The Redesigning Of America


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    Americans' appetite for design is flourishing at least partly because America is. The housing-construction boom has reached historic proportions, and people need to fill those new homes with stuff that defines who they are. It used to confer status to have an expensive designer couch; now it's important to have something that's personal, whether it's from the flea market or B&B; Italia. Like the Mosquito Table, which looks like an aircraft wing. Or the Conrad (not Conran) chair, made from something called Bora Bora bark. "In this boom economy, people have a craving to express their individuality," says Bill Faust, executive v.p. at Fitch, a design consultancy based in Columbus, Ohio.

    Entrepreneurs from coast to coast are thriving on people's design whims. The clothes may have made the man in ancient times, but now the man carries an iBook, a magnesium-encased Sony Vaio or a sleek black Apple G3. It's in his tools too. Does he use the cool new Husqvarna mower or Fluke Corp.'s i410 clamp meter? And his bathroom: one of the hottest current pieces of furniture is the all-stainless-steel toilet (yes, including the seat) designed originally for use in prisons.

    In New York City's SoHo district, retailer Murray Moss has built a very profitable little empire dealing in well-designed objects of every description. Working in Italy's fashion industry several years ago, he noticed that Europe had a lot of hot product designers too. So was born Moss, a museum-like shop that doesn't so much display merchandise as venerate it. There are flexible rubber vases, a light made of milk bottles and a $385 zinc-and-steel ironing board that folds as flat as a pancake.

    Success? In five years Moss has quadrupled the size of his store, and he claims last year's inventory turned over 11 times (most retailers are happy if they empty theirs four times). Moss's customers in large part are not fashion-obsessed Manhattanites but out-of-towners. "I presume they have toilet brushes in Minneapolis," Moss says. "So I'm guessing they find something special about the ones at my store."

    Ironically, the design revolution has been given a leg up by not so special--read: category-killing--stores like Pottery Barn and Ikea, which descended on Middle America in the mid-'90s. They began with the premise that you didn't have to be an aficionado or hire an interior designer to have a good-looking life. They made diy decorating safe. "There was this disconnect in American culture," says Hilary Billings, a key product developer at Pottery Barn at the time, who now heads the online boutique RedEnvelope. "You could open these magazines that showed beautiful homes and interiors, but you couldn't have them."

    Neither too expensive nor too outlandish, these stores offered a way to dodge those thorny design decisions ("Can I like a black leather couch and Shaker armchairs?") and still have a space that wasn't bland. Chains like Pottery Barn, which accounted for two-thirds of parent Williams-Sonoma's sales growth last year, raised the bar on good design. If any fool could put together a stylin' home at his local mall, what excuse could you have for owning such a lame-looking couch? More important, should a cool-looking couch cost so much?

    The answer to that question is right down the road, at one of the new Target stores springing up around the country. The champion of America's new design democracy used to be style-blind. Then Target's executives recognized that competing just on price with the likes of Wal-Mart was a losing proposition. So the store was reinvented with a simple formula: get a big-name designer to do $20 knock-offs of the same stuff he or she designed for the SoHo sophisticates. Thus Michael Graves, known for his work for upscale design firms like Italy's Alessi, is supplying Target with stainless-steel teakettles, blocky wood patio furniture and plump-handled spatulas. Ask Alberto Alessi whether it bothers him that Graves is recycling his commissions for a fraction of the price, and he offers only a wry shrug: "Our real goal should be to talk to the masses."

    The masses have delivered for Target, with double-digit sales growth since Graves' products hit the store last year. "Customers really respond to products that involve new thinking and connect with their souls," says Target v.p. Ron Johnson, who launched the Graves line before switching over to Apple's business-development team. Not surprisingly, the department-store chain, based in Minneapolis, Minn., has become the talk of Madison Avenue, not to mention Main Street. And this year, as Target nears the opening of its 1,000th store, Graves has been joined by the doyen of design, Philippe Starck, another Alessi regular, and Target's hometown hipsters, the young design team Blu Dot. Says Dziersk: "This is the principle that began with the Bauhaus: everyone should have access to beautiful things."

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