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Modern for the masses

July 11, 2009|David A. Keeps

Aging baby boomers are feathering their empty nests with bent plywood chairs from Design Within Reach and bubble lamps fondly remembered from childhood. Their own offspring, who likely set up their first apartments with IKEA sofas and tables, are now shopping for kids' furniture inspired by midcentury design.

It doesn't seem premature to say it: For some consumers, modern is quickly becoming the new traditional. And a host of fairly new urban brands -- Williams-Sonoma's West Elm and Crate & Barrel's CB2, as well as the lesser-known Danish firm BoConcept and Canada's EQ3 -- is proliferating, setting up shop with the hope that modern-for-the-masses will prove to be a classic decorating style.

Even as large furniture stores like Levitz and Wickes go under, these new manufacturer-retailers hope to become the Ethan Allens of modern design by stocking Barcelona-style loungers instead of roll-arm wing chairs. While none of them has the reach of an Ethan Allen, which boasts 300 design centers, several of them have more than doubled the number of U.S outlets in the last five years or less.

At a bit less than 100 years old, modern design is no longer a shocking departure from the norm. It exists as an established style alongside the antique designs that define traditional taste. Evoking the future with high-tech materials and manufacturing processes, streamlined modern designs are a now-familiar alternative to ornate period pieces.

Deploying an easy-to-identify vocabulary of shapes and colors, stores like CB2 and West Elm intend to cash in on the enduring eye candy of midcentury modernism that is so pervasive in popular culture. In Los Angeles, a center for design collectors, open-plan architecture fans and a burgeoning community of loft dwellers, the concept is gaining traction.

It has already proved successful for the 7-year-old West Elm brand, which offers a younger, cheaper, more streamlined design alternative to its more staid and costly predecessor, Williams-Sonoma's Pottery Barn. Begun as a catalog and online endeavor, West Elm launched its first retail store in Brooklyn in 2004. Since then, it has fast-tracked 39 stores in North America and become the fastest-growing division of Williams-Sonoma. (By comparison, Swedish giant IKEA, which first hit the States in 1985, has 37 U.S. stores. BoConcept and Design Within Reach have more than doubled in size in the last five years or so, with 25 and 69 U.S. stores, respectively. CB2, primarily an online model, has opened six U.S. stores.)

At its Santa Monica location, West Elm's classic items include daybeds with Asian-influenced fretwork frames for $929 and pared down Parsons-style lacquered side tables for $159.

"Simple, functional furniture is here to stay," said Dave DeMattei, group president of West Elm, which pursues a "warm and comfy" modernism with organic textures and ethnic materials.

On a recent visit there, Ryan Pureza, a physician from Redondo Beach, was sizing up window treatments, armed with measurements and instructions from his wife. "She did all the research and said this is the place to come for the best price on the style we are looking for," he said. The Dwell magazine devotee describes that style in one word: "Modern."

Advertising accounts supervisor Kelly Gehrlein had two on-sale pillows under one arm as she browsed the store with her dog Ben. Also a fan of CB2, which she describes as "more modern, space-saving and Venice loft-y," Gehrlein shops West Elm for "a splash of modern" in her 1920s Spanish residence. "Right now I am looking at price first, but I like the style -- clean-lined and colorful with a mixture of modern and woodsy," she said.

"In this economy, the demand has changed greatly, and the combination of good design and good value is more relevant than ever," DeMattei said. IKEA, which set the standard for design-to-go supermarkets, expects that its influence and market share will grow during this recession.

"IKEA starts with a price first, and we continue to work on lowering them even more," said Mats Nilsson, U.S. creative director of home furnishings. "Our popular Poang chair for about $79.99 was over $100 several years ago."

The company's worldwide network of stores and its resources for materials and manufacturing enable it to make a profit, even at reduced prices, through large volume production and sales.

Cost is also a factor in design decisions for CB2, said president Marta-Maria Calle. "We always look at a product and say, 'How much is it going to cost?' We walk away from things that don't meet the retail price we have in mind," she said.

Cost-consciousness affects where products are made and what materials are used. Though the company sells some solid-wood furniture, many pieces -- such as the $499 Halogen credenza -- are made with less expensive medium-density fiberboard covered in veneers or boldly colored high-gloss paints. Metal, plastic and woven fibers are also used to ensure affordability.

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