THERE is a breed of stealth catalog that slips into the house camouflaged against Restoration Hardware or Pottery Barn. Close examination reveals that the slick, full-color pages do not feature $1,299 beds and $1,599 dining tables, but something decidedly of the Target-Home Depot vein.
Simply Indoors does that. It might be Page 14 or 18 of the Spring 2007 edition before a browser is stopped short. ("Is that not a duvet but a bedspread?") Only then might one reexamine the cover and find the half-inch-high Sears logo.
The catalog represents the stylish side of Sears, such as it is. Simply Indoors is still in beta, but plans are for it to be mailed in fall and spring and to feature the latest additions to the retailer's home line. Sears, though, is where America typically turns for a new washing machine, not a buffet with built-in wine rack. So Simply Indoors and its companion Simply Outdoors (which started in 2005) have some considerable brand shifting to do. But who can blame Sears — which sent out its first mailorder catalog in 1893 — for trying to stay in the game?
Simply Indoors is playing with heart, even though its second installment is an awkward adolescent of a catalog, one that doesn't seem to know from page to page what its own style is. The pages of Ty Pennington Style bedding might be at home in an IKEA showroom — masculine blues and browns are photographed in front of factory-style windows. But turn the page and you're in Laura Ashley land, complete with matching floral curtains. Pages later, it's cars and camouflage sheets for kids.
The Ty Pennington Style products — named for the carpenter-fashion model turned "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" TV host — represent Sears' modernist outreach. In descriptions, Pennington emerges as an unpredictable decorator sidekick — the one who would put lime green and chocolate brown together — and the text writers don't seem to know what to do with him. "Leave it to Ty to set the tone and the table with a contemporary elegance all his own," one dinnerware heading says. "An intriguing balance between light and dark wood," reads another description, apparently unconvinced of the furniture's appeal.
Pennington has shied away from the living room, where Simply Indoors returns to its mid-American realism roots. In one photo featuring a leather club chair, the armoire door is ajar, an old TV remote is on the side table and, for some reason, a throw pillow has been tossed on the floor.
Overall, something about the styling is just a bit off. Would anyone who hung three little paintings of sailboats on one wall really choose a Googie metal sunburst sculpture for the adjacent wall? The mise-en-scène throughout features a lot of bright wainscoting and paneling, as if the subtlety of the Queen Anne chair might be lost against wallpaper. A photo of a black and tan Oriental carpet has two green ceramic vases — each about a foot tall — simply sitting on the rug. For what? Scale?
The vases are apparently for sale, because they reappear in a living room tableaux with a sofa-loveseat set with wood arms, for that futon-frame look. "A little retro, a lot of style," the copy block boasts. But it's as if they don't expect to actually sell the sofa, because the three other upholstery colors can be seen only at sears.com — and only about 10 pixels' worth there. That's not enough to order a sofa with confidence, even if it's only $499.99.
Bargains have been the domain of Sears since the 1890s, when one of its first catalogs declared it the "Cheapest Supply House on Earth." The company kept America's westward migrants in buggies and books, shoes and saws — and even kit homes. The general merchandise catalog grew into a twice-a-year "big book" that surely strained the backs of postal workers around the country.
Sears retired the "big book" in 1993, and now does its direct sales through a set of specialty catalogs, including Land's End, Craftsman Power and Hand Tools, Room for Kids and the Simply Indoors/Outdoors duo.
Simply Indoors has a few surprises — or, maybe, things that look surprisingly familiar. The square, blue-glazed dinnerware (Pennington again) looks straight out of Crate & Barrel. The Asian-inspired Nigoshi table on the cover might pass for a West Elm piece. (Nigoshi? Is that supposed to evoke Noguchi?) The curvy wrought-iron dining set with matching baker's rack is more like Ballard Designs. And a hip collection of Damaskdesigned dinnerware would fit right in amid all the sconces and crushed velvet upholstery of Brocade Home. Flipping pages induces catalog whiplash.
The final pages, however, remain grounded in the utilitarian legacy of Sears: high-end vacuum cleaners, microwaves, stainless steel kitchen appliances. And, of course, on the back cover, the Kenmore Elite HE5t washing machine.