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March 27, 2009

Design (not quite) Within Reach | Design (just out of) Reach

For years we have heard these names for our business and looked at them as sort of like “Whole Paycheck” for Whole Foods. Nicknames like these indicate that our things are certainly not cheap, but that they represent a quality and value level, much as Whole Foods represents freshness and organic purity. In fact, over the last few years we have even embraced these nicknames. When we moved from faithful, but unauthorized, reproductions of the classics, our prices for these timeless products rose further, but “that is the price for authenticity and our clients value that” was our belief. 

We focused our marketing and messages more on these products and perhaps even let our egos get a little over exuberant. Our printed materials and our main focus moved more toward a trend-driven design aesthetic, and frankly, depicted almost unobtainable lifestyles. The further we went in that direction, the louder we heard that nagging little voice in our heads that kept saying “modernism is about egalitarian design and affordable, accessible, real products that function in everyday life.” But we convinced ourselves that we were presenting the quintessence of modernism. 

Then the tsunami hit our economy in late 2008 and threw cold water on the party. 
People began to revisit their values and question what was really important. Decadence and opulence are no longer considered desirable and we are reacquainting ourselves with the things that really matter, as people and as businesses. We have spent a lot of time on this subject of late, as we consider the road ahead.

We realize that what we offer will never be “cheap” and we accept that. Our desire is to bring you products that are well designed, functional, able to provide years of pleasure, and of a quality level that can meet the rigorous standards of everyday life. By the same measure, we never want to offer products that are “expensive” (i.e., not worth the price regardless of the price). It is our belief that every product we offer represents a true value to the person who will own and use it. This will vary from person to person and by use. So while we offer a crystal Artichoke Lamp for $65,000, we believe it represents a value to the person who acquires it and part of that value is the joy it brings every time it is turned on and the individuality it represents, knowing it was handmade just for you and there is no other lamp like it in the world. Unique, just like people. At the same time, we offer the Shade Pendant for $375 and it is also beautiful and functional and represents a value for a different purpose or person or budget or room. The commonality between these two items is they both provide light, meet our standards of quality and design, and will provide years of pleasure to the owner. Neither is disposable or temporary. 

As we thought about this and reviewed our product offering we realized that we have, and continue to have, a wide assortment of products that represent the best of modern design at very reachable prices. Examples include the Shade Pendant mentioned above, and the Kyoto Chair, which was on the cover of our first catalog, is still in our assortment and sells for $125. In fact, we have a range of chairs for around $100 that meet commercial standards and meet our design criteria. The more we looked, the more we realized that these Basics have been serving us well for 10 years, we just stopped appreciating them. Because we stopped talking about and stopped showing them, they became the quiet little workers in the corner that simply and effortlessly did exactly the thing they were designed to do and did it well. These products range from chairs to sofas to beds to Tools for Living; they exist in every category of our assortment. 

We have rediscovered the value of things you can count on. We are embracing core values – eating comfort food, if you will – and remembering just how comforting these things can be. We would love to hear your thoughts on this subject, or most any subject for that matter. After all, exchanging thoughts and ideas is the real point of modernism. 

Thanks, 
Ray 

Posted by Ray Brunner, CEO 

Comments

Re: John Deere,
The Saarinen office contacted me when I was the V.P. of Design at Herman Miler regarding a special request for Eames Executive Office Chairs ( Time Life ). Warren Platner who was in charge of Interiors at the office wanted them in bronze to coordinate with the Corten steel skin of the building. I warned him that they would be very heavy but he insisted and we made a sample. Warren called me upon receipt and complained that it was so heavy he could not lift it out of the box. The Eames Office countered with the proposal to finish the standard aluminum in a Tenzeloy finish and we sent another sample which was approved. When the hundreds of chairs arrived Platner called me and said they were not acceptable as each had a slightly different finish. I flew to the headquarters to try to convince Platner or otherwise Herman Miller would have had a lot of chairs returned. I arrived and was taken to the Presidents office ( I forget his name) where we were to meet Platner. The President congratulated us on the finish stating that it was pure genius as they really matched the exterior steel which was in various stages of coloration. Warren arrived and the President also congratulated him on his choice of the Eames seating.
Of course the chairs remained, I kept my job and Warren was very happy. Some years later I was in the Saarinen designed CBS building in New York and upon entering the lobby there was the original bronze sample. I commented to the person at the desk and he responded that it was perfect...so heavy no one could steel it.
Later Warren Platner again specified the same chair for the Ford Foundation Building in N.Y., this time in gold plate to match his desks. They are still is use both at Deere and the Ford foundation.

this is a very diplomatic way of saying that the products offered were not viable retail products and that design within reach provided product to the mass market that didn't always "get it".
it had nothing to do with decadence but more to do with education and investment.
To introduce good design one needs the sophistication and understanding of a design professional, not a part time salesperson. in the long run investing in good design and quality is a wise choice.

thank you Ray Brunner. you have finally got the message. we like you, your store, your products, but like the fashions in Vogue, we can't afford them. i look forward to how you implement your (re)new(ed) approach.

loved the post. it is still important as you stated to remind people of the quality of the product not just the price point. i'm in love with my eames lounge chair and ottoman from you all. everytime i look at my reproduction barcelona i bought years back i wish at the time i could of bought the real thing as it has not aged so well. cant wait to see what's instore

Blake

Hi Ray,
Thanks so much for the insightful post! It is the first time I stumbled upon this blog, and I was happy to see you addressing the issue of the current climate within the luxury goods industry. I have been in the industry for 24 years and I have seen all of the ups and downs. The biggest disappointment of late has been the cutting of the qualified workforce in design showrooms throughout the country. I have recently visited The PDC, The D&D Building, and Chicago's Merchandise Mart. The layoffs have been staggering! It seems that a lot of the companies have had a "knee-Jerk" reaction to the economic climate and they have sacrificed a lot of talented professionals in favor of downsizing their operations. While the industry has had various economy related downturns since the savings and loan crisis in the '80s, I would think that the powers that be should recognize the importance of keeping tenured professionals at their posts, rather than hiring "part time" or new graduates to keep their workforce budgets low. Many companies will ultimately suffer for these decisions, and the climate of mediocrity will have to end sooner or later. Consumers will always have a need for design professionals, it is especially important in an economic climate where value cannot take a back seat to quality. Our economy's cycles have always been in flux throughout modern history, and while it seems bleak temporarily, we will have an upswing at some point, and many of the true professionals will have moved on to become independent or will leave the industry entirely seeking new careers.

Please continue to closely scrutinize the sales staffs of your studios, keeping design within reach has a lot to do with sustainability, as well as having associates that are truly qualified to assist a savvy, value minded consumer. Thanks again!

The price must reflect the true value, period. The price itself doesn't matter, so long as I get a corresponding value. The challenge is communicating that value to the customer (even in fiscal terms), and I think DWR could do a better job of that. An albert sofa that lasts ten years costs the same as the 5 IKEA sofas you'd have to buy in that same time period. Dollars to dollars, demonstrate the value of quality. Even qualitatively, DWR products last longer. Classics were cherished in the 50's and they're cherished now. They'll be cherished 50 years from now. That's value.

I’m impressed! After reading these posts I can tell you are well-informed about your writing. If only I had your writing ability. I look forward to more updates and will be returning. Cheers!

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