Enticing designers to leave the comfort of their Aeron chairs to shop in showrooms has never been more difficult. Design centers are finding new ways to sweeten the experience.
Free lunch does exist—it’s available every day, in fact—at the Denver Design District. The meal, hosted daily by a different showroom, may not be what gets a designer in the door, but it has proven to be an effective way to encourage visitors to explore parts of the building they might not have discovered otherwise. As design centers fight for relevance in the digital age, half of the battle is figuring out how to address what their clientele needs—from curating a mix of showrooms whose products are in demand with local designers to offering programming that builds community or betters their businesses.
Sometimes it’s as simple as carving out spaces for designers to eat, work and meet. Since Butterfield Café opened at the New York Design Center last summer, the restaurant has become a go-to destination for designers in the building. “It was an answer to designers who told us they needed a place for something delicious to eat, and a bright, light space to meet,” says Alix Lerman, the New York Design Center’s chief marketing officer.
Though the Dallas Design Center is, like High Point, more market-driven, it has recently begun to push its designer-focused showrooms to open daily. “We have more than 2,000 designers coming to our facility every month,” says Cole Daugherty, the center’s senior vice president. “The modern designer is on the move and has a ton of information in the palm of her hand—that designer needs efficiency. It’s important to have a quick and easy way for them to drive up, valet park, walk inside and have a wide array of options. We have changed things up to reflect that, so that there are many more resources available every day.”
There will be valet parking for designers at the Boston Design Center, too, because, as general manager Kristan McLaughlin explains, “The last thing I want a designer to do is drive around looking for parking instead of coming inside.” McLaughlin is also piloting new hours on Thursdays this spring—9 a.m. to 7 p.m. instead of the typical 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.—in a bid to appeal to designers whose clients can’t meet during the traditional workday. “We want to be open for dual-income families that work with a designer but are also working,” she says.
New designer perks aren’t the only changes being implemented. Many design centers are taking stock of local designers’ wish lists and attracting additional showroom brands that meet their needs. “Our focus is on creating a marketplace that provides the resources a designer needs to do their job better,” says Lerman. Recognizing designer demand for artisan pieces, the New York Design Center worked with designer Brad Ford to open a space that showcases works from Field + Supply, the Hudson Valley–based makers fair he organizes; the result is FAIR, a showroom that highlights elevated works by artisan exhibitors. The building’s antiques dealers followed a similar trend. “The quality of dealers on our antiques floor is higher than ever, because that’s important to designers,” says Lerman, “and we’re dedicated to creating an environment that brings designers into the building.”
At the Cohen Design Centers (the Decoration & Design Building in New York, the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, the Decorative Center Houston, and the Design Center of the Americas in Dania Beach, Florida), the focus is squarely on securing premier tenants with an international bent. “This year, our design centers will welcome more European brands, flagship introductions and some of the most desirable global brands in the industry,” says Jeff Sampson, vice president and director of marketing at the Pacific Design Center. “We attract an international clientele, and it is our privileged responsibility to ensure we are providing the trade with the best brands that the industry has to offer.”
Cain Brodie, director of marketing at International Market Centers in Las Vegas, responded to demand for a certain price point and quality. “Designers told us that they needed product at a medium-high price point that can blend seamlessly into a high-end installation,” he says. “They need places to shop for their clients where they can round out a high-end experience with pieces at more moderate price points—which means they still want to see the high-end product, too.” Vanguard’s recent opening, and immediate success, was proof of concept for Brodie—and a welcome surprise for the Vanguard team that took a chance on Las Vegas. “They didn’t realize that we were their market,” he says. “For us, it goes to show that finding the right fit works.”
Design centers are also uniquely positioned to build a community of designers—a role many have begun to embrace with renewed vigor. Most of the 14 design centers BOH spoke with for this article reported an increase in showroom-hosted events and programming that provides CEU credits. Last May, Design Center at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago hosted its first-annual Digital by Design, a full day of sessions on content creation, online presence, Instagram-worthy interior photography, and the ins and outs of a successful website—all topics that stemmed from designer requests.
Jo Mabary, the Denver Design District’s director of leasing and marketing, is creating a real outlet for designers to collaborate. At the district’s Dialogues in Design events, the wine flows freely and designers talk about common pain points—recent topics include how to deal with clients who shop online or reject custom orders, and what hours to charge for and at what rates. “We like to call it ‘Best Practices, Shared Confusion,’” jokes Mabary. “These evenings are well attended—we often get 60 or more RSVPs—and we love the camaraderie they have created.”
An inviting space for designers to work can be the most enticing perk. The Boston Design Center’s 3,000-square-foot designer lounge includes a small kitchen and two conference rooms, in addition to the building’s ground-level food and beverage locations; two 8-foot-long worktables are also available in the wide hallways on every floor. In Las Vegas, where the clientele is a mix of local designers and visitors who have flown in for the day, the International Market Centers team carved out 4,000 square feet for the satellite location of a local fabric showroom. The resulting space is both a workroom for designers, with tables and conference rooms, and a resource library with best-selling samples from 30 leading brands.
In Chicago, the Design Center at Merchandise Mart recently renovated DesignHQ, a members-only club available to trade professionals and their clients. The space boasts places to hold meetings, private conference rooms for client presentations, worktables and a concierge to help with project logistics—as well as a lounge area for socializing, complimentary snacks and drinks, and a very simple luxury that can be awfully hard to come by: charging stations. Sometimes, it’s the simple things that mean the most.