New York Boutiques.
Four newcomer shops may hold the answer. Though each is very different in concept, the boutiques, all of which opened last fall, reflect the strong visions of those who own and run them. Powerhouse chains like Crate & Barrel and Design Within Reach may have financial might and host the most floor space--DWR recently opened a 20,000-square-foot flagship in Midtown, for example--but there's still a place for smaller retail environments of the high-end variety. These new spaces are personal and intimate, with well-made, often hard-to-get products presented in a thoughtful yet accessible way.
"Our design world is so intensely curated and run over," says the 45-year-old furniture and lighting designer David Weeks, who recently opened his own showroom on Walker Street in Tribeca after being represented by the gallerist Ralph Pucci for about a decade. "Everyone knows about every product now. It's not like you can be that guy who says, 'Oh, I've got that special sheepskin whatever,' because it's already available in five other stores. You have to find that weird thing or unknown designer, or do an edition no one else has."
For Weeks, it hasn't proved very difficult to do editions no one else has: Most of the lighting, furniture, and accessory collections in his shop are his own, and many of the pieces aren't available elsewhere. He adds, though, that having a brick-and-mortar store has provided a strong foundation for the brand and a boost to its post-Pucci reputation. "All of a sudden people take you much more seriously," he says. "They know your commitment level."
Next door to Weeks's space on Walker Street is Stillfried Wien, run by the Austrian couple Anna and Michael Trubrig. (Anna, 32, previously worked in the fine arts; Michael, 39, was a hedge-fund manager.) Upon deciding to move to the U.S. and open the store, they felt a loft wouldn't make a big enough impact for their entree into the New York design scene. So they found a ground-floor space with, in Michael's words, "presence," and then had the Vienna-based firm Kim + Heep design it. He adds, "For the segment we're in, you need a brick-and-mortar store. I don't think you can sell these things purely online."
Stillfried Wien primarily carries contemporary furniture from Austria, Germany, and Switzerland--countries familiar to the Trubrigs and close to their hearts. Brands in stock include e15, Team 7, and Nils Holger Moormann; the store serves as the exclusive U.S. importer for several of the manufacturers on its floors and shelves, among them Bullenberg and Spolia. The pieces, many of them rare--at least in the U.S.--demand to be seen and experienced in person. "Most of the people who come in here say they want to touch and try the pieces," Anna says.
Curiosity and tactility also draw visitors to Atelier Courbet, located on Mott Street in Nolita and run by the French-born entrepreneur Melanie Courbet. Central to the store's ethos is the value of master craftsmanship. Courbet, 32, is especially interested in multigenerational French and Japanese makers, but the pieces in her store come from all over. "I look for pieces that come from a workshop that has a history of passing along techniques with a great level of discipline and training," she says.
After a career in art and design that included stints working for the architect Thom Mayne and designer Dror Benshetrit, Courbet decided to open the store, which she says "reflects a personality or lifestyle that touches me." She adds, "We're not selling things for value that may appreciate; we're selling things for our client to appreciate their value."
The furniture, lighting, accessories, and textiles in Courbet's store come from a wide range of makers and brands, including Domeau & Peres, Puiforcat, and Oyuna. The space also features an adjacent room for exhibitions. Earlier this year, in collaboration with arts patron Sabine de Gunzburg, the store showed a series of six artist rugs, including an edition of three by Frank Gehry, and from May 10 through June 30 it's presenting an exhibit on Dutch craftsmanship curated by Amsterdam-based designer Aldo Bakker.
Breaking the ground-floor retail mold is Design-Apart, an apartment-turned-showroom concept founded by Italian-born design advisor Diego Paccagnella. His aim is to connect the client with the design process and show the pieces--mostly from Italy-based designers and manufacturers--as they're intended to be used: inside an actual living quarters. More than a store, Design-Apart is really a platform. Paccagnella believes the commercial aspect disappears from his business and gives the client a "more complete, deeper idea" of how each product is made and used.
"You can walk into many Italian design showrooms in Soho, but you're not invited to participate in the design process," says Paccagnella, 3 8, who opened the first Design-Apart space on West 25th Street and plans to bring the concept to Australia later this year. (Each year, he plans to move into a different New York loft.) "It's hard to know that behind those products there are very skillful people who could help you realize your own sofa."
Collaborating with designers such as Jaime Hayon, Lanzavecchia + Wai, and Renata Bonfanti--as well as brands like TMItalia, Elica, and Berto--Paccagnella has furnished, accessorized, and customized the apartment, where Design-Apart hosts events, dinners, and talks. His intent is to showcase new ways in which design can be made today, whether in small production runs, with 3-D printing, or in other "very specific, very accurate, very experimental ways." He adds, "The idea is that the designs here are apart from mass-production. "
Connecting these store concepts are products of uncompromising quality and New York City itself, which Weeks describes as "ground zero" for design retail. Though having a location in the city certainly helps in establishing a brand, well-made products of lasting value remain the ultimate selling point. "I think people more and more want to buy furniture for the long-term," says Michael Trubrig.
Adds Courbet, "People want to acquire pieces they'll be proud of and happy to pass along to their grandchildren. When you're inheriting your grandma's china or silverware, those aren't pieces she bought at Ikea."
PORTRAIT BY ROB KULISEK