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BEN THOMPSON DESIGN RESEARCH; HE FOSTERED A RETAIL REVOLUTION BY COMBINING HOME-DESIGN CATEGORIES.

Call him Ben Thompson, Knight First Class of the Order of the Lion of Finland.

That's the same Ben Thompson who, with his wife, Jane, masterminded the acclaimed rebuilding of Faneuil Hall in Boston and Union Station in Washington.

He was chairman of architecture at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, a founding partner of the Architects' Collaborative with no less than Walter Gropius, a painter and a restaurateur (and that's the short list).

Oh, and Ben Thompson began Design Research and introduced Marimekko to the United States and fostered a retail revolution by combining home-design products and categories.

"His idea was not about architecture at all," explained Jane. "It was about making architecture into a living space, making no distinction between building and interior and content -- a continuum. It was sort of a totality of design."

Design Research came about because there was no retail source for those contents. He opened a small storefront on Brattle Street off Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., in 1953. Eventually, the enterprise expanded to New York (Lexington Avenue, then 57th Street) about 1962, Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco about 1965 and larger stores culminating in the famous glass headquarters in 1969.

That was about the time Peter Sprague wrested control of the chain in a bitter court battle. He expanded Design Research to The Embarcadero in San Francisco; Beverly Hills, Calif.; Philadelphia; and Washington before the company ended in financial collapse in 1978.

In its time, there was nothing at retail resembling the chain's concept or its mix of furniture, soft goods, accessories and toys. An unsigned 1989 article titled "The Design Research Prophesy" noted that Ben's credo of fine and functional art as inseparable was realized by store settings on a domestic scale in a homelike arrangement featuring products from around the globe with strong tactile and visual appeal.

One discovery was the bright print dresses worn at the Finnish Pavilion at the Brussels World's Fair in 1959. He tracked down Armi Ratia, founder of Marimekko, and ... you know the rest. The knighthoods he and Jane received this summer, called Finland's highest recognition of civic and artistic distinction, were for a lifelong effort to bring the work and values of so many of that nation's creative luminaries to the world.

Ben, born in 1918, is no longer up to public appearances or interviews. There are more than a few followers to extol his accomplishments.

"He was quite fascinating," observed Julia McFarlane, now co-owner of Ad Hoc in New York -- one of many stores Ben spawned. "He was very open about explaining the spirit of what he wanted the store to be."

Initiative was encouraged. But she and a colleague once dressed up part of the New York store with blinking lights and half-yellow, half-blue walls. "He came down and said, `put it back; keep it simple,' " she recalled.

"When I went to apply for a job, I was neither tall nor blond nor thin," reported Pauline Dora. Eventually she became vice president of stores, then president of Conran's operations in the United States. She is now the owner of Design Solutions in New Canaan, Conn.

Dora said Ben loved retail's immediacy. Architecture takes eight, 10, 15 years to execute an idea, she noted.

"He wanted a place that was atmospheric and fun," she continued. "The first time I saw his store, I was blown away" by the lighting, music and hangings.

Ben would walk in and say, "let's do a display." Once he took a beautiful bowl and inserted some elegant candles, and customers began buying candles within minutes, she recalled.

"It was an event all the time," said McFarlane -- Joe Columbo furniture, Wegner teak or Wirkkala handblown glass, then Bolivian wool. "He liked pyrotechnics."

Dora and Jane Thompson agreed he was more of an ideas person than a good businessman, though his wife pointed out the company was still profitable when he lost control.

"He was my mentor," said Dora. "I adore him."

"HIS IDEA WAS ABOUT MAKING ARCHITECTURE INTO A LIVING SPACE -- A CONTINUUM." JANE THOMPSON
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Author:Beatty, Gerry
Publication:HFN The Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network
Date:Nov 27, 2000
Words:675
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