digital disruptors | Mar 14, 2019
Want to attract exclusive brands? Perfect the power of mutual selection

Kara Tobin has always been drawn to contemporary furniture, but she can’t tell Business of Home why, exactly. “I wish I had a story I could tell you,” she jokes. “Like, my dad used to use such-and-such cereal and that was when it hit me. I don’t have that.”

Maharam Drenthe Heath Pillow, Grey Claudy Jongstra 2006
Maharam's Drenthe Heath Pillow by Claudy JongstraCourtesy of Bureau of Merchants

Regardless, Tobin does have a storied background. She has racked up two decades of experience, working with the International Contemporary Furniture Fair while running her design marketing firm, Tobin and Tucker, which launched in 1989. The founder of the ICFF, George Little Management, introduced her to the contemporary furnishings market, and her passion soon followed. “I’ve been at this awhile,” she says with a laugh. “Let’s not say how long.”

In January 2017, she launched her latest venture, Bureau of Merchants, along with co-founders Brooke Stoddard and Seth Hill. A hub for like-minded aficionados and professionals, the site debuted e-commerce in fall 2018 to meet the demand of its followers. Tobin is currently growing her team to meet that demand, which draws on the strength of relationships culled over two decades of building connections between designers and brands.

“Twenty years ago, contemporary furniture in the North American market was very different,” she says. “The knowledge and interest has steadily grown over the years. I’ve contributed to that.” Tobin has put that knowledge to use in capturing the interest of illustrious designers in collaborating with Bureau of Merchants.

High-end brands including Italian contemporary furniture maker Cappellini, luxury rugmaker Golran, and textile manufacturer Maharam signed on for partnerships right away—and for some of the most elite, it’s their first and only e-commerce venture. The brands didn’t sign on with Bureau because of a sleek platform. They signed on because they trust Tobin, and they want to be a part of her community. She’s been connecting designers and brands since she started in the late 1980s.

In the handful of months since the the brand launched e-commerce, Bureau of Merchants has expanded to 25 brands, and currently has 25 more in the pipeline. But it’s not just for anyone who’s interested: “This is very much by invitation. Regrettably often, we receive inquiries from brands that aren’t a match,” says Tobin. Just this week, Vitra and Artek came on board.

Bureau of Merchants’s growth isn’t limited to e-commerce. Offline, the brand partners with Bergdorf Goodman on its Manhattan storefront window displays. A project is coming this spring with TEFAF, the details of which will be announced soon. Clearly, for Bureau of Merchants, collaborations are key, as long as they’re the right ones.

“One of our greatest assets is brands being alongside one another,” says Tobin. “That mix of brands and the company they keep, for most, it’s among the essential items to being part of a multi-brand platform. There are many brands who are very careful and deliberate about who they align with. We are presenting a roster that these brands are pleased to be among—pleased with their products being presented in this way, and that we will represent them in a way that they intend.”

As for areas of growth Tobin sees for Bureau of Merchants, she admits that while she loves the e-commerce platform as it is, constant improvement is crucial to keep up with the digital market. She’s also looking to expand the Bureau.

Meanwhile, as the brand continues to evolve, it’s clear that it will maintain its so-far-effective strategy of cultivating an exclusive community. “Many brands [we partner with] have established themselves because they’re so selective. And they should be!” says Tobin. “What they have to offer is extraordinary, and so I am flattered and enormously grateful.”

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