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Designer home décor, retailers mix it up

Retailers are collaborating with rising-star and established home-décor designers for special collections they sell in their stores under the designers' names in hopes of drawing consumers to the name as much as the housewares.

April 22, 2011
  • Bernard Brucha of Mash Studios designed a dresser for CB2 and is featured on its blog.
Bernard Brucha of Mash Studios designed a dresser for CB2 and is featured… (Just Ries, Just Ries )

As one of the many vendors who sell designs to CB2, the affordable modern offshoot of Crate & Barrel, Bernard Brucha was used to working anonymously. Last year, one phone call changed all that.

"They asked if they could use my name and likeness on the website," said Brucha, founder of the Venice, Calif., furniture firm Mash Studios, who now appears in a designer profile on the CB2 blog.


FOR THE RECORD:
Designer decor: An April 23 article in the Home section about mass-market stores marketing special designer collections said that West Elm does not have in-house designers to create any of its furnishings. West Elm does employ an in-house design team. —

Brucha is not the first American designer to be promoted as a rising star by a retailer. Nor will he likely be the last. A quick flip through catalogs and visits to stores over the last few months has revealed a growing trend: In a recession-rocked economy, home décor manufacturers are using established brands and building home-grown designer-name franchises to entice increasingly savvy customers and hoist up the bottom line.

"As manufacturers swallow each other up, design becomes the differentiator," said Grant Kirkpatrick of KAA Design, an architecture interior and landscape design firm that recently launched the Rusa outdoor furniture collection for Design Within Reach.

"Corporate America used to think beauty was frivolous," he added, "but the great revolution has been that design sells because people want beauty in their lives."

And home décor manufacturers, which, contrary to popular belief, are staffed by product developers and buyers but rarely maintain in-house design departments, are happy to oblige. In addition to Brucha's Mash Studios, CB2 offers goods by some two dozen young designers and artists. Williams-Sonoma's West Elm hypes its ongoing collaboration with event designer David Stark and 24 others in the "We Love" page on its website. On a more upscale note, Garnet Hill has exclusive bed and bath linens by fashion designer Eileen Fisher. And Ballard Designs recently paired with Atlanta interior decorator Suzanne Kasler, a designer for Hickory Chair furniture and Safavieh rugs.

"Working with Ballard Designs has been a way for me to share my design aesthetic and bring some of my ideas to products that are affordable," says Kasler, who is known for high-end interiors.

"Connecting with a designer is a great way to inject a fresh perspective to your assortment in an increasingly noisy and crowded marketplace," said Ryan McKelvey, president of Ballard, which launched more than 100 Suzanne Kasler items last August. It was the first such collaboration in the company's 27-year history and is showcased in 37 million catalogs mailed out each year.

This marketing approach is certainly not without precedent. Ikea and Design Within Reach have built reputations by cashing in on designer currency, often providing headshots and biographies of creators on catalogs, websites and in-store displays.

In the 1990s, Target pioneered the idea of designer exclusives, teaming with architect Michael Graves to produce modernist housewares, and the chain continues to partner with of-the-moment international designers such as Philippe Starck, Tord Boontje and Marcel Wanders for limited-run collections. The retailer also has an ongoing line of home accessories created by interior decorator Victoria Hagan.

Crate & Barrel has a 4-decades-old relationship with the Finnish textiles and table wares company Marimekko, which has produced exclusive designs that account for 5% of the store's merchandise, and in mid-May will open the first of a string of Marimekko store-within-a-store boutiques at its store at the Grove in Los Angeles.

"Marimekko had to come to us and say you need to use the name more," said Raymond Arenson, executive vice president of merchandising and design at Crate & Barrel. "We do tend to be shy of using the name. We've always thought to shout another brand within our brand seemed odd. Once you become a vehicle for brands you are a department store and not a brand yourself."

If the business model of the 2000s was brand building, it might be said that, for many home décor companies, the 20-tween years will be about strategic alliances — using other brands to survive and evolve.

"In today's flattened market, the ability to have product that is not available anywhere else is a significant competitive advantage," said Russ Gatskill, chief executive of Garnet Hill. Not every venture has been a hit, he conceded. The catalog company tried to sell the trendy Indian block print bedding of John Robshaw, but Gatskill said, "It did not resonate with our customer."

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