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House M.D.: Furniture and the Black Hole

March 24, 2010

Have you ever had that epiphany about furniture? One that comes at the most unlikely of times? That defines us without even trying? That tells us what the world thinks of us?

One that makes you remember that our industry is less about distribution and low prices and that we’re actually kind of like a guitar that gets played every day, a favorite knife that cuts an orange, a favorite leather club chair where coffee is sipped from a treasured mug and books are read, a sofa recliner where intimates share laughs?

The observation that comes up in the most unlikely of spots, but that you immediately recognize as a truism of our industry?

“That’s us!” you say.

Many furniture commercials look like low-fi sketch comedy pieces with a lot of finger wagging that tries to get you to keep your eye on the ball for 10 seconds, the “Hey, Hey, look at me!” ones.

This time, my epiphany came from the March 15 episode of the TV show “House.” At about three minutes into the show, the furniture talk begins. You can watch this exchange on Hulu.

I heard some of the best furniture catchphrases uttered from one of the best actors of our day, Hugh Laurie as Dr. Greg House. In this episode House’s friend Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard), who recently purchased an unfurnished condo, is chiding roommate House for eating cereal on the couch. House says he wouldn’t eat on the couch if Wilson bought a table.

Wilson says House can go buy a table. But House responds that if he did that, the condo would be a reflection of him and not Wilson, which wouldn’t be right.

Then House has an “aha” moment and begins to jab at Wilson.

House: “You’ve never furnished a home.”

Wilson: “I have furnished a bunch of homes.”

House: “No, you’ve married a bunch of women who furnished a bunch of homes.”

And a few seconds later:

House: “You’re afraid ”

Wilson: “Of a dining table? You know they don’t actually come to life when you put a knob off your bedpost on them.”

Then House raps off some lines that could define our industry: “You are what you sit in.” “Your friends, your job, your furnishings. It all defines you.” “Buy some furniture or admit that you’re empty inside.” (Cue introspective music)

My epiphany: Why don’t we ever challenge the consumer like that? Why don’t we get them out of their comfort zone?

I know that for a century we’ve threatened consumers with a one-trick-pony show of low, lower and lowest prices, and better and better financing - driving ourselves into a less profitable oblivion all the while blaming the consumer for so willingly taking the bait like catnip.

(That’s a verbal assault worthy of Ivan Saul Cutler, isn’t it?)

I once had an old leather chair with the arms worn off to the cloth and a body so well sat-in and cracked with slovenly comfort that it was like an appendage to my body. I’ve been there folks. It was probably better a representation of my state of mind, living and well-being than whether I could play music on a cell phone or work out with Jenny McCarthy with a Wii.

(I can’t wait till history judges our era, BTW.)

That chair was comfortable. Now, it’s gone. Where to go from there?

It’s why furniture matters. You have no idea how often I hear from folks that this industry isn’t fun anymore. Nobody ever tells me why it was so much fun in the first place? Where are you guys and gals?

Wilson dreads a visit to a furniture store like he might a root canal at the dentist. Because if the furniture represents his life and his home is empty, then he is empty.

House implies Wilson is incapable of figuring out this so-called simple task of choosing furniture.

Wilson rises to the challenge. First he rents a room full of furniture. But House knows it doesn’t reflect Wilson’s taste because it’s too perfect, and returns it.

Later, Wilson actually goes furniture shopping. It’s awkward. He talks to a sales associate at the store. He asks her to tell him about a table he chooses.

Sales associate: “It’s made of wood and you eat off it.”

Wilson: “You’re paid by commission?”

Sales associate: “It’s furniture. Find something you like, let me know, I’ll ring it up.”

At the end of the show, he ends up choosing an interior designer. It’s the easy way out, according to House - another woman who will define him.

Cue defeat for our noble consumer Wilson. You can’t help thinking there are layers of meaning in the episode’s title, “Black Hole.”

In case you’re wondering where all this is going, I want to apologize. I haven’t got any answers, just observations.

But it was, as usual, a great episode.