Editor-at-large Peggy Levinson wrote a piece about the Design District in our Jan/Feb issue. We’ve had a lot o of requests for it to go online. So here it is. Twenty-five years ago, I had a wholesale showroom on Hi Line Drive. We were open only to the trade, as were all other showrooms in the Decorative District, which was an oasis of wholesale luxury furnishings in a sea of seedy modeling studios and bail bondsmen. Amid that squalor, chic and glamorous interior designers spent millions of dollars on behalf of their clients. In certain cases, we would allow clients to come in if they had a letter from the designer, but that was the exception. All price lists were retail, and woe to the salesperson who quoted net in front of the end-user. It was a secretive and mysterious business and, let’s face it, divine.
Fast-forward to several months ago. I heard a story about a client of a designer who frequents a certain high-end showroom. At the designer’s request, the client went in to look at a chair “unaccompanied.” That broke the rules, and the poor woman was politely escorted out of the showroom. It might seem like not much has changed in the last 25 years, but that kind of incident is now an exception. There are people—civilians!—everywhere. The district is no longer a design haven littered with random off-color businesses; it is a neighborhood. Upscale condos and fabulous restaurants are opening daily. Residents walk their dogs and wander in the galleries and stores that line Slocum and Dragon streets. The accessibility and openness call into question the whole “to the trade” concept. Many showrooms are now open to the public, while some remain strictly to the trade. Confusion is rarely a good business strategy. As a result, I believe that both designers and showrooms are leaving money on the table.
We’ve hit a wall. And it’s time to admit it. We’ve hit a wall. And it’s time to admit it. Questions about the relevance of design centers and trade-only practices are being asked all around the country. Some of the answers reveal what happens when the strategy is no strategy. Design centers in Washington, D.C., and Boston have closed. The Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles is rapidly emptying out on the street. The once traditional Atlanta Design Center is now open to the public. The Decorative Furnishings Association, which is made up of nearly all the wholesale and furniture companies in the country, has a plan. Headed by Steve Nobel, the association has launched a marketing campaign directed at non-design professionals for the first time in its 80-year history and is fully promoting an open-door policy.
Breathe, everyone. The DFA’s intent is not to make its design center a fancy Rooms-R-Us. The DFA will invite potential customers into the showrooms while still emphasizing the benefits of working with a professional designer. Dallas needs to consider this third way now and make some hard but crucial plans to take control of the future.
I know that some showroom owners are convinced that an open-door policy would lead to an onslaught of uneducated shoppers who do not understand measuring requirements, shipping realities, or that, say, a textile showroom doesn’t “make curtains.” I get that. If I were still running a showroom, I can imagine that I would be worried, too. Change like this will take training of staff, new processes and policies, and educating the public with campaigns such as that being sponsored by the DFA. And all that has to happen while trying to get through the day-to-day and survive—while not offending the loyal, core clientele of professional designers. I am not saying this is simple or easy. Courage and support for our designers and from our designers are precisely what is required.
If designers win, showrooms win. And vice versa. For decades, the mystery of the Design District added cache and allure to the process of shopping there. Many designers believe that by granting consumers access to the once off-limits showrooms, their businesses will suffer. True, there are clients who view their designers as personal shoppers, and shame on them. But I would argue that these less savvy clients are the minority.
Thanks in part to the Internet, most people understand lead times and custom design. Thanks to magazines, clients know the glory of beautiful design, and they want it for their own homes. I think the role and value of the interior designer is even more evident to consumers now.
I also believe that the designers practicing in Dallas today are overall the most professional, inspired, and talented that I have seen during the past several decades. At the same time, the client class—those with the means and taste to understand the value of interior designers—potentially has never been larger. There are thousands of potential clients who would appreciate designers’ knowledge and their ability to sort through an infinite array of design possibilities and create beautiful spaces.
Clients should also know that interior designers save them money. The wholesale market covers all price ranges and styles, and there is a design professional for all price ranges. For clients who think they can go it alone, it takes only one instance of buying the “perfect” table in a showroom only to get it home and realize it’s much too big. Scale is tricky. But we need to work on our messaging. “Only 11 percent of affluent shoppers used a designer in the last five years,” according to a Mendelsohn Affluence Survey, and “consumers who shop with a designer will buy five times more than shopping without.” This is why the showroom-designer relationship is mutually beneficial. The missing ingredient is introducing showrooms to the public.
To that end, it is crucial for all of us to underscore the contributions of the immensely talented design professionals in our midst. This magazine, in its pages, has been a passionate supporter of local design talent for more than a decade. We are committed to this cause as the industry seeks to style its own transformation.
No more talk. Let’s take action. Showroom owners need a larger base of end-users. Designers need more clients. Potential clients need to realize the wealth of product that is only available in the Dallas Design District. Many of our showrooms have quietly opened their doors to the public, but there is still confusion. If these selfsame clients could see what our showrooms have to offer—and make no mistake, we have some of the most remarkable showrooms in the country, if not the world—they would buy.
The DFA’s proposal is as follows: welcome consumers to the showrooms, but make it clear that professional interior designers are important. Some showrooms have opted to offer a list of favored designers to consumers and let them look around at leisure, though they are not allowed to purchase except through an interior designer. Others already offer a two-tiered pricing system, with professionals paying the showroom net and consumers sans designer paying a surcharge. The process needs to be transparent: no hidden prices.
I am blessed because I see our Design District and the work of our designers every day. Every time we show this magazine to designers and showrooms on the East and West coasts, they are dazzled by the quality of design that is happening in Dallas. We are on the map nationally, even internationally, but there are sophisticated people of means right here in our city who won’t even drive down the street to the Design District because they are afraid they will get kicked out of a showroom. We can remedy this and grow our businesses, but it will take the kind of vision and determination and leadership that is unafraid of change. The good news is this is Dallas.