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Collections With Class

Retail: Responding to the wants of moneyed baby boomers, Hermes is moving into high-end furnishings.

September 24, 1997|KATHY BRYANT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Home furnishing buyers, like fashion consumers, are smitten with classy name brands. They not only want quality, they also want it from names they know. It's one thing to buy a dish; it's another to have it sanctioned by Ralph Lauren. Blame shelter magazines or coffee table books featuring rooms from around the world or the fact that the buying group is mainly aging baby boomers with money to spend.

A relative newcomer to this thriving market is Hermes, known for its sumptuous silk goods. Its two newest stores--a four-story, 17,000-square-foot, limestone-clad building that just opened on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and a smaller space in Costa Mesa's South Coast Plaza--are devoting valuable retail space to home design, or what the French call art de vivre and art de la table.

"Around 25% of the new store is devoted to home furnishings," said Francine Bardo, general manager of the Beverly Hills store. "Before we had a little vignette, but now we have so much more because interest is so keen."

Laurent Mommeja-Hermes, Hermes USA president, concurs. "Art de la table has been a success in Paris because of its staging. For the first time, we will be able to stage it here as well. You need sufficient space to show it properly."

Southern California and Paris are not totally distant cousins. Marion Davidson, Hermes director of marketing, explained that Beverly Hills was the first U.S. location for the company after World War II and noted, "California is also the gateway to the Pacific."

Home furnishings were launched at Hermes in the 1920s when clients asked for car blankets and ashtrays. In the 1950s, some silverware, leather and accessories like pencil holders and beach towels were added. In those days, products were created from customer requests.

But customers kept asking for more, so five years ago a creative director was hired in Paris to coordinate and expand the different designs in porcelain, fabric, silver, leather and furniture as special collections.

This is in keeping with information from Furniture Today Market Research that shows 28% of the $49-billion furniture market was sold in multi-market / specialty stores in 1995. And names and good design seem to be what consumers crave. That's why in today's strong home furnishings market, some chain stores with anonymous brands are in trouble.

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As for Hermes, it continues to expand with new collections, including Pippa furniture, designed by Rena Dumas. Dumas, principal of the Paris-based design firm Rena Dumas Architecture Interieur and wife of Hermes President Jean-Louis Dumas-Hermes, is the chief designer for Hermes' Pippa furniture, as well as other furniture that has been exhibited in museums throughout the world.

She is also the architect of both the South Coast Plaza store and the Beverly Hills one, with its light-filled central atrium an roof garden. "I believe in simplicity of expression," she said. "To me, furniture, as well as architecture, should express functionality and purity of line."

Dumas' furniture is sleek, contemporary but with some references to Hermes' tradition in the use of leather and stitching. It also is portable and folds easily. Crafted from pear wood and, often, hand-stitched leather, the furniture is elegant and understated. Perfect for a small room, the furniture is there on call. When you need it, you unfold it and use the desk, dressing table or chair.

Nothing is exactly what it seems. The tables are really pear wood trays on folding legs that can be used separately if needed; desks fold into small tables. Prices range from $1,695 to $5,100. Dumas' furniture has been described as having an 18th century spirit reflected in contemporary lines. Besides the furniture, Dumas also designs accessories in silver, like picture frames and candlesticks.

As the architect for the local Hermes stores, Dumas tried to combine that centuries-old spirit with the contemporary. She used natural Kansas limestone, cherrywood, teak, glass and brass to give a feeling of warmth. Colors tend toward nature: soft greens, blues, beiges. They are shades that change when the natural light hits them, alternately making them more intense or softer.

"In the stores I had to do four different architectures in one building"--departments for Hermes, John Lobb Bootmaker, Saint-Louis Crystal and Puiforcat Silver. "We didn't want a patchwork. Each had to have its own identity but with unity." And it was also by acquiring these other established companies that Hermes was able to expand quicker into the high-end home furnishing market.

"I think an object can be magic," Jean-Louis Dumas-Hermes says, explaining Hermes' philosophy. It is full of memories: the way you bought it, how you received it, who has used it. "In French we have the word 'nobiliaire,' which means to give nobility. That is what we try to do with our objects, give them a life and a nobility."

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