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Builder Has Grand Design for Success

December 29, 1987|ELLIOT KING | Elliot King is a San Diego-based free-lance writer

About a year ago, Christopher S. McKellar, president of McKellar Development Corp., was building his dream house overlooking La Jolla Shores. He wanted it to be perfect, inside and out, with exactly the right wallpaper, floor covering and fabric to upholster the furniture.

But much to his frustration, he could not find the furnishings he wanted locally. Instead, he was forced to make 10 trips to Los Angeles to shop at the mammoth Pacific Design Center.

"That experience was excruciating," McKellar recalled. It convinced him that San Diego needed a design center of its own. So he decided to build one.

"San Diego is virtually an untapped market" for interior furnishings manufacturers, according to Leonard Lemlein, whom McKellar picked to head the project. Lemlein was leasing officer for the International Design Center in New York City.

Ground Broken

If McKellar and Lemlein have their way, San Diego will not be untapped much longer. Last month, McKellar Development broke ground for the San Diego Design Center, a $45-million development on 13 acres in Sorrento Mesa.

Scheduled to open in the fall of 1988, the four-story, 320,000-square-foot facility designed by Santa Monica architect Johannes von Tilburg will have the capacity to house about 100 showrooms for manufacturers serving the interior design, architectural and landscaping markets.

But whether the design center will be successful remains questionable. While nobody doubts the vibrancy of the commercial and residential building market in San Diego--the lifeblood of interior design--questions have been raised as to whether the San Diego interior design community can and will support a center of this magnitude.

"Somebody there didn't do their homework," said Marty Swenholt, executive director of Design Center South in Laguna Niguel, a potential competitor of the San Diego center and who believes McKellar's operation can't succeed.

Opinions Mixed

Local interior designers also have mixed opinions. While generally enthusiastic, they wonder if the San Diego Design Center will provide something not already available locally through the showrooms on Morena Boulevard known as the Canyon Creek Design Center or by traveling either to Design Center South or the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles.

"I don't feel under-served," said Robert J. Verbeckmoes, a local interior designer and former president of the local chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers. "Many of us feel a lot of loyalty to Canyon Creek," added Janine T. Brown, another designer and current president of the San Diego Chapter of ASID. "And I think the design center may suffer from poor timing. The design center in Orange County has just expanded and manufacturers may not want to spread themselves too thin."

Indeed, the San Diego Design Center (SDDC) simply may be too late to attract top-flight manufacturers.

"There is a question as to how many showrooms a manufacturer needs," said Robert Cadwallader, a Greenwich, Conn.-based furniture manufacturer and former president of Knollsource office furnishings, a major supplier to the commercial interior design market, and a member of SDDC's industry advisory board. "San Diego is going to have to do something major to put itself on the map."

With more than 60 design centers operating across the country, the map is getting crowded.

Despite the warnings, McKellar exudes confidence. "We have to be a success immediately," he conceded. "We can't grow into it. But we have the right management team to attract the right tenants to be a force right away."

Moreover, he insisted, "A design center is desperately needed and long overdue. San Diego is big enough and sophisticated enough not to have to shop in L.A. for everything."

First tenants of the San Diego Design Center agree.

"The San Diego design community has suffered greatly by not having a design center," said John Franzese, president of Office Furniture Specialists of San Diego and the first tenant to sign a lease with McKellar.

"They don't know how much they have suffered by having to go to L.A.," he said. "They haven't had things to show or expand their customers' horizons."

Like Shopping Malls

Design centers are like shopping malls used exclusively by interior designers and their customers. To shop at one, a person either needs to hold an interior design license or be accompanied by somebody who does.

The merchandise, ranging from furniture to floor coverings, is sold at wholesale prices to designers who then add a retail markup. Showrooms generally display furnishings targeted either for commercial and office sites, known as the contract market, or for homes.

"People want well-designed interiors as well as exteriors. A design center is an organizational strategy to put all the resources under one roof," said Miriam Furman, editor of The Designer, a trade magazine.

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