Chicago — It started with figs, on a plate, stashed under a poolside table. The caption under the photo in the home design catalogue urged readers to “enjoy the comfort and ease of indoor entertaining with outdoor sectionals, pillows and accessories.”
But Molly Erdman saw something else. She saw a chance to poke fun at something, well … kinda ridiculous.
The actor/comedian sat down at her computer last June and wrote her own caption.
“Sweetheart,” it said, “the Turners will be here any minute now! Did you put the plate of figs under the table?”
And her blog, Catalog Living, was born.
Erdman didn’t necessarily set out to create a daily parody of the sometimes serious, overly put-together nature of photos from high-end home accessory catalogues. She got her start as a comedian with Chicago’s Second City and moved to Los Angeles three years ago to pursue an acting and writing career. You might recognize her as “the wife in the minivan” from a series of popular TV commercials for the Sonic restaurant chain.
One night, though, after she wrote the “fig” caption, she showed it to her boyfriend. He laughed.
Then she wrote more captions and her comedian friends thought those were funny, too.
She realized she was on to something — and as her blog entries multiplied, they started getting attention from Facebook fans and people in the design field.
“I’ve gotten a lot of emails from catalogue photographers and art directors,” she says. “They say, ‘We always think what we do is ridiculous.’
“No one seems to take responsibility for lining up 30 apples on a table.”
This is a reference to the pieces of fruit or other objects that show up in odd places in some of the catalogue photos. One of Erdman’s favourites showed a rowboat on a dock filled with pillows.
Her caption: “In her annual end-of-season ritual, Elaine sent the outdated summer cushions out to sea.”
This isn’t the only website like this. Another is called Unhappy Hipsters: It’s Lonely in the Modern World. The creator of that site prefers to remain anonymous, and thus, did not return emails requesting an interview.
That site has a slightly different — perhaps darker — feel, with captions focusing exclusively on photos from Dwell magazine. One photo, for instance, with a man looking into stacked storage containers was described like this on “Unhappy Hipsters”: “Someday he’d remember which pod contained his sister; until then, her piercing cries cut into his practice time.”
Another, with an older man in a modern home library near a table lined with stones, reads: “A steady diet of rocks and reading had almost reversed the aging curse.”
Earlier this year (before Erdman started her site), Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne called the Hipsters site “the most welcome addition to the often self-serious world of architecture and design in recent memory, not to mention a pocket of satirical warmth in the middle of a soggy, recessionary, earthquake-wracked, Martha Coakley winter.”
Could it be true that the recession has made people a bit cranky about high-end design?
Sure, it’s possible.
But Gayla Shannon, a designer in Fort Worth, Texas, thinks every trend also has a backlash. Maybe it’s no longer trendy to be trendy.
“The positive side of this phenomenon is that attractive, slick, well-designed products are affordable and much more available to everyone,” says Shannon, who’s also an assistant professor in the department of design, merchandising and textiles at Texas Christian University. “The downside is that living up to the designer lifestyle also creates a transient esthetic — the desire to have the latest mobile phone device, television, kitchen gadget, and discard the perfectly functional in favour of newness.
“Fashion conformity has become extremely attractive, and conformity is a great target for satire.”
So, yes, she thinks these sites are funny, too.
And so do a lot of other people.
Julie Roller, a Catalog Living fan in Wamego, Kansas, marvels at Erdman’s ability “to make us stop and re-evaluate something as simple as catalogues.” She checks the site every morning right after she reads the news online, and she likens the humour to the TV show “Seinfeld.”
“I just can’t get enough of Gary, Elaine and their wacky lives!” she says.
Gary and Elaine are the main fictional “characters” in Erdman’s blog. They’re probably in their 40s, she says. They seem to have no jobs, are very wealthy and have a “ridiculous 1,000-room house,” Erdman says.
“Gary’s sort of the bumbling fool, and Elaine has her hands on her hips, telling him what to do all the time.
“To me, they are the people who live in Pottery Barn,” she says, chuckling.
Gary and Elaine celebrate holidays, too. One recent Catalog Living entry has a photo of a tidy to-do list that includes “DECK THE HALLS” as one of the things to do.
Erdman’s tag line: “Oh, it’s not all holiday spirit. The Halls are our next door neighbours.”
She says she’ll keep doing the blog as long as she has ideas. There’s certainly enough material there.
“In my 15 years or so of being an actor and writer, I’ve done many things, and this was purely for fun — and it’s the thing that gets the most attention,” she says.
“It’s a good little life lesson: do what entertains you.
“I think people can tell that I enjoy doing it.”