Thursday, October 25

Best Sellers and Bombs, and What Stores Are Betting On

BUYING for a home furnishings store (or any store, for that matter) could be considered a form of legalized gambling.
By RIMA SUQI

No matter how long the business has been around or how well the buyers think they know their customers, there is always at least one surprise each season.

Sometimes it’s a pleasant one — a design object they took a chance on, which may be more expensive or less conventionally pretty than what their customers normally go for, is an unexpected hit. Other times it’s exactly the opposite, and an item they thought was surefire just sits there gathering dust.

Many buyers find it hard not to take this kind of failure personally. “Every time I pick something and nobody likes it, I’m embarrassed,” said Rayman Boozer, the owner of Apartment 48 in Manhattan. “I know it’s not a judgment about me, but it still makes me feel bad.”

The products that become best sellers, or that fail to sell, can vary widely from store to store, and one establishment’s disappointment may be another’s star.

Andrew Corrie, an owner of Ochre, in SoHo, said he couldn’t move blankets made by Swans Island in Maine, but that he had been told they were selling briskly at a Los Angeles design store. Meanwhile, Auto, in the meatpacking district, has just picked the blankets up, in the hope that they will be a big seller.

What follows is the result of interviews with the owners of several well-regarded design stores in New York and around the country, who were asked to talk about what they’re betting on for the coming season, as well as recent best sellers and bombs.

It should be noted that many of those bombs are widely seen as examples of great design, even by the store owners who say they’ve been burned by them. And of course, there is no way to do a comprehensive study of the market, even with a much larger survey, because some storekeepers may have competitive reasons to hold back information. Still, in its anecdotal way, this sampling may shed some light on the country’s taste in design right now. Or else just remind us that there’s no accounting for it




BEST SELLER “People apparently collect sleeping pigs. It’s a nice little object and a conversation piece that is cool and soothing at the same time.” Renata Bokalo Auto, New York



BOMB “People always asked the price, and when they were told it was $98, they’d just move on. I think it’s because it’s plastic — although I’ve built a business on selling plastic items — and it’s also very modern. I think a person with a modern sensibility would get it, but my customer is probably not that person.” Rayman Boozer Apartment 48, New York



BETTING ON “We’re very into bridging East and West in our product mix; this piece touches on the Asian side. Japan has a long tradition of bending wood to make bowls, and here that’s been reinterpreted as a contemporary form.” Vasilios Kiniris Zinc Details, San Francisco



Elements

741 North Wells Street, Chicago; (877) 642-6574 or elementschicago.com

For 21 years, Elements has been the go-to spot for design-obsessed shoppers in Chicago. Its owners, Jeannine Dal Pra and Toby Glickman, pack the store with a mix of jewelry and decorative accessories. This week, they moved to a new location in the River North neighborhood and more than doubled their space, to 3,500 square feet.

BEST SELLER TED MUEHLING BRONZE CANDLESTICKS (not shown), $435 TO $1,010

“We merchandise them by putting 12 or 15 on a shelf,” Ms. Dal Pra said, “and they start at $435, so to really make a statement you’ve got to spend about $3,200. People blink for a couple minutes, then they say O.K. and buy them. The bronze finish is just so rich looking, and you can put these in either contemporary or classic spaces.”

BOMB HIPPOPOTAMUS BOWL BY HELLA JONGERIUS FOR NYMPHENBURG PORZELLAN, $2,800

“The painted veil over the hippo is exquisitely done, the glaze is gorgeous. But I think the problem is the price. People look at this and think it’s a very serious price for a not-so-serious-looking piece.”

BETTING ON THOMAS EYCK TINWARE COLLECTION FOR STUDIO JOB, BASKET, $1,750

“There are a lot of art collectors among our clients and I see these pieces going in one of their homes. They’re really kind of crazy — a combination of old-world and modern design.”



Zinc Details

1905 Fillmore Street, San Francisco, (415) 776-2100, and 2410 California Street, San Francisco, (415) 776-9002 or zincdetails.com

Vasilios Kiniris and Wendy Nishimura founded Zinc Details in 1990, fresh out of architecture school. The small business has grown into two stores in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. One stocks primarily housewares from Alessi, Iittala, Design House Stockholm and Marimekko; the other, furniture from companies like Knoll and Kartell.

BEST SELLER DESIGN HOUSE STOCKHOLM BICYCLE BASKET, $55

“It’s folksy but it’s cast in plastic so you really can use it as a bike basket,” Mr. Kiniris said. “I’ve seen people incorporate things into it like buttons and crocheted things, which is really cute. It represents the San Francisco vibe, this individualization of commercial products.”

BOMB TOURRON DINNERWARE BY JARS, $49 TO $65 A PIECE

“We thought it would be nice to mix in French country with modern, but it didn’t work. This doesn’t look like normal French pottery — it looks more 1970s, which I liked — but people like to mix patterns together and this just didn’t work in the mix with the other products we have.”

BETTING ON BENT TEAKWOOD WINE RACK, $249. (Shown in first slide.)


Nest

6731 Snider Plaza, Dallas; (214) 373-4444 or nestdallas.com

Heather Wiese-Alexander knew she was taking a chance when she opened Nest, a funky-modern home furnishings store, in Dallas, a town that favors established labels. “People here do not have the trend-set mentality they might have in New York or Miami,” said Ms. Wiese-Alexander, a former art director for Neiman Marcus. “They latch onto trends after they’ve already been shown in all the magazines.” But she chose a neighborhood populated by what she calls the “height of Dallas society,” and filled her shop with clean-lined furniture and accessories that fit in both modern and traditional interiors.

BEST SELLER JONATHAN ADLER UTOPIA COLLECTION, FROM $24 FOR A MUG TO $385 FOR A DECANTER (TEAPOT, $86, IS SHOWN)

“A local magazine called Papercity did a big story on Jonathan Adler, he was on that ‘Top Design’ show and he’s in all the shelter magazines, so people here know his name and want his things. Plus, you can put these pieces on a console table next to a crystal chandelier and they look just fine.”

BOMB JONATHAN ADLER NEEDLEPOINT PILLOWS, $95 TO $175

“People around here have houses traditionally designed — they’ve got pillows that match their upholstery and the curtains. And none of those are needlepoint.”

BETTING ON PHILIPPE STARCK’S LOUIS GHOST CHAIR, $385

“You can put it right next to grandma’s commode to update a traditional interior, or anywhere in a contemporary interior, and they’re indoor/outdoor.”



Apartment 48

48 West 17th Street, New York; (212) 807-1391 or apartment48.com

Rayman Boozer opened Apartment 48 in 1994 as a store set up as an actual apartment, with living room merchandise in the living room, kitchen merchandise in the kitchen and so on. While the shop quickly gained a loyal customer base, Mr. Boozer admits it takes a lot of work. “There’s so much mass-market stuff out there that’s really well designed,” he said. “West Elm’s aesthetic is very close to mine, so I have to make sure that I don’t overlap or carry similar merchandise. Otherwise my customer will say, we just saw that for $12, and here it’s $24.”

BEST SELLER MELAMINE NESTING BOWLS FROM PRESENT TIME, $58 FOR A SET OF SIX(OUT OF STOCK)

“It feels like more value for the dollar, since you get six bowls and each is a different color, and people who buy it as a gift feel like they are giving more than just one thing.”

BOMB MIXED NUMBERS CLOCK BY J. P. MEULENDIJKS FOR PRESENT TIME, $98(Shown in second slide.)

BETTING ON JACQUI COFFEE TABLE FROM BUNGALOW 5, $695

“The colors are great and it’s priced really well. I’m taking a big risk buying so much furniture, but I feel I probably should’ve been in the furniture business all along. People who used to buy random small things for themselves all the time no longer shop that way — it’s about one bigger purchase.”



Global Table

107 Sullivan Street (Spring Street), New York; (212) 431-5839 or globaltable.com

Eleven years ago, not much was happening retail-wise on Sullivan Street between Prince and Spring. Yet that’s where Nathalie Smith, a fashion editor and stylist, opened Global Table. From the start, she focused on tabletop accessories, displaying them on long, low tables that invite shoppers to mix and match. Global Table has become a source both for couples who want a non-Wedgwood registry and neighborhood loft-dwellers looking for (relatively) inexpensive ways to dress a table.

BEST SELLER LACQUER TRAYS BY THE WORLD TREASURE COMPANY, $50

“Trays have become things that people use not so much to serve things, but as an accent piece to help them organize. I’ve seen people use them on desks or on ottomans, so they don’t have to be as sturdy but they do have to look good.”

BOMB STAINLESS STEEL SERVING SET BY BAHARI, $100

“While I sell probably 15 types of servers, and many are more expensive than these, they just didn’t sell at all. I think these frightened people because they are very designy and that’s not something I’m known for.”

BETTING ON BONE CHINA OWL LAMP BY ROOST, $120, AND PETRIFIED WOOD LAMP BY TOZAI, $225 (NOT SHOWN)

“The porcelain Owl lamp glows in a beautiful way, and the petrified wood lamp looks like someone took a petrified tree trunk and dipped it in bronze. I think both are well priced and will sell like crazy.”



Auto

805 Washington Street (Gansevoort Street), New York; (212) 229-2292 or thisisauto.com

When Auto appeared on a semi-desolate street in the meatpacking district eight years ago, Pastis had just opened, as had Jeffrey. Renata Bokalo had left her job as an illustrators’ rep and, with her boyfriend (now husband), Roman Luba, and another friend, Stephanie Pesakoff (who is no longer involved), started Auto as a wholesale showroom for designers and craftspeople. Soon after, it opened to the public, and now Auto is a retail business that has somehow survived the increasing rents in the area and maintained a strong customer base.

BEST SELLER HAND-PAINTED EIGHT-INCH CERAMIC PIG, BY GEORGE CHANG FOR AUTO, $125 (shown in first slide)

BOMB ETRO PILLOWS, $280 (OUT OF STOCK, AVAILABLE NOV. 15)

“We have a younger customer here, and I think the idea of paisley — even if it’s paisley in psychedelic colors — is seen as uptown and older and just not cool.”

BETTING ON MISSONI 16-INCH-HIGH TOBAGO POUF, $421

“We’re going to have the whole Missoni home catalog, which includes a lot of small poufs and beanbags that will fit easily in New York City apartments,” Ms. Bokalo said. “Even the Missoni boutique here doesn’t sell the full range of Missoni’s home collection, but we do.”



Ige

7382 Beverly Boulevard, Los Angeles; (323) 939-2788 or igedesign.com

Helen Ige sells her own lines of decorative pillows and mobiles, along with vintage and new furnishings, at her store near Hancock Park. Of all the shopkeepers interviewed for this article, she may have the best insight into her customers’ tastes. As the store’s sole employee, she deals with all of them. “Things that look handmade, organic or like they could be heirlooms from your stylish grandmother sell well here,” she said.

BEST SELLER JOHN DERIAN SKELETON PLATE SET, $880

“I’ve had to explain over and over what decoupage is, and that the images John uses are often historic or rare. Once I explain all that, I end up selling the entire set. Often the customer is a doctor.”

BOMB HAPPY PEOPLE GLASSES BY KARIM, RASHID FOR GAIA & GINO, $100 TO $130

“One part of the problem is the cost. The other is that there is modern design everywhere now. People probably look at these and feel they’ve seen them, or something similar.”

BETTING ON BIRD FEET OBJETS BY SWALLOW DESIGN, $13 TO $45

“Because my customer seems to be over the ordinary, I’m betting on these completely useless but intriguing cast metal birds’ feet. I’m going to merchandise these by putting them under a bell jar to make them seem more precious and curio-like.”



Velocity Art and Design

251 Yale Avenue N, Seattle; (206) 749-9575 or velocityartanddesign.com

Velocity Art and Design started in 1999 as a Web-only venture in the basement of John and Lara Tusher’s house in Seattle while he was an elementary school teacher and she was a nurse. They offered high-design brands like Vitra and Pure Design, and were among the first to sell Jonathan Adler online. They developed enough of a following to open their first bricks-and-mortar store a year later, and this month they moved to a 3,000-square-foot space in the rapidly gentrifying South Lake Union neighborhood.

BEST SELLERS IBRIDE TRAYS, $59A “The hunting-lodge-chic trend really has legs,” Mr. Tusher said. “Anything with animals or a reference to animals in nature did very well for us this year.”

BOMB HELLA JONGERIUS POLDER SOFA FOR VITRA, $8,750, (NO LONGER IN STOCK)

“Shoppers said they loved it, but they just didn’t pull the trigger on it. I bet if I had a showroom in New York I could put it in the window and sell it like crazy — people there really care about having things other people don’t.”

BETTING ON OVAL DINING TABLE BY TORD BOONTJE FOR MOROSO, $5,557

“We’re definitely taking risks at the new showroom, like this black glass dining table with a floral pattern that covers the top. Maybe people won’t love it in Seattle, but I’m trying it because I think it’s hot.”


Ochre

462 Broome Street (Mercer Street), New York; (212) 414-4332 or ochre.net

Ochre began as a design company founded in 1996 by Joanna Bibby and Harriet Maxwell Macdonald, who met in art school in London. (A third designer, Solenne de la Fouchardière, joined them as a partner in 2000.) Just last year the company opened its first retail store, the brainchild of Ms. Macdonald’s husband, Andrew Corrie, who had experience as an investment banker working with retail clients. Ochre showcases the three designers’ work — sleek sofas with a bit of slouch, chain mail chandeliers — as well as the work of artisans, many of them friends from the London art and design world.

BEST SELLER CHERUB LAMP, $480 TO $680

“We’re clearly not the first people to think about putting a lampshade on top of a bottle. But we introduced this lamp in 1999 and it’s sold well ever since,” Mr. Corrie said. “Because it is popular, we can make it in bigger volumes and offer a decent price.”

BOMB SWANS ISLAND BLANKETS, $440 TO $550

“They absolutely bombed, and I am still scratching my head over it. I think it was too organic and too textural and not soft enough. You want to be a hit in New York City? Sell well-priced things that are really soft.”

BETTING ON KIRSTEN HECKTERMANN CUSHIONS, $130 TO $150

“Kirsten makes these pillows in a shed at her house in Suffolk. She dyes velvet using organic dyes, then puts the fabric through a roller and the effect is really incredible. It looks like velvet that’s been sitting in a window with lots of sunshine for 15 years — that mottled effect.”



Koo de Kir

65 Chestnut Street, Boston; (617) 723-8111 or koodekir.com

Kristine Irving has been in retailing since college, when she and a fellow student at Massachusetts College of Art and Design opened a gallery called ArtSmart in Boston. Her current retail endeavor, almost 20 years later, is a shop called Koo de Kir (a phonetic spelling of the French coup de coeur, or “strike to the heart”) in Beacon Hill. Ms. Irving said the shop sells “elegant things you can use — this is not a tchotchke house.” She mixes reupholstered vintage furniture with contemporary faux bois pieces and plenty of tabletop items, and also offers interior design services.

BEST SELLER KLEINREID PORCELAIN LOGS, $325

“This neighborhood has a lot of brownstone homes with fireplaces that no longer work. Instead of spending as much as $10,000 per fireplace to unblock them, they’ll buy these logs, put them on some gorgeous andirons and create a beautiful scenario.”

BOMB THE LITTLE GIFT, A CERAMIC HOSTESS CUPCAKE, BY JASON MILLER, $36

“I think they just weren’t packaged well for retail — they’re sold in a plain cellophane bag. Also, my customer is very practical. They’d ask, ‘What’s it for?’ and honestly, it’s just for fun. Which obviously wasn’t enough.”

BETTING ON JOHN ROBSHAW JAVA COLLECTION BEDDING, $70 FOR A SET OF STANDARD PILLOWCASES TO $550 FOR A KING DUVET COVER

“It’s a very sophisticated ethnic look. The fabric is gorgeous, and you can see the hand of the artist because it’s all handprinted.”



NiBa Home

39 NE 39th Street, Miami; (305) 573-1939 or nibahome.com

When they opened NiBa Home three years ago, Nisi Berryman and Beth Arrowood (alumnae of Holly Hunt’s Miami showroom) envisioned it as the go-to store for interior designers looking for accessories for almost-finished projects. The 3,500-square-foot store strikes a nonminimalist note in the middle of Miami’s slick design district, with throw pillows, lamps, screens, rugs and ceramic and glass pieces, all grouped in complementary colors.

BEST SELLER UNION STREET GLASS URCHIN BOWL, $875

“Most of our customers are interior designers shopping for either a pristine modern interior or a traditional one in neutral tones,” Ms. Berryman said. “They always want color in accessories. This footed bowl works in either interior environment, and it has a wonderful, not-perfect, organic shape with unusual texture. We sell a lot of these in a gorgeous turquoise blue color.”

BOMB PLAYING CARD PLATES BY JOHN DERIAN, $65 EACH

“I think these postcard-size plates were really just too small. My customers want larger pieces that will make more of a statement.”

BETTING ON HAND MIRROR BY BENJAMIN NORIEGA-ORTIZ, $225

“This is big enough to hang in a closet nook, or it could sit on a vanity. Benjamin is pretty well known around Miami — he did a couple of houses for Lenny Kravitz and he had a home here that was published in Metropolitan Home — so I think people will buy it.”

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