Deconstructing a Home Decor Catalog Shoot

Getting a new, glossy decorating catalog in the mail is such fun.  I love looking through the pages, but I admit that I rarely buy what they are selling.  Why?  Firstly, it seems like everything is always way too expensive for my cheap taste.  Secondly, I know they are trying to trick us into thinking whatever we buy is going to look just as good as it does in the catalog.

Trick us?  Yep, that’s right.  The catalog photographers use lighting, extra props, and backdrops to set the scene.  Just as fashion magazines airbrush their models to give you the illusion of perfection, home decor catalogs do whatever they can to suck you into buying their goods.

Don’t believe me?  Well, let’s deconstruct a photo from a recent Crate and Barrel catalog that arrived in my mailbox.  I was really drawn to this photo of their Regatta Lounge Set.

What they are selling here is $4800 worth of patio furniture (and I’m not even exaggerating the price).  I love this photo, but it’s not the furniture I love.  I am drawn to this because of the feeling it conveys.

So, let’s start taking away some things and see when we stop loving it.  The first thing I’m going to remove via my super awesome photoshop skills (ha!) is the gorgeous background that overlooks the ocean.  Obviously, the vast majority of us don’t have this view from our back patio.

Okay, that’s not really that large of a change.  Now, let’s take away the lanterns that are placed in the foreground of the shot.  You may have one or two lanterns on your patio, but you certainly don’t have them spread all over the floor.

And I’ll take away the backgammon board, because I’d assume you don’t have one of those just laying around on your patio, either.

Let’s now take away the tray of decorations and the beautiful cocktails from the coffee table.  Maybe I should have left the glasses since you would probably have those on the table if you were throwing a party, but they wouldn’t be there every day so I took them out.

Now, let’s take away the rug.  You might have a rug under you set, but I would guess it wouldn’t be the nearly $400 rug that’s pictured here.

Okay, now it’s getting really interesting!  What if we removed the other table top accessories and bucket of iced beverages?

A ha!  Now it’s looking more like something I’d actually have in my backyard.  And honestly, I really am not loving it all that much anymore.  Let’s remove the pillows, though, since just those four would cost about $130.

And just because I thought it would be more realistic, I went ahead and removed the beautiful wooden decking.  If you are lucky enough to have a deck in your backyard, it’s probably stained closer to the color of the above chairs.  If you are like me, you just have a slab of boring concrete.

Woah.  Here’s what they are really trying to sell you – the $4800 patio set.  It looks a lot different without all of the extras and the beautiful scenery, doesn’t it?

I show you this not to discourage you from falling in love with a catalog and magazine photo.  I love taking that sort of inspiration and tweaking it to fit my reality.  If I had the above set, I’d add a few accessories, but it would still look nothing like the original photo.  I show you this to help you see through the styling tricks and encourage you to see what they are really selling.

Just for giggles, I put together an animation of all the layers being stripped from the original photo.  I found it really interesting!

What do you think about all of this?  Have you ever been drawn to a feeling conveyed in a catalog photograph and then been let down when you saw the actual item that was being sold?


Filed Under: Decorate Your Home

About Lindsay Ballard

Lindsay Ballard is a former college mascot turned political geek turned DIY fanatic who is conspiring to live in a Technicolor dream world. Her designs are bold and graphic, while her spirit is fun and full of color. Lindsay chronicles her projects and design ideas here at Makely, where she shares daily tutorials and inspiration. Lindsay lives outside of Austin, Texas with her husband (Tom), children (Zack and Emma) and dogs (Jack and Duke).


  1. I’ve never seen anything like that…so cool! Thanks!

  2. Jessica says:

    This is great! And my major gripe with these glossy catalogs. I get CB2 and they have a knack of taking 4 of something (like a wall hanging) and making it look like one piece. Then you look at the description and it says “4 shown” and then proceed to gag that one costs $200. I did buy my dining room light from there, where, surprise, surprise, there were 2 hung in the magazine instead of 1. I did realize it, and it looks great with just 1. I use them as inspiration since my budget doesn’t allow for a full glossy catalog room. They are just great for inspiration though!

  3. GREAT post, Linds.

    Yes, I get drawn into the images all to often and the emotion they convey without realizing how the items will actually look in MY space!

  4. Vicki J says:

    Great post! Shopping is an emotional event and we really have to remember to put those emotions aside and look at the product with a more critical eye.

  5. Wow, great idea. Shows how we can be swept away by an item and then disappointed when our house does not feel like the magazine or catalog. One of my pet peeves is magazine photos that show fabulous lamps in the center of a room with no way of getting electrical power to them. Do the editors remove the extension cords that surely must be used to power them? Just saying…

  6. Thanks, this is actually a really inspiring way to shop since I have the same Photoshop skills :) I think I’ll try this trick next time I’m looking at a piece of furniture in a catalog! Turns out it was the rug that made that look great to me. The pillows complete it, but luckily throw pillows are an easy look to recreate at a cheaper cost through some savvy shopping or sewing.

  7. My mom says this. All. The. Time.
    We go shopping, and she notes how something is cute, but without everything else to go with it… it just won’t look the same when she gets it home.
    And she is right.

    This is a really interesting post.
    The visuals were very strong in supporting the point you were making.
    Especially the last one, where you saw the layers slowly being pulled away.
    It’s great to be smart about what you are actually buying.

    Usually, we are all working to do the opposite, by creating the mood and layering IN all the texture and interest =)

  8. Great post. Take everything away and it is just furniture. Catalogues are a great inspiration though and encourages me to use what I have, and clean and tidy everything. Sometimes a photo, from just the right angle, cutting out the pile of unfolded laundry, looks just as good as any magazine and makes me appreciate the home I have.

  9. cottageinthesun says:

    I agree – I always find that what I really want is everything that’s Not for sale!!

  10. This is so cool! I am one of those fall-in-love with decor pictures. This was very helpful.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Amanda Rose

  11. You are so right. But that’s the point. To evoke a mood, imagine yourself in that lifestyle & create want. The best advertising doesn’t sell you soda, it makes you thirsty.

  12. You are so right about this. My perspective is from the other end though. I know how much work and time it takes to prop that single shot to convey that “buy me” feeling.

  13. This is one of the most encouraging things I’ve ever seen on a decorating website – and it certainly explains why I’m never quite content with my own nice home after I look at those magazines. I’d love to see more examples with your photoshop skills!

  14. All.The.Time! I am so drawn to all the details (clutter) and design elements that I can not see what the piece looks like until I have it home and unwrapped. Being a designer, I am blessed with a bit of a decorator’s eye and can usually make any piece work in my environment. Doesn’t make me covet the gorg knick knacks at @300 a pop any less. Ah, such is life.

  15. This is brilliant Lindsay. Thank you for deconstructing the scene for us and helping us realize what we are pulled towards in the pictures.

  16. Thank you so much for this! I think it’s difficult for individuals who don’t have exposure to marketing (either via coursework or practical experience) to understand exactly how much effort and profit is tied to marketing towards emotions. The naive extension is that people are gladly willing to part with money in exchange for goods and services that make them happy. The dark side to emotional marketing as some commenters articulated, is that it preys on underlying insecurities and even mere ambivalence to encourage dissatisfaction/unhappiness. Scary stuff!

  17. I like to think I’m not an emotional shopper. I have the advantage of working at my family’s upholstery shop, so I get to see only one or two pieces (say a sofa & chair) before they are put into the landscape of a well designed room – some I love, some I don’t – watching the transformations is fun though. Because of this I’ve learned what styles I do like and normally when I flip through a catalog or magazine, I’ll pinpoint a lamp I love on that end table, or the little arrangement they made on the fireplace – I don’t look at the image as a whole……ususally. If I see something I like, I clip it and put it in my room folders and then I put the room together based on several clippings. When I go to the thrift store where there is a plethora of decor items to choose from, I have in mind what I already like and want in my house so I can bypass most of the “junk” that wouldn’t fit in my house and I don’t buy it just because it’s $1 or $2 and I might paint it someday.

  18. judy in carefree says:

    I love the catalogs and especially all the extras. I have good iron porch furniture that I had someone duplicate for half the price from a Pottery Barn catalog almost 17 years ago and last year I realized it was getting rusty and the pillows were trashed. I looked into buying a new set, but after looking at the prices had put the idea on hold until I saw a chance blurb in our local paper about a company that does powder coating. They came out and quoted me a price of about $400 for the three pieces plus a table and four chairs. The price included pick-up and delivery. I couldn’t be happier with the results. I found an online source for custom cushions and after looking at many choices and catalogs for fabric, I ordered and couldn’t be happier with the results even though the entire project cost me about $1700. The price was certainly better than buying new and I now have two groups of furniture that look like new. That is where the glossy catalogs have come in handy. After looking at many, I have added wonderful accessories that I already have by just repainting and regrouping. So far, the only thing I have purchased are three outdoor battery powered candles. I love the inspiration the catalogs provide.

  19. Angelia says:

    Thank you so much for doing this. I know I have been guilty of buying the mood and not the furniture.

  20. Great post! I love those glossy catalogs but I use them as inspiration like a diving board for me to jump into decorating my space with thrift store finds.

  21. I will never look at another catalog the same way! Thanks!

  22. What a brilliant idea! Cutting through the power of marketing! :) BTW–I love the new look of your blog! :)

  23. Much like the lanterns strewn all over the deck, I’ve always been frustrated with the impractical and/or unrealistic ways that rooms are dressed for catalogs and even some blogs.

    Especially with a rambunctious just-turned 6 yr old son, our decor style has had to be radically rethought since nearly anything beneath the imaginary horizontal line that runs about 4′ off the floor throughout our house is fair game to inquisitive little fingers!

  24. What a great post! I like to pride myself on not getting sucked into these catalogs. Same thing with model homes. I’m house shopping with my sister and always ask to see the model that real people will be buying without all the window dressing (literally window dressing!). When I get a catalog, I go through and pick out the details and accessories to see what I can copy. Honestly, I haven’t had an original idea in my life!

    Robin Flies South

  25. So true Lindsay!! The furniture isn’t even that nice just by itself. Great post!