showhouses | Mar 14, 2022 |
Can a new showhouse concept make a splash across the pond?

The showhouse model has long been a staple of the American design industry. Even a global pandemic couldn’t quell them, with events across the country either persevering or finding innovative ways to go virtual during the strife of the last two years. There are dozens of annual showhouses throughout the U.S. with more joining the roster every year. Even the Kips Bay Decorators Show House, a marquee event of the New York design community, has branched out from its Upper East Side roots, adding editions in Dallas and Palm Beach, Florida, over the past few years. We can’t seem to get enough of showhouses.

Surprisingly, that’s not the case in the U.K., where differing property laws and a lack of available real estate make showhouses more of an occasional spectacle than a regular occurrence. Now, the managing director of London’s Design Centre Chelsea Harbour, Claire German, is looking to change that.

When she took over the role in 2010, German always had the idea in the back of her mind for the center to host a showhouse. A lack of space had hampered the concept from becoming a reality until a new addition to the building earlier this year gave her the perfect venue to execute her vision. Dubbed the Design Avenue, the long, rectangular space features a four-story atrium, providing ample natural light and plenty of room for a large-scale installation where a new sort of showhouse could be set.

Called Wow!house, the inaugural event will take place this June and feature the work of 20 designers from the U.K., Europe and the U.S.—Rita Konig, Rayman Boozer, Paolo Moschino and Philip Vergeylen and Rui Ribeiro, to name a few, are all participating—who will each be assigned a “room” in a setlike environment built to resemble a one-story house, stretching the length of Design Avenue. “Having a purpose-built designer showhouse in a space like this makes it very easy to stage,” says German. “We’re already at the nerve center of where everything in the London design scene happens anyway. Everyone gravitates towards Chelsea Harbour like the mothership. We’re surrounded by showrooms and all the big events for the interior design industry happen here. So it feels like a natural home for this event.”

The four story atrium known as the Design Avenue will host the inaugural Wow!house at Design Centre Chelsea Harbour.
The four-story atrium known as the Design Avenue will host the inaugural Wow!house at Design Centre Chelsea Harbour.Design Centre Chelsea Harbour

German’s vision for Wow!house is a highly sensory one. In addition to tapping the Royal Institute of British Architects to design the exterior wrap of the installation—“We don’t just want a facade of bricks around it; it also needs to be as incredible as the rooms inside,” she says—she’s also lined up a bespoke Italian perfumery to create scents for each room in collaboration with the designers and hired conceptual sound artist Peter Adjaye (brother of the famed British architect Sir David Adjaye) to create background music.

Brand partners for the event will include Chelsea Harbour tenants Colefax and Fowler, de Le Cuona, GP & J Baker, House of Rohl, Julian Chichester, Pierre Frey, Sanderson Design Group, Schumacher and Tissus d’Hélène. “We’ve limited the number of sponsors because we want the designers to have creative freedom to do as they like, but we tried to approach it in a very egalitarian way,” says German. “The brands who can't have a room this year, we’ve put their name down for next year. We’re very lucky because we’ve got over 600 international brands here at the Design Centre—we’re the only one in Europe. They all seem to be incredibly happy about Wow!house. It gives people another reason to come in and will hopefully create a lot of foot traffic for our showrooms.”

As is the case with most American showhouses, German felt it important to tie the event to a charity. A portion of ticket sales will go to Centrepoint, which provides accommodation and support to homeless youth. “Homelessness is something that is very close to our hearts, especially when we're spending all this time focusing on filling homes with the very best,” says German. “So, out of creating this wonderful showhouse, we are actually also housing the less fortunate.” Wow!house’s commitment to Centrepoint will also include a mentorship program, where participating designers will offer counsel about potential career opportunities in the design industry. “We’d like them to illuminate all aspects of the industry, from actually designing to managing a warehouse to showroom sales,” says German.

German not only plans to make Wow!house an annual event at Chelsea Harbour, but she also has visions of one day bringing the event to other parts of the world. “I obviously need to walk before I run, but I would love to do Wow!house in the Middle East some day and be a force for bringing the wonder of this industry to other markets,” she says. “I think it could be a game changer.”

Homepage photo: The Design Avenue at Design Centre Chelsea Harbour | Courtesy of Design Centre Chelsea Harbour

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