Past? Perfect!

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If you've ever strolled through the Hamptons in New York, or Pacific Heights in San Francisco, you know what it means to experience longing. Peering through parted curtains, you glimpse tables and chairs and lamps, couches, bowls of flowers, maybe the edge of a bed frame on the second floor, or the rim of a bathtub. And although you have items that go by the same names in your own home, what you now see appears entirely different. The couch looks like something on which Katherine Hepburn might have reclined; the bathtub is the old-fashioned kind, with clawed feet and porcelain handles. It's a teasing reminder of the illusive good life, which always exists just behind someone else's window.

If you've strolled across 22nd Street between 5th Avenue and Broadway in Manhattan recently, you've known the same feeling. Except it's worse, or better, depending on how you look at it, because through the windows of Restoration Hardware's six-month-old flagship store floats the same promise of a more beautiful life. But in this case, it's actually for sale.

Restoration Hardware is the Corte Madera, California-based chain that is melting the hearts of affluent baby boomers with its somewhat odd but totally appealing mix of Mission-style furniture, nostalgic knickknacks, obscure hardware, and old-fashioned cleaning products. Founded by Stephen Gordon 19 years ago as a specialty shop for antique fittings and fixtures, the company's performance in the last few years has given new meaning to the word skyrocket. In 1998 it went public; saw its net sales increase by 113.9 percent, to about $200 million; launched a catalog business that has already quadrupled its circulation; and added 24 stores to its stable of 41.

In other words, things are going well for Restoration Hardware. Besides benefiting from generally favorable economic conditions-high per-capita income, low unemployment, strong consumer confidence-the company is in a category that has seriously out-paced total consumer spending over the last ten years, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Spending on home furnishings increased about 50 percent from 1988 to 1998, compared with overall personal consumption expenditures, which increased about 29 percent. The change has been propelled recently by low mortgage rates and record-high home ownership and led by the ever-powerful boomers, who are expected to represent 30 percent of the population next year, and who are finally settling down in earnest.

But here's the thing: we already have Pottery Barn, Pier 1, Crate & Barrel, Home Depot, and Cost Plus. Couldn't these retailers handle the home-furnishing needs and fix-it-up fantasies of nesting boomers? Restoration Hardware's astronomical success smacks of something more. What exactly has the company tapped into?

Restoration Hardware's core customers are 35 to 55, educated, and earn more than $75,000 a year: a group that is increasingly fixated on the idea of a traditional home life. In fact, 80 percent of boomers say they'd like to see a return to "more traditional standards" in family life, according to a 1998 Yankelovich Partners survey, a marked increase from the 56 percent who said so in 1977.

"Boomers are a bit scared of the way things have turned out," says J. Walker Smith, a managing partner at Yankelovich. "There's been a negative fallout to their legacy that they don't feel comfortable with, so we're seeing a return to an interest in stability."

The irony, of course, is this is the very group that did its best to smash traditions and to promote alternative lifestyles 30 years ago. They're the last people who should be oohing and aahing over reproductions based on their parents' and grandparents' homes. But apparently free love was not all it was cracked up to be, nor was the maniacal pursuit of wealth we saw in the 1980s. And what better way to stave off disillusionment and disappointment than to latch on to a time before everything went wrong?

"When you marketed to boomers' parents, you looked forward," Smith says, "but now the future looks uncertain-it's not even clear we're going to get through January 1, 2000, without some disaster-so people are more comfortable looking back. To make boomers feel warm inside, you need that nostalgia appeal."

Restoration Hardware is unabashedly nostalgic. But wander around one of their stores and you begin to realize it's a strange kind of nostalgia that's being promoted. It's totally amorphous. The focus isn't on any particular time period, but rather on the past in general. The store sells a type of furniture wax inspired by a formula dating back to the 1700s, turn-of-the-century lamps, and schoolroom clocks from the 1950s. Also, the store is no stickler for authenticity. Furniture is designed to suit modern shoppers accustomed to modern conveniences. As Jon Berry, editorial director of Roper Starch Worldwide, puts it: "They forge out interesting, old-fashioned designs, and make them so they don't carry the baggage of actually old stuff."

This is important, Berry says, because it reflects boomers' mixed feelings about the present and the future. They aren't pessimistic so much as unsure, nervous, Berry says, in contrast to their parents, who were blatantly optimistic. The same people who are running out of Restoration Hardware with Arts and Crafts-style lamps under their arms also have cell phones tucked in their coat pockets and lap tops hanging from their shoulders. They want to wallow in nostalgia for an idealized past while still enjoying the advances of the late 20th century.

The stores themselves, which serve as the company's main form of advertising, are crucial to creating this aura. (In 1998, the company spent $2.3 mil lion on advertising, according to Competitive Media Reporting, the vast majority of which went to newspaper ads.) The new Manhattan store is divided into "rooms": you enter into a "foyer," wander through a "courtyard," and then amble through the "kitchen," "study," "bathroom," and "bedroom." It's like exploring the nooks and crannies of that Victorian home you've always longed for. Except it's very well-lit and very clean.

Kellie Krug, director of marketing for the chain, says the store is arranged this way not only to feel like "your home" but to give shoppers "inspiration," which plays right into another major theme among boomers: the need for advice. One in three have done major projects on their houses in the past two years, and 51 percent expect to do so in the next two years, according to a Roper Starch study, but they don't know exactly what or how. Restoration Hardware's stores are designed specifically to answer those questions.

Unfortunately for boomers, their renewed interest in traditional family life coincides with a growing decline in the existence of such a thing. The number of married-couple households with kids under 18 will decline from 24.7 million in 1999 to 23.1 million in 2010, a decrease of 6.9 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The number of single-parent households with children under 18, on the other hand, is expected to increase, from 8.3 million in 1999 to 9 million in 2010, up 8.4 percent. But perhaps this contradiction actually helps to illuminate rather than obscure the appeal of a store like Restoration Hardware. As the reality of traditional family life recedes into the past, its iconography is becoming increasingly important. Boomers may not be destined to live out their years in two-parent, two-kid harmony, but by God, their homes will be furnished as if they are.

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