For most of my life, I’ve had a particular fancy for product catalogs.
From my toddler years through much of my early school years, rather than hire a babysitter, my parents would employ the delights of a battered, dog-eared catalog that I utterly adored. It was a wholesaler’s catalog of children’s novelty art supplies—stackable crayons, oversized pencils, barrels of animal-shaped erasers…everything in primary or neon colors and probably not very well laid-out, but I thought it was the best thing ever and would quietly pore over it for hours.
Ten years later or so, I discovered the fun of ordering catalogs from companies (mail addressed to Me!!) and making collages out of them to hang in my bedroom. And cards for friends. And art to slip into the see-through cover of my school binder. I’d cut out items, rip out solids and patterns to use as background layers, carefully snip out letters and witty copy, and always make a jolly good mess in doing so. I’d squirrel away all the best finds in an envelope filing system held together by a gigantic, tenacious paperclip. (For use in future projects, of course.)
This knack for destroying catalogs and cataloging catalog pieces stopped in high school (the last project I can recall is a book of collages and writing that I made for an English class), but my fondness for them has never gone away. You know how sometimes you walk by a recycling bin, maybe even at the office, and inside there’s the top half of a catalog peeking through that you’ve never seen before, and it looks possibly really nicely put together, but you’re not sure, so you just have to…
You get the point.
So about a week ago, as I was purging belongings and stuffing boxes for a move (and generally vowing to become more minimalist), the offer from a former colleague for “a few cool catalogs” was very conflicting.
Ok, not very conflicting. I hesitated about four seconds, eyeing the pile of packed-to-the-brim boxes, and figured she said they were only a few so I could surely make room.
She then brought me a whole GROCERY BAG of catalogs. (Double-bagged, because it was so heavy.) Turns out she had attended a paper convention and they gave her a whole pile of catalogs as samples, and she didn’t want any of them. I culled one or two that I don’t regret, and then curbed my cheapest lamp in order to make space for them. One human’s trash is another’s treasure.
You can bet your last direct mail piece that I’ll post on a few of these catalogs in upcoming weeks, as I unpack and find time to pore over them. But as my former colleague watched me rifle through the bag (me with evident joy, her with amusement at my joy), I wondered to myself, “What is it about catalogs that I love so much?”
Of course, there’s always the photography of new products in flattering light. But in the best catalogs, I love how the image and text combine to open a new world of possibility with every turn of the page.
I love how the copy is written to entice or to match the mood of the photograph (though perhaps occasionally that process is reversed).
I love how the scenes are staged to look not staged.
I love the tiny type describing each item and price…I love to see the layers of typographic nuance condensed in a space barely larger than a fingerprint.
I love to be surprised by interesting display typefaces or eye-catching ways of showcasing otherwise boring items, like towel racks.
I love to see how a scene or a series of items is organized in easy-to-navigate ways, at times like a map or an infographic (which it is, though we don’t typically think of them as such).
I love to see how, over the years I’ve followed catalogs, more diversity in body types, ethnicity, and implied relationships has been shown.
Oh, and yes, of course, the feel of the paper and smell of the ink. The freedom to clip and rip them. The ease of keeping them around long after their seasons have passed to enjoy or maybe even entertain a small child for years. Could an online catalog ever offer so much?