Design centers proliferated in major American cities in the ’70s and ’80s, a time of marked growth for interior design as a profession. Their premise—to offer a one-stop shopping experience for designers, featuring extensive collections of furnishings, fabrics, floor coverings, artworks, antiques, and much more under one roof—has been largely successful. For the scores of brands that set up showrooms inside these shared spaces, design centers provide easy access to decorators, contractors, and other buyers in the industry. For the centers themselves, the model provides a steady stream of rental income. But what happens to this winning formula now that the very nature of shopping is being turned on its head by the Internet?
For David Mann, the founding partner of established New York City studio MR Architecture + Decor, visiting the design center has become less essential: “We don’t take clients there like we used to. Instead, we’re mostly online looking at images, and only after things are approved, someone goes in to check that a product looks as expected.”
The design center representatives AD PRO spoke to denied that they were struggling, but they recognized the need to keep up with the times and reinvent themselves, in ways big and small. Yet they also emphasized that a crucial aspect of their raison d’être—to allow designers to experience their products and build relationships—cannot be replaced by computer screens. Both sides of the coin may be the key to the design center's survival—and potential resurgence.
“Designers are doing more legwork online, but at the end of the day, they’re still using our property,” says Susan McCullough, senior vice president at the Merchandise Mart, housed in a ’30s-era Chicago landmark spanning two city blocks. “Our showrooms offer them a chance to physically see things in person before they pull the trigger on a big project, as well as unlimited options for customization.”
While McCullough says that sales are still brisk, she’s aware that “online isn’t going away.” The Mart, which serves not just designers but also architects, contractors, and developers, has been actively working to stay relevant in these times of rapid change. Its 5,600-square-foot lobby was completely renovated more than a year ago by the architecture firm A+I and now includes a series of modern lounge areas, a café, and a restaurant called Marshall’s Landing. More recently, they launched Art on the Mart, a months-long initiative that turned the building’s 25-story facade into an expansive digital art screen.
“We have to make the property more experiential to foster interaction and networking, and create a community,” insists McCullough.
The New York Design Center (NYDC) has headed in a similar direction. Last summer, the center unveiled a sleek 16th-floor cafe called Butterfield, and there are plans to overhaul the Lexington Avenue lobby. This storied address is also exploring ways to welcome e-commerce into the fold. In November, the NYDC announced a partnership between the global online marketplace InCollect and the Gallery at 200 Lex, a 33,000-square-foot space dedicated to antiques and vintage pieces. Everything featured in the showroom will appear on a dedicated app and on Incollect.com, allowing the brick-and-mortar location to reach shoppers globally 24 hours a day.
“Sales are initiated online, but the majority are done in a showroom,” says Jim Druckman, president and CEO of the NYDC. “Those [centers] who embraced the Internet and combined it properly with a physical location are doing very well.”
Some industry insiders say that the Internet has created opportunities for showrooms and interior designers alike. “Showroom traffic may have gone down, but their business has gone up as a result of online access to their products,” says Stephen Nobel, executive director of the Decorative Furnishings Association. “And online shopping has benefited designers, who can be working on a client’s project anywhere and then use the showroom when they can make productive use of their time.”
It seems that design centers will not suffer the same fate as, say, bookstores, which are being felled by e-commerce. Then again, we don’t really need to feel the texture of a book’s pages before buying it. “Designers still need to see and touch what they’re buying, especially with textiles but also with furniture in terms of scale,” says Ellen Fisher, vice president for academic affairs and dean at the New York School of Interior Design. “You can look at a hundred fabrics online and not know anything about them. If you’re lucky enough to be in a city like New York, just go and see them.”
Still, it stands to reason that design centers have to continue to reimagine themselves. For Jim Druckman of the NYDC, a key to their longevity is to continue focusing on quality and to help communicate the importance of design to a larger audience. “In our faster-paced society, people have to be properly educated about the value of great design and great production,” he says. Like several other centers, the NYDC is now open to the general public, in the sense that consumers can walk in and have a look. If they want to make a purchase, advisors are on hand to help them find the right professional.
“I think brick-and-mortar is here to stay. Whether it’s going to be in this exact format, I don’t know,” says Liz Nightingale, vice president, director of marketing at the D&D Building, another long-established New York center.
Designers like David Mann, who may not be visiting design centers as often as they once did, are nevertheless rooting for the longevity of these institutions. “I believe sometime in the future we’re going to want to go a little bit backward,” he says.
In fact, Mann’s wishes may already be coming true. Attracted by the idea of being part of a community, not to mention the prospect of paying relatively lower rents, several young companies are giving design centers a try.
“We were in a stand-alone location for 10 years, and now we’re moving into the Atlanta Decorative Arts Center [ADAC],” says Kristen Roland of Context Gallery, a consultancy and shop that sells furnishings by some of the world's top designers. “I used to think that design centers were a dying breed, because a lot them had this horrible architecture and old-school mentality, but my perception has changed.”
Roland noticed that many design centers, including ADAC, are increasingly focused on doing outreach and organizing events, which led her to realize that she could reach her clients more easily, and make their lives easier, by moving into one.
“You get an exposure that you wouldn’t get otherwise,” she says. “Plus, there’s an energy and synergy that comes with being part of a community, and that really matters in our era.”