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Rob Forbes' ruthless vision

The man who put minimalism within reach of the masses takes it to extremes in his country home.

March 23, 2006|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

Glen Ellen, Calif. — ROB FORBES stands in his large dining room, a room best described by what isn't there. No table, no artwork, no window treatments, nothing to clutter the space or block the 180-degree view of his swimming pool or his rural property. Almost lost against a fluorescent-white wall is a midcentury rosewood desk designed by Osvaldo Borsani. A black floor lamp and a plywood chair are next to it.

"There's not a lot in here and I may keep it that way," says the founder of Design Within Reach, a company that innovated how America buys and decorates with modern design.

Forbes, 54, spends his workdays surrounded by classic pieces by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Isamu Noguchi and George Nelson, yet when he breaks away from his San Francisco headquarters and his Russian Hill flat to spend a dozen days a month at his house in the Sonoma wine country, he leaves most of it behind.

Curiously, Forbes is in business to furnish homes, but he seems in no hurry to finish his own. "I haven't figured it all out yet," explains the bachelor, who hasn't hired a decorator for the house he purchased two years ago. "This will be a nice additive process."

The scant pieces in his dining room and throughout his home reflect a fine-tuned consistency -- a passion for elegance, simplicity and purposefulness -- as well as a degree of privacy. While profiles of his city digs have played in magazines and newspapers, he relishes the seclusion of his country home.

IN the family room, music pours out of a pale yellow radio and turntable with a Swiss-cheese facade that was designed by Achille Castiglioni in the 1960s. It should come as no surprise that Forbes favors the music of the '50s and '60s: John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck and Gerry Mulligan. Nearby is an orange recliner by Borsani from the 1950s and a faded green Spanish Fase floor lamp, probably from the 1970s.

In the kitchen that opens to the dining and family room, Forbes is serving espresso in blue pedestal cups he found in Barcelona and joking that the images of reclining and prancing figures on the cups are "quasi erotic."

"The truth is that I really enjoy the search about as much as anything, finding unusual pieces, learning the stories behind them. They become the centerpieces in the house and I will fill in around them," Forbes says.

He found most of his holdings at flea markets and antique stores in Europe. Just a few items are new, including a rug and a bed frame, which are sold by his company. "The reason I have many midcentury pieces here is that they have a similar design integrity as the house," says Forbes of the one-story built in 1962. "They do not look old or nostalgic. Many pieces like the Borsani recliner are still in production. They have a built-in optimism, that good design lasts and does not need to be replaced."

Forbes' modern aesthetic at home and work is perhaps best summed up by a quote by California architect William Wurster that is printed on the walls of Design Within Reach showrooms: "Over and over again I would reiterate that modern is a point of view, not a style."

Indeed, the easygoing Forbes -- who grew up in Pasadena and Laguna Beach and was a surfer, potter and art teacher before turning to the retail trade at Williams-Sonoma and then Smith & Hawken -- does not pretend to be an arbiter of style. "Who the hell cares what I think? My deal is 'figure it out yourself.' It's about the process of developing your own point of view."

To help, the former teacher writes a weekly newsletter that is e-mailed to 400,000 subscribers. Design Notes is friendly, but not fawning. Like the midcentury designs he collects and sells through his company, his words are spare and without frills. Even the company's name has been clipped to DWR.

To research his newsletter, this self-described "cultural anthropologist" (he's actually a Stanford MBA with a degree in aesthetic studies from UC Santa Cruz) looks for examples of good design -- a well-proportioned building -- and bad -- a single-level parking structure -- while strolling city streets.

"Someone called me a 'design missionary.' I see myself more like a design streetwalker," says Forbes. "I take 5,000 photographs a year while walking the streets and looking for evidence of design. I'm fascinated by composition. I look for extraordinary details in ordinary objects. I'm really a student of design, trying to see and learn more for myself everyday."

And he's not shy about proselytizing. In his conversations, his newsletters, even on the price placards in his stores, he's a teacher who uses stories to interest others in design. Recliners, desks, sofas and lamps are not just objects but creations, and Forbes believes that the people who made them should be acknowledged.

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