Every year after the Oscars, Elton John hosts a party at the Pacific Design Center (PDC) on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood. This might give you the impression that design centers, which are filled with exclusive showrooms displaying the latest lines from the best furniture and decor companies, are only for the rich and famous.
Christopher Grubb, president of Arch-Interiors Design Group, Inc. in Beverly Hills, Calif., has given many seminars at the PDC and acknowledges that design centers have this reputation, but says times have changed. “Years ago, there was a stringent policy that design centers were only for the trade, but most welcome and encourage the public to visit and peruse the many offerings their showrooms have.”
“The trade” refers to licensed architects and landscape architects and interior designers, who shop at design centers around the country for their clients.
So what about the rest of us? “I have many middle-class clients who would rather spend the money to buy once and buy right,” says Jennifer Scully, president of redesignforadime.com in Cold Spring Harbor, NY. “There is a noticeable quality difference in the furnishings in showrooms — the books and online catalogs you can find there are extensive. Many items can be customized as well. The knowledge and professional design service found with designers and showroom employees help consumers avoid mistakes like purchasing furniture that doesn’t fit or work in their space and as a result, more and more consumers are shopping this way.”
Now that design centers will let us through their doors — each center has its own policy, from offering a formal day pass to discreetly allowing you access with a wink and a smile — how do we prepare ourselves for a visit, and what do we do once we’re inside?
Preparing for a trip to a design center
Start by locating the design center nearest you. You may have heard of the most publicized centers like the D&D (Decoration & Design) Building in New York and the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, but there are design centers throughout the U.S., and because they aren't necessarily in a shopping district you might not realize they're there. The Interior Design Directory lists design centers in 17 states and in Canada.
Before you visit, get a map of the design center and research the showrooms so you know which ones you want to invest the most time in. Or, if you don’t have time to search hundreds of brands, take advantage of the design center’s in-house resource. “The thousands of choices of items available in a design center can be daunting,” says Grubb. “A visit for a purely entertaining tour is one thing, but if you do have particular needs, ask at the information desk which would be the best showrooms for you to visit, then in the showrooms ask staff for specifics. You will be guided to the areas where the products are to help you focus.”
You’ll notice a majority of stylishly primped shoppers at most design centers. Staff in the showrooms are also dressed to impress, and if you add up the fashion, gorgeous finds and luxurious design of the building itself, your whole outing has a feeling of specialness to it. “A design center is not a shopping mall nor is it a place of entertainment,” reminds Grubb. “It’s a place for industry professionals to shop and do business. When visiting, wear appropriate attire and avoid bringing children, if possible. The staff in showrooms are there to make sales. They will be helpful to conscientious consumers, but remember that actual purchases must be made through a design pro.”
What's inside the showrooms
If you enjoy perusing the pages of Elle Decor and House Beautiful, you’ll love seeing those kinds of design ideas come alive in showrooms. Showrooms are a great place to discover looks that you’ll try at home and because the compositions are there for you to experience with all your senses, they are much more memorable. “Design centers often have the latest trends on display from their lines. In many cases they redecorate often as well, so the showrooms can be a great way to see the newest in home decor,” says Scully.
Grubb advises going into the design center with your eyes open and offers these tips below:
Showrooms will typically only quote you the retail, or “list,” pricing. You can work with a local architect or interior designer who can obtain the wholesale or “net” pricing. They will also be able to help you purchase an item you want and typically have a markup to cover their time to manage the order. The information desk at the design center can refer you to a trusted designer to facilitate your purchases if you don’t already have one.
Most furniture you see in a showroom is only a small sampling of what is truly available. The showrooms will have binders of other pieces available from a line you may like. You love the look and quality of a nightstand but need a dining room table? The collection will usually have that available.
Some showrooms will only “memo,” or lend, a fabric sample to someone with an account at the showroom. That is not always the case, so ask. Some may require a deposit for the sample. For trade professionals, showrooms are like a public library where things are borrowed and returned.
Taking pictures of things you like is fine. You can also request a “cut sheet,” which is a catalogue image of the piece you can take with you.
Most design centers have a variety of lectures on a wide assortment of topics. Most are free to the public. You can inquire at your local design center as to what future lectures are planned or visit their web site.
Design centers have mailing lists to distribute information about new showroom openings, lectures and new products that are premiering. Want to be included? Inquire at the information desk.
Lauren Rosenberg, CEO of Elaine Ryan, LLC, notes that one of the reasons design centers are opening their doors to consumers is that the interior design was “noticeably hit by the recession” and they are reinventing themselves as a result.
“Because working with a designer and shopping at a design center can be overwhelming if you haven’t done it before, our Elaine Ryan Home Decorating Kit provides information enabling you to navigate designers and their resources,” she says.
“Interior design showrooms usually have a much wider variety of styles that are not found in retail furniture stores. These furnishings are quite often unique and of a much higher quality. Once you experience the showrooms, you will most likely want to shop there,” says Rosenberg. “That’s where our kit is so helpful. We coach you through how pricing works and what to expect from working with a designer and offer tips on how to make the experience as beneficial as possible.”
Bottom line on pricing? Scully explains: “Some designers charge a finder’s fee, usually 20 percent of the total purchase, some charge an hourly rate only and some charge both.”
“Traditional furniture stores are having a tough time,” she continues. “Their overhead is so high. Designers with showrooms as well as larger design center showrooms are smaller, much more manageable businesses to run.”
Does this mean design centers are the future of furniture shopping? It’s possible. The variety and quality offered there may pave the way to consumer expectations that retail stores can’t meet.