Interview: John Edelman, CEO of Design Within Reach

2018-07-28T06:24:29+00:00

By Hollie Deese and Emily Griffin

Design Within Reach CEO and President John Edelman never studied design. But that has never held him back from appreciating, elevating and celebrating it.

At first Edelman pursued his interest in fashion and began his career in the shoe business with his brother, Sam Edelman, with the Sam & Libby line. Edelman eventually left his brother’s company and joined his parents in the leather making industry.

He bought Design Within Reach in 2010 and has repositioned and re-branded the furniture store, and has opened about 25 brick and mortar locations since. He’s passionate about getting to know his customers and making sure they are getting exactly what they need, not just a sales pitch.

“John McPhee and I worked together to bring the company back to life,” Edleman says. “Within the first few months, we had gotten rid of all knock-offs. We brought the catalog back. We started upgrading the website. And we closed, in our first year, half of the 75 locations.”

Within four years under Edelman, DWR was doing double the volume with half the stores and went from losing 20 million dollars to making 20 million. They have partnered with Herman Miller, and once profitable, they began launching their own product.

Edelman was in Nashville for the Gulch DWR store opening last month and sat down with Nashville Interiors to talk about what makes his model such a success, his respect for the designers and his disdain for the style descriptor “midcentury modern.”

NI: What is it about DWR’s modern style that you think appeals to people?

Edelman: A few years ago, Steve Jobs sat on a stage with an iPhone in his hand, and it was a blank stage, raw, not even a curtain. There was a Saarinen Tulip Table, and a Corbusier LC-3 Chair. And as he stood up there in his black T-shirt, and he held up the iPhone, the message was to me, “If I do the best job in the world in this iPhone that it’s as well-designed as classic modern furniture.” And the world switched like that. What we called modern is now almost every day. You can’t turn on a television show or watch a video or anything without everything that we work with being shown. I think people’s minds just shifted. When you think of Nashville, it’s not just country. Right? It’s music, it’s art, it’s the whole scene. And to me, that defines what modern should be.

People refer to us as the kings of mid-century modern. In my opinion, midcentury modern died. Midcentury modern lived in the mid century. So between 1950 and 1960, 98 percent of all the products are gone. The 2 percent that survived was real modern. And real modern is being designed forever.

NI: Any pushback on brick-and-mortar when there’s been such a drive to online?

Edelman: I think that’s totally untrue for me. I think the retailers that are overexposed with 1,000 stores have been beholden more to shareholders than to their passion for the core business. Right now we have 27 stores and that’s nothing in a country the size of the United States and Canada, but I don’t think we should have 300 Design Within Reach stores.

NI: How much say do you have in the design of the store space?

Edelman: My business partner John McPhee and I work together on almost everything – we okay every single detail. We’re an amazing team because I’m not a designer, but we’re involved in every detail. Our names are out there and it’s our faces on the line. We have a duty to the consumer to provide something that is better and better each time.

NI: What is most important when it comes to the consumers?

Edelman: We don’t want to sell them something that’s not right for them. Every single employee in our studios are trained as designers. I watched someone come in one day, years ago, to the New York City studio. And I saw guy trying to sell an ottoman, the best presentation I’ve ever seen in my life about this ottoman. I was enthralled. This guy says, “That’s really great, but I’m looking for a bed.” That’s where we developed part of our client experience. Whoever asks the most questions wins. Don’t sell, we don’t sell at all here. We facilitate people living a beautiful life. That’s the big difference.

NI: What drew you to Nashville?

Edelman: Places like Nashville are a natural extension for us, where they haven’t had the product. It’s a big deal for us. Nashville is fresh, it’s a completely new market. We believe that modern can go anywhere, so the more we can show that, the better it is. I went to Pinewood Social and it’s a really good example of what Nashville is – totally retro, totally modern.

NI: What do you hope to achieve here in Nashville?

Edelman: What I hope to achieve is to educate people about modern. People always say, “Oh, I wish I could live like that,” or “I’m not cool enough to live like that,” but there’s a reason it’s been around so long. If you look at our environment, our job is not to tell you how to live, it’s to ask how you’d like to live and then make that fantasy come true.

DWR Opening

Pictures from the DWR opening celebration that included a live letterpress demo from Hatch Show Print and interaction with DWR designers Jonah Takagi, Jeffrey Bernett, Nicholas Dodziuk, Sean Yoo, Rich Brilliant Willing, Egg Collective and Judy White.

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