One of the design industry’s most consequential partnerships began in 1991, in San Carlos, California, in the offices of a footwear brand called Sam & Libby Shoes. There, John Edelman toiled away in a company founded by his older brother Sam (“Libby” was Sam’s wife). One day, in walked another John—John McPhee. The two were the young guys in the office, and almost immediately they struck up a friendship.
“John was so sweet, he came in and said, ‘Let’s have dinner!’” recalls Edelman to host Dennis Scully on the latest episode of The Business of Home Podcast. “I don’t think we realized what it meant, that day.”
For the two Johns, personally, it meant a lot—for the design industry at large, maybe even more. The pair would go on to work for another Edelman family business, Edelman Leather, and grow it enough to sell to Knoll for $67 million in 2007. After that, another challenge beckoned: Take the then-struggling retailer Design Within Reach, known at the time for cheap knockoffs, and turn its fortunes around.
When the partners went to meet with the company’s employees, it became clear how daunting the task was. “They looked at us with such distrust. It was the worst address I’ve ever had to make with a group of people that worked for us. They didn’t know what to believe; we had to turn them all around. It was not pretty,” says Edelman. The duo set about canceling production on knockoffs, restarting relationships with vendors and cutting back on a whole lot of leases. It was a bumpy ride, at first.
“Neither of us had ever been to Salone. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. We had a brand-new head merchant, and she heard that John and I were going to Salone without her, and she was like, ‘There’s no way!’” says McPhee. “Thank God we listened to her. We had 40 appointments in five days with all of our key European vendors. And we didn’t just go there to say, ‘Hey, we’re John and John.’ We were like, ‘We need you to start shipping us again, and no, we’re not giving you a letter of credit; no, we’re not going to give you cash up front; you need to give us 60-day terms, but we’re good guys, believe us!”
In the end, it worked—magnificently—and eventually DWR was sold to Herman Miller for $154 million in 2014. The two Johns stayed on to help with the transition but eventually moved on to other adventures. Now Edelman is resuscitating the cult favorite design brand Heller (ironically, one of the very first challenges he dealt with at Design Within Reach was a copyright lawsuit filed by Heller founder Alan Heller). Meanwhile, McPhee is now CEO of Chilewich, where he’s looking to expand the brand far beyond its origins as a maker of place mats.
Though both Johns have their own ventures now, the two are still involved with each other’s businesses (McPhee’s son was Edelman’s first hire at Heller) and continue to share insights on a fast-changing industry. On this episode of the podcast, they reveal the thinking behind some of their biggest moves, explain why economic downturns are opportunities to grow smart and highlight why—in a time of consolidation—betting on great design is always good business.
“I like the acquisitions, I like the mergers, but I think people have to care about design. We’re not making widgets. We’re making things that require passion, vision and quality,” says Edelman. “I hope people keep that in mind first. With that, you can always be successful. You can make a short-term bump, but with great design you’ll be successful forever.”
Homepage image: Peter Hapak