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High design with mass appeal

Style isn't only for the rich. With big names wooing a public obsessed with decor, form and affordability can finally unite.

November 10, 2005|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

MOVE over, Martha. Everywhere you turn, another celebrity home designer has joined forces with a budget-minded retailer to offer well-designed, affordable furniture and accessories.

Nate Berkus at Linens 'n Things, Chris Madden at JCPenney, Ty Pennington at Sears and Thomas O'Brien -- who went from furnishing Giorgio Armani's Manhattan digs to Target stores everywhere -- are wooing shoppers weaned on hours of TV home decorating shows and dozens of home magazines.

For millions of these newly sophisticated but cash-challenged consumers, interior design has become a favorite form of self-expression. In catering to their needs, retailers are reshaping the low-price end of the $75-billion home furnishing industry, turning it from cheap to chic.

For the fall, accessorize the house in blue and brown with $7 cup and saucer sets or $4.99 placemats from Jonathan Adler Happy Home. Want to update the family room? A snappy ottoman by Todd Oldham for La-Z-Boy can be had for $119.

Want a metro or retro nightstand, or a simply shabby hutch? It's all out there, ready to assemble, in varying degrees of quality, at prices most can afford. Items as varied as wastebaskets and night lights to sofas and dining tables have been re-imagined for aesthetes indulging in the new art form of do-it-yourself decor.

Attempts to bring good design to the masses are not new. From Europe's Bauhaus in the 1920s and '30s through America's Charles and Ray Eames -- whose iconic 1940s wood and plastic chair designs are still produced -- there have always been designers, and sometimes retailers, eager to unite function and form with affordability. It hasn't always worked.

In the 1980s, England's Terence Conran briefly sold good design at moderate prices in New York, but didn't succeed. IKEA opened its first U.S. store in 1985, and struck it rich with well-designed flat-packed furniture at good prices.

Ellen Lupton, curator of contemporary design at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, traces today's trend to the '90s, which she calls "Martha Stewart's decade -- the time when our country's taste in design totally changed." "Martha showed people how to think design at the highest level. She redefined what home life should look like: open and light and natural and soft and clean." Today, Lupton says, do-it-yourself fine design is less elitist and easier than ever -- a result of the high-style injection Stewart initiated, and then carried into Kmart -- and now carried forward by others. It's benefited all concerned -- especially the designers who license their names and designs for big bucks, and retailers who can't seem to keep their wares in stock.

Lupton says: "Target played a huge part in all this; they are very experimental and brave in their design and merchandising strategy."

The chain made architect Michael Graves a household housewares name, expanded fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi's reach into home decor, and is now out to make O'Brien the latest home decor maven for the masses, with its current blitz of TV commercials.

The current trend toward affordable design is made possible by improved technology and reduced offshore production costs, which have helped drive prices down. Fully assembled furniture made in Asia today is 20% to 40% lower priced than when it was produced domestically five years ago, according to Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group. "A sectional couch that was $2,000 then might be $1,450 now. A table that was $4,000 might be $2,500 today."

In a consumer world of bountiful goods of more or less equal functionality, a well-designed item stands out.

Karim Rashid recalls that when he knocked on dozens of U.S. corporate doors in the early 1990s, no one bought his theories about the power of good design -- or his designs -- until 1996. That's when he created a curvy translucent plastic wastebasket called the Garbo, for the Canadian firm Umbra.

Seven million Garbo baskets have been sold since then. And a million of Rashid's Oh chairs, designed a few years later, have been sold by the same firm.

The chairs are swoops of polypropylene plastic with cutouts. They sell for about $40, although Rashid originally hoped they'd be priced at $25.

"I wanted to design a better plastic chair -- affordable, environmentally friendly, comfortable and stackable. I wanted good design to be accessible," he says. "But it's hard to make democratic, smart, high-quality, intelligent products inexpensively. Not unless that's the real intent of everybody involved: the store, the designer, the culture."

Rashid is now working on a collection that includes upholstered furniture -- sofas and chairs, all less than $800 for a big-box chain.

"The availability to offer quality goods at great prices" has given Chris Madden, (who designs for JCPenney), a new perspective. She says the emphasis of designers when she began in the business 20 years ago was "totally on the high-end stuff.... Some of my designer friends said they wouldn't touch a room for under $50,000."

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