Catalog cornucopia

Ann Egerton

December 17, 1992|By Ann Egerton

A RECENT newspaper article said people are doing thei Christmas shopping late this year, so catalog retailers will come up short. If my situation is typical, they're going to be mightily disappointed.

To date, I've received 104 catalogs, not counting duplicates, and have placed orders for less than $400. That works out to about $4 per catalog. I doubt that my orders justify the cost of design, artwork, prose, printing and postage in the 10 3/4 -inch pile I've accumulated.

Maybe catalogs are expensive relics of the buy-it-now '80s. But they keep coming.

The wares range from clothing to household bibelots to toys for children and adults to an orgiastic array of foodstuffs. It's comforting to know that amid the moon shoes and electronic address and phone number organizers, one can still buy nesting blocks and Chinese checkers. It's only slightly jarring to see that Swiss army knives now come in pink. It's also a relief to see that Neiman Marcus, pushing vintage motorcycles (from $28,000), Sioux-style tepees and politically incorrect sable coats, makes no apologies.

Nor does NM apologize for such artery-jamming foods as brie, caviar and a cake called "chocolate decadence." If you've got it, flaunt it, and you only go around once, N-M purrs with every lavish page.

Judging from what's in, people are trying to escape the here and now in clothing, household decor and jewelry. Even Sharper Image, which focuses on 21st-century playthings, is pushing a '50s-looking chrome and aqua radio.

And as we become more urban and suburban, the country look is still popular, especially in decor. We're dressed like cowboys and Indians (well, ersatz ones), eating catfish, tortillas and chili and surrounding ourselves with patterns from the Southwest.

Wild and domestic animals are everywhere, from dinner plates to underwear. One catalog suggests library steps for serious bibliophiles and gout stools, even if you don't have Little Lord Fauntleroy's uncle's metabolic problems.

The most locked-into-the-past catalog is from J. Peterman Co. Mr. Peterman himself introduces his wares. "This new catalogue [note old-fashioned spelling] is to keep me, and you, remembering," he says.

Many of us will be invited to remember things we never knew, but that's all right. There is a wistful white European male quality to this catalog. You can order Rex Harrison's library chair ("a very meticulous replica of his circa 1811 Georgian original") and Connaught bed linen ("white only, and no distracting pattern except for chaste open spokework at the hems") and blue and white imported Chinese porcelain. ("Blue and white heals. It uplifts and tranquilizes.")

And it's microwave safe.

Perhaps Peterman's most intriguing objets for sale are a limited number of museum-quality antique Chinese ceramics, spanning a period from 206 to 1832 A.D. They range in price from $295 to $4,500, a real deal compared to the cost of a sable coat.

And they're perfect gifts for today's uncertain times: pieces of the past with no guilt attached.

Ann Egerton writes from Baltimore.

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