" falls in love with a given home.

Builders with a vague notion of that idealized buyer come to Cook and evoke the Pottery Barn name, which has evolved into a form of real estate marketing shorthand, she says.
"In our office, we would say, `OK, they want a Pottery Barn look," says Cook, whose staff, hearing that, knows just what to do.
But it isn't just about Pottery Barn, she says. "The builders [routinely ask for] three looks--Pottery Barn, Ralph Lauren and `classic contemporary.'
"Ralph has more layers, more texture, more saturated colors," Cook says, reeling off the characteristics the way a doctor recites symptoms. "You're combining wood tones and natural textures, like sisal, with rich colors and carved wood.
"`Classic contemporary' is something just outside of Pottery Barn," she says--it has cleaner lines and definitely looks more modern.
It's popular, she says "but the two slam-dunks are Pottery Barn and Ralph Lauren."
All this analysis might sound as if I've strayed from the realm of real estate and into design, but the truth is, they've become intertwined. When you're selling a home, the two morph into the selling of a lifestyle fantasy--albeit a fantasy that may have been meticulously scripted for its mass-market appeal.
I, for instance, thought I was just about the most clever girl in America about a year ago when I painted my living room a deep caramel color. Original? Hah! I can't flick on one of those interior-design TV shows without seeing a painter slathering that same hue on somebody else's walls to pimp the house for a buyer.
Here I was, thinking I was making my home into some kind of unique haven, when I was really merely approximating the slam-dunk. I flip open the aforementioned furnishings catalog, and there it is, my favorite brown color, adorning the walls in various room vignettes.