why interior designers are turning to retail

“It was never really part of the plan to launch a product line,” says interior designer Nicola Harding when discussing her new homeware line NiX. Initially just an online offering, the project quickly evolved when Harding transformed her London studio into a showroom-cum-workspace to showcase the pieces.

The collection features furniture, lighting, accessories and fabric with the refined yet reassuringly cosy aesthetic that Harding — who is behind residential projects and hotels such as London’s Beaverbrook Town House and Hampton Court’s The Mitre — is widely known for.

She joins the growing number of designers who in recent months have produced their own lines and, more significantly, taken the leap to open physical shops — in spite of struggling high streets — rubbing against current retail convention.

“As we already have the site as our design studio, the economics are not the same as a shop that must drive enough revenue to pay for the overheads,” says Harding. “It provides an opportunity for customers to experience the product quality and craftsmanship first hand.”

With retailers feeling the pinch since the pandemic, launching a business in the current climate is arguably not for the faint-hearted. But Harding believes interior designers — already accustomed to making bespoke pieces for projects — have a knowledge of how a piece fits within a whole room that puts them at an advantage compared with conventional furniture makers. They possess, she says, a unique understanding of “how a home is put together and how to make it sing” and an eye for “the pieces that really make a difference”.

This could explain why so many designers are now branching into product design: “The knowledge of what is available in the market to fulfil client needs — both from a design point of view and a quality and durability perspective — informs where there are gaps in the market, and this drives the product strategy,” Harding says.

Her new collection includes an articulated floor lamp (£950) inspired by one she inherited from her grandfather and a spindle side table (£495).

Nicola Harding has turned her London studio into a showcase for her new homeware line NiX: ‘It provides an opportunity to experience the product quality and craftsmanship first hand’ © Kristin PerersSmall wood side tables in black, white and wood finishHarding’s spindle side table

It is clear that this current crop of interior designers, whose popularity has flourished in no small part thanks to Pinterest and Instagram, is taking a different approach to engage a fresh generation of decorating obsessives.

Swedish-born designer Martin Brudnizki opened his first bricks-and-mortar shop for his product line And Objects on London’s Pimlico Road in October. Despite strong online sales since he and his business partner Nicholas Jeanes launched the brand in 2015, Brudnizki believes having a physical space will give it a new dimension; especially since, in the luxury market at least, there appears to be an undimmed demand to see and touch the products in person.

“We design a lot of furniture, bigger pieces like sofas and armchairs, and increasingly people wanted to know where they could see and sit on them. So we started to think we would benefit from having a shop, and creating a whole world around that,” he says. “We also wanted to create a community through events, workshops and dinners to allow people to experience the brand and our values.”

After the successful unveiling of his furniture and lighting collection this summer, Bryan O’Sullivan, the designer behind projects such as The Berkeley Bar, opened his first retail space in September, which adjoins his long-term collaborator Claridge’s.

Martin Brudnizki and Nicholas Jeanes with colourful chairs in their showroomMartin Brudnizki (seated) and Nicholas Jeanes have gone bricks-and-mortar with their line And Objects despite healthy online sales: ‘People wanted to know where they could see and sit on our sofas’ © Boz GagovskiNeutral coloured cushions with coloured frill trim in a pileCushions in Wanderer fabric

“There are always risks with any chance you take in life. I am a firm believer in taking a deep breath and diving in,” he says when asked about the potential pitfalls. “We worked on the collection for over three years — diligently refining the craftsmanship of each piece, raising the standards of each item and perfecting the quality. So when we were provided with the opportunity to open the gallery we leapt at the chance to showcase this hard work.”

He hopes this is just the start. O’Sullivan’s team, which includes his husband and the business’s commercial director James O’Neill, are no strangers to the retail landscape; and they have ambitious plans for a long-term rollout.

“We will be opening galleries in more cities, expanding the standalone business of the collection and hoping to reach new corners of the world with our pieces,” he says.

Those pieces start at £3,600 for a “Rupert” ottoman and go up to £44,000 for a full-length “Jelly Fish” mirror. But O’Sullivan is keen to emphasise the shop’s ultimate success does not hinge on the number of products sold. “It is not a volume-based business,” he says. “It’s quality over quantity, this is reflected in the product offering.”

Also in the works in London this autumn is a showroom and working studio “with the look and feel of a gallery” for Mimi Shodeinde of Miminat Designs, which has a residential and commercial portfolio that spans Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Mimi Shodeinde with a silvery vessel on a plinth Mimi Shodeinde of Miminat Designs: ‘the look and feel of a gallery’ © Edvinas BruzasPendant lightingJude Pendant light by Miminat Designs

Like Brudnizki, Shodeinde, who launched her collection of high-end bespoke furniture online in 2015, believes a shop is key for connecting with her wealthy audience. “Many people have questioned why I would want the overheads in this climate but it was always the plan to have a physical space to showcase my work,” she says. “You can only fully appreciate the level of materiality and construction when you experience them in person. That will in itself encourage sales,” she adds.

Meanwhile Beata Heuman, known for her bold and playful interiors, recently opened a west London studio and showroom for Shoppa — her collection of fabrics, wallpapers, lighting and accessories and furniture — which she launched in 2020. Pieces include the recent “Gurli” rug (from £3,600) and the cult favourite “Dodo Egg Light” (£1,188). Last year saw an increase in sales by 45 per cent and Heuman is set to introduce about 20 pieces to her range by the end of the year.

A common thread is that these designers are aiming to provide a retail experience that is far from ordinary, creating showrooms with the convivial look and feel of a private, well-heeled home rather than a conventional showroom (visits are mostly appointment only). Shoppa’s new home is an impressive two-storey Grade II-listed Georgian building with spaces mostly designed as specific rooms in which visitors are encouraged to lounge and linger.

Beata Heuman sitting on blue sofa and smilingBeata Heuman in her new west London showroom, where she sells her Shoppa line © Sophie DavidsonBrass and glass lanternHeuman’s Dodo Egglight

It echoes another one of the industry’s most in-demand tastemakers, Sophie Ashby, founder and creative director of Studio Ashby, who opened her own shop-cum-studio last year in the former Blewcoat School, a grand Grade I-listed building in Victoria. This followed the 2020 launch of her product line Sister.

“We knew our shop wasn’t going to be racks of product and multiples,” says Ashby. “It was going to be a shoppable version of our world where it’s all about the experience — the playlist, the smells, the books, the curation, the art, the layering, all of it . . . I wanted it to be like someone has stepped into my home or a town house that we had designed.”

Ashby’s designs — she recently launched a capsule fabric collection (from £149 per metre) — are a mix of items that she describes as emerging from a “playground of ideas”.

But she is honest about the challenges faced when running the retail business. “You need to be made of pretty strong stuff as a designer,” she says. “Shipping internationally is a big part of the business — 40 per cent of our clients are in the US. When you are dealing with high-value furniture and trying to ship it around the world, that part is no fun. It is hard as an independent, self-funded business to make it on its own. But I think it’s all about the long game.”

Harding says it is crucial not to chase immediate growth. “It is important to run a sustainable business and that means not trying to go too fast . . . We want to deliver a great service with a great product, so it is important for us not to build too much complexity that requires huge sales.”

Based on how well-received these interior designers feel their product lines have been, will we see more brands follow suit and open physical shops, prioritising the hands-on experience over quick sales?

Harding agrees that customers are welcoming this more considered retail environment.

“The fashion for cheap disposable products is waning,” she says. “People have a greater awareness and appetite for paying for a better-quality product that will last”.

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