December 18, 2018, 14:45

An Artist’s Searing Parody of Restoration Hardware Highlights the Racial Implications of Luxury Design |

An Artist’s Searing Parody of Restoration Hardware Highlights the Racial Implications of Luxury Design |

The kind of tone-deaf élitism—and implicit racism—with which today’s
on-trend décor, clothing, and gadgetry are conceived and marketed is not
lost on millennials. Parodies of hyper-refined brands like Kinfolk and
self-conscious neighborhoods like the twenty-tens Lower East
Side—home to forty-year-old skateboarders who own their apartments, and
heavily curated post-hipster restaurants like Dimes and Mission
Chinese—proliferate online. Blond wood and ruthless minimalism are the
mark of these newer, younger brands. But in her new exhibition,
“Reparation Hardware,” at the Larrie gallery through March 11th, the
artist Ilana Harris-Babou takes aim instead at the meticulously rugged
aesthetic of Restoration Hardware, and at how the desire to return a
worn-down or devalued thing to its greater glory rests on a troubling
legacy of disenfranchisement.

A video, displayed through the gallery’s front window, stands alone as a
kind of induction to Harris-Babou’s concept. The video is a parody of
Restoration Hardware’s “The Salvaged Wood Collection
video,” featured on the
brand’s YouTube channel. In one scene in that video, set in a run-down
but perfectly sunlit barn, Timothy Oulton, an English furniture
designer, touches old wood and reflects in an earnest yet authoritative
voice-over, “Salvaged timber is inherently better because the wood
carries the march or passage of time.” Oulton, whose products are sold
at Restoration Hardware, began his career working in his father’s
antique business. His statement is the kind of banal branding exercise
that’s easily mocked and rarely analyzed. But Harris-Babou exhorts her
viewers to see that the process of restoring old wood—discarded
materials found for free in the country, refurbished, then sold for
thousands of dollars in retail stores—tells a story of labor, value, and
inheritance that is at the center of society’s most enduring injustices.

In the post-Civil War period, for instance, the formerly enslaved were
allowed just forty acres and a mule, not as reparation but as a
disingenuous homestead starter pack—salvaged timber for restorers
without the family business. The “Reparation Hardware” video uses
Restoration Hardware’s audiovisual lexicon of solemn aerial drone
footage and a light, bland score to set off the source material’s tone
of patronizing sincerity before gradually, and happily, going off key.
Harris-Babou draws abstract, inelegant sketches and then awkwardly
crumples them up, runs her hand dangerously close to a protruding nail,
and focusses way too intently on an unimpressive piece of bark in a
closeup manual-camera shot. In a spoken narration, she juxtaposes the
acts of reparation and restoration in mischievous but searing terms:
“When designing this line, I asked myself, how could these newly free
individuals make a space for themselves that was both free from
discrimination, tasteful, and refined?” At one point, she takes a
ceramic hammer and unsuccessfully tries to dislodge an old nail from a
piece of wood. Near the end of the video, we see the fruits of her
labor: more hand-fashioned hammers and scavenged bark glued to brushes,
poked with nails, and fed lopsidedly through globs of clay named Garvey,
Gates, Lincoln, Newton, Sherman, Sumner, Bethune, Stevens, and Coates.

Harris-Babou’s exhibition space is carefully decorated with various
ceramics: lamps line a table she constructed from discarded wood;
hammers and other trinkets rest delicately on unsanded shelves; and
hooks hang on walls painted a soft, inoffensive nude. A second video,
“The Red Sourcebook,” sits in a stark-white back room. In it,
Harris-Babou takes one of the notoriously massive Restoration Hardware
catalogues and uses a red Sharpie to draw thick, deep lines onto its
pages—a literal take on the practice of redlining, or withholding
financing, including insurance, loans, and mortgages, on a
discriminatory basis. The video is silent, but subtitled with what could
be mistaken for magazine clippings. In fact, they are interspersed lines
of text from two sources: an introductory essay to the catalogue by
Restoration Hardware’s C.E.O., and text from a section of the 1936
Federal Housing Administration underwriting manual. The words “natural
or artificial barriers protect a neighborhood from adverse influences”
sit comfortably alongside “once the character of a neighborhood is
established, you can’t induce a higher social class than those already
in the neighborhood.”

The “Reparation Hardware” exhibition, which opened on Super Bowl Sunday, highlights how absurd, but also how easy, and how seductive, it is to
align social justice with consumerism. It also exposes the viewer’s own
complicity in conflating the two. The inherently aspirational spaces of
luxury consumerism are all too familiar to black Americans who have been
systematically denied inheritance yet still seek out the hottest new
sneakers, or the perfect linen pants for summer, or the highest-rated
noise-cancelling headphones, or a Danish teak dining table. Harris-Babou
seems to challenge the notion that wealth or buying power in and of
itself is a form of reparation. It’s an idea that Jay-Z put forth in his
most recent album, “4:44,” in songs like “The Story of O. J.” and “Family
Feud,” and one that his friend and foil Kanye West has spent his entire
career troubling over. West, who has spent huge swaths of time at his
own concerts calling out brands such as Nike and Zara and designers such
as Hedi Slimane, is acutely aware of how design can offer a false
promise of renewal or redemption. “Reparation Hardware” is not simply a
parody, skit, or sketch that literalizes the issue of reparations to
make a point about capitalism. It seeks to highlight a major dilemma of
the black American existence—that we have in fact made something of
nothing in a society that perpetually would like to reduce us to mere
objects—as a failure of the American dream.


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