Behind the Label: Design Within Reach

Looking at the costs of making modern design accessible.

In 1999, while on a trip to London, Rob Forbes bemoaned the fact that authentic modern design was only available to architects, decorators and people in a certain strata of society. Forbes made it his mission to make design accessible to the every day home shopper, and a new type of furnishings store, Design Within Reach, was born.

Thirteen years and more than 40 retail locations later, Design Within Reach’s message has certainly resonated. But in recent years, DWR has experienced significant financial difficulties and been accused of knocking off popular designs from lesser known brands. This week’s Behind the Label looks at the costs of bringing modern design to the masses.

Design Within Reach’s launch came at a time when pocketbooks were full and respect for design was starting to flourish in the United States. In its early years, DWR enjoyed healthy profits, entering the stock market in July 2004 with a $211 million valuation. But then, partly due to a series of recessions and partly due to poor management, the company started to slip.

Fast Company, in a December 2009 article dramatically titled The Rise and Fall of Design Within Reach, points the finger at former CEO Dave Brunner, who held the reins from 2006 to 2009. The article describes Brunner’s many shortcomings as a leader, from his dismissive attitude toward plagiarism to his impractical long-term vision for the company’s expansion. Under Brunner, management was “mean, dictatorial and mercurial,” said his successor, John Edelman, in a later Fast Company piece. “The people are hand-shy, like a dog that’s been hit. It’s almost like I have to put a piece of food in my hand to let them know I’m a friend.”

Since Edelman came on board in early 2010, he has worked to turn things around for Design Within Reach. Here, a rundown of the good, the bad, and the questionable, especially as it relates to company ethics.

The Good

One of Design Within Reach’s original goals was to educate the American public about modern design. Among the designers it highlights are masters like Charles and Ray Eames, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Philippe Starck. Though most of its furnishings are still “out of reach” for many consumers, DWR has certainly shown that appreciation for modern design transcends socioeconomic status.

Under Edelman’s leadership, Design Within Reach also went back to showcasing lesser known designers, including a handful who work with eco-friendly materials. Among these brands are Loll Designs, which creates outdoor furniture collections from recycled high-density polyethylene, and Jesús Gasca, whose mission is “to improve the habitat in which we live, by refining our designs, and [using] recyclable components and environmentally friendly manufacturing processes.”

DWR takes pride in its manufacturers, most of whom are top-quality, well-respected and based in the United States or Europe. “Behind every great designer is a dedicated manufacturer that strives to transform concepts into highly engineered, sustainable and beautiful pieces,” the website reads. These manufacturers are highlighted alongside the designers.

The Bad

From the start, Design Within Reach has had a funny relationship with borrowed designs, selling a mix of licensed and unlicensed items in its first stores, including an “inspired” version of Mies van der Rohe’s famous Barcelona chair, which DWR called “the Pavilion.”

But in 2007, the company started copying designs in a much more blatant way. The Fast Company article reported:

At least a dozen of the company’s current offerings are essentially unauthorized reproductions of a foreign design. “Rather than saying, ‘Let’s come up with something better to replace it,’ they said, ‘Let’s come up with something similar to what people liked,'”says a former DWR employee.

The article continues:

(Former CEO) Brunner saw DWR’s strategy as ‘completely legal. We’re not doing anything wrong.’ In every case, he said, DWR’s product-development team improved on the original design. In most instances, the tweaks were small and not obviously better.

Around that time, two companies sued DWR for trademark infringement: Heller, who claims that DWR ripped off its Bellini chair and called it the Alonzo, and Blu Dot, who says that DWR duplicated its Strut table and called it the Metric. Blu Dot says that DWR even went so far as to use Blu Dot’s own photograph of the Strut table in its advertising. Both lawsuits were settled out of court, and neither brand is sold at Design Within Reach today.

The Questionable

When Edelman took the reins from Brunner in early 2010, he immediately instituted a “no-knockoffs” policy and got to work mending DWR’s tattered reputation within the design community. While the company continues to sell licensed classics like the Eames Lounge Chair for Herman Miller and Phillip Starck’s Louis Ghost Armchair, the focus moving forward is on collaborations with new and upcoming designers.

The community has taken notice, and Edelman was included in House Beautiful’s list of “12 Design Visionaries to Watch” for 2012 and named a 2012 Game Changer by design-focused Metropolis Magazine.

Despite its previous transgressions, we have to admire Design Within Reach’s commitment to turning itself around, as well as its emphasis on supporting upcoming designers and working with reputable manufacturers to create high-quality products that last.

We do see, however, a lot of potential in DWR’s ability to promote not just great design, but also environmentally responsible practices. DWR has already proven that it can reclaim its position as a thought leader in the design world. Hopefully the next step is to use this prominence to promote a green design revolution.


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Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.