weekly feature | Oct 19, 2016 |
After a hiatus, Michael Bruno returns to the antiques world
Boh staff

By Katy B. Olson
It’s been just about a month since Michael Bruno, founder of 1stdibs, the world’s largest antiques and luxury marketplace, was released from the confines of a non-compete clause that kept him temporarily out of the antiques game. But he has stayed busy, and next week he will launch his latest project: Design Carta, a digital platform (available online and via mobile app) that aims to connect dealers with designers—both online and off. 

New Tools for the Trade
Design Carta is a trade-only online marketplace for design and antiques. Approved, registered interior designers are invited to view the inventory of 200-plus dealers for a week or longer prior to it being posted on sites that are open to the general public—plus, dealers can choose to keep their inventory trade-only for as long as they wish.

Shares Bruno, “Designers want to source items their clients can’t find without hiring them. Design Carta is the only exclusive to-the-trade marketplace where [dealers] have committed to offering their new inventory to the trade before it’s offered online anyplace else.” Inventory will fit three categories: never-before seen “virgin” pieces; items previously posted elsewhere but now exclusive to Design Carta; and pieces whose exclusivity has “expired.”

Where Design Carta delivers early digital access, the Touring Mode encourages in-person visits. A dealer directory, listing dealers in major and minor markets across the country, it alerts users to new shipment arrivals in their favorite shops. Forging and strengthening the relationship between designer and dealer is what Bruno’s banking on. “Dealers want customers to shop in their stores to be able to share their expertise about the items they are offering,” he explains. “Touring Mode makes it easy for dealers to let their customers know when new items arrive and for how long those new items will be available only to customers that come into the store before they go online. The most successful designers and architects already know that the best items sell right off of dealers' floors before they ever hit the online market... Touring Mode lets you select your favorite dealers and receive notifications so you never miss the best pieces again.”

Breeding Support for Designers
This is a departure from 1stdibs, which brought the largely offline world of antiques dealers, starting with Clignancourt in Paris, into the digital age. The irony isn’t lost on Bruno. As he wrote in a recent letter to the trade, “When I started 1stdibs, I thought bringing design to your desktops was the thing to do. Looking back now, it seems as though the transparency of having everything on the open internet nearly killed the experience of shopping in stores and removed all of the mystery that made the business exciting, fun and profitable. It’s time to move on!” 

Both Design Carta and Touring Mode will work via a single interface that is available by invitation only to select antique and design dealers who have traditional brick-and-mortar stores located within the U.S. It is currently complimentary; in the spring of 2017, a monthly fee will be implemented. There will be no long-term contracts or sign-up fees.

Bruno knows a thing or two about exclusivity. He’s also unafraid of being labeled the “design police”: Design Carta will terminate the account of any user who shares access to their account with anyone outside their own firms. It’s all part of his effort to enhance the relevance of the design trade. “Dealers are supporting the design community by making these pieces available only to the trade. We want designers to have the best access. They spend their lives bringing beauty into our homes! If you want the best pieces, you’re gonna have to hire a designer to get them.”

Designers Weigh In
What has designer response been thus far? “Design Carta will reinvigorate the design industry as it will re-establish the direct bond between designers and vendors,” says Phillip Thomas, of Phillip Thomas Inc. “This relationship is fundamental to the designer’s creativity and ability to deliver a high level of service to their client.” Concurs Windsor Smith, of Windsor Smith Home, “In an ever-changing landscape of product accessibility, Design Carta allows designers to have ‘first look’ access to top level product as it is received by dealers. This will prove to be an invaluable tool in staying relevant in the business of design.” 

Above all, it promises a return to the thrill of the hunt that the digital antiques market—led by 1stdibs—has largely tapped out. “Design Carta gives the designer the edge he or she needs,” says Mark Zeff, president of MARKZEFF. “It was such a thrill to show a client a beautiful treasure without the rest of the world competing for what you have found... It’s like the good old days, searching the markets of the world and being able to dazzle our clients with what we have found for them.”

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