Nurturing New Talent
Design Within Reach’s Gulch studio filled with thoughtful designs
Photography by Mark Seelen, Peter Hapak and Jim Bastardo
Furniture retailer Design Within Reach has one goal — to make modern design accessible to everyone. And they don’t mean reproductions, but authentic pieces like the storied Eames chair from Herman Miller.
In 1999, when DWR was founded, such things just weren’t accessible to the average consumer then. The retailer has changed that by making innovative works from iconic designers available alongside pieces from current design up-and-comers and superstars.
Now the furniture company’s presence is growing in the Southeast, most recently with a 14,000-square-foot studio in Atlanta that opened April 2017, a pop-up in Charlotte, North Carolina, while they are building out a space, and now the Nashville studio in the Gulch.
“Nashville turned into such a hotbed of activity, more than it ever has been,” says DWR Southeast area manager Scott Miller. “A lot of things have been happening to where we thought it could be really good for us to go in and have a great footprint and bring the product to Nashville.”
And Miller says Nashville’s shoppers are already pretty sophisticated when it comes to knowing their Eero Saarinen from their Lawrence Laske.
“They recognized the classic pieces. They knew the Scandinavian pieces,” he says. “We already knew how much business we did online, and the Nashville ZIP codes were really, really strong. With the studio, I think we took a perfect spot. I think it fit Nashville very well. It’s modern and curated well, yet it has a wonderfully warm feel and palette to it. We’re thrilled that it turned out the way it did. And business is good.”
Miller says everyone from music managers to condo-dwelling baby boomers have been in, all ready to unclutter their lives and invest in some modern pieces. And they can also find pieces from today’s most progressive, up-and-coming designers that mix well with their existing keepsakes.
“We have Saarinen. We have George Nelson. We have Eames. But somebody like Sean Yoo builds a fabulous bed that just works beautifully with everything we have. He’s a cool guy, and his bed — that Matera bed — is exquisite. We have sold the daylights out of that.”
Designer Sean Yoo came to Nashville for the first time in June when the Gulch store opened, and while he was here he spent three nights in Music City with his girlfriend, hanging out downtown and shopping at the flea market. A huge Elvis fan, it was the only thing he had known about Tennessee before his trip.
“I was very pleasantly surprised at the youthful energy,” he says. “Obviously the whole music scene has a lot to do with it. But I just feel like Nashville has this energy about it, and at the same time, too, this kind of traditional value. Almost like a Southern version of a melting pot. DWR has always been lucky with choosing the right location, so I think they probably came at the right moment in the right place … for Nashville.”
Yoo has been working with Design Within Reach since 2005, one of the first designers DWR started working with under their own brand. Before that, it was just the licensing of larger names like Herman Miller or Knoll. After it was released in 2007, Yoo’s Matera bed quickly became one of the best sellers in the company’s history.
Since then Yoo has created a whole line for DWR around that bed that includes a side table, dresser, chest, mirror and storage bench.
Industrial design is not Yoo’s first career though. At the age of 22 he was the youngest city planner Los Angeles had ever hired and made more money than all of his friends combined. Then he was inspired by a trip to the Noguchi Museum in Queens. He began to see meaning and purpose in everyday objects and made a total life change.
“I had a beachfront condo,” Yoo says. “I was driving an Italian sports car, but I was miserable. I just knew that this was not what I should be doing with my life. So finally, at the age of 27, I decided I can’t do this anymore. I was just about to go crazy.”
So he sold everything — the car, the condo — and went to art school in Pasadena. Then he moved to Italy.
“I decided early on that if I wanted to move ahead in my career I needed to go to Europe and compete with the Italians and Germans and all the Europeans,” Yoo says. “So, after graduating from art school, I packed up everything again and decided to go to Italy. I went there without knowing a single word of Italian, and I just started knocking on doors. It was really difficult.”
That is until he became the first non-Italian ever to win the Young Designer of the Year Award in Milan in 2002.
“After that the doors started to open up,” he says. “But I didn’t think I was ready to come back into America yet. Then in 2005, Design Within Reach saw a chair that I designed for a Japanese company. They fell in love, and they just called me out of the blue. I almost crashed my Vespa when I heard the news.”
That is because when Yoo was in art school his dream had been to design for Design Within Reach. “Back in the days, I used to collect the catalogs,” he says. “For me, the DWR catalog was the most important thing, because of all the measurements and all the little drawings and histories and things like that. And I always said someday, someday I’d like to design for them.”
Yoo’s design style is influenced by his global upbringing, born in Seoul, raised in LA, career started in Milan, then five years designing in Mexico City.
“I always say it’s Asian spirituality, American freedom, Italian flair, and Mexican loco,” he says. “As an immigrant kid growing up in East LA, I think it was natural for me to adapt and natural for me to pick up different elements and make them into my own. Ultimately, it’s the whole experience of always living in a different place and always being an outsider. I think that carries into my design.”
The three women who make up Egg Collective — Stephanie Beamer, Crystal Ellis and Hillary Petrie — met when they were all 18-year-old freshmen at Washington University in St. Louis. They were instant friends even though they all were studying different disciplines — art, architecture and woodworking.
“We sort of jumped into designing our first collection together with the goal of really seeing our first line of products in 2012 at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair.” Ellis says. “It took us about nine months to design and then prototype our first pieces, and we released our first body of work.”
She says those nine months were like the dream, before they actually had a company, and were just designing in a small rental shop space, working out of an extra room at Ellis’ apartment to get the whole thing started. They knew that presenting at ICFF was a sink or swim experience.
“Our work would resonate with somebody or it wouldn’t, and we could move on from there knowing that we’d at least scratched the itch,” Ellis says.
But they ended up winning Best New Designer that year. And it is also where they first met Design Within Reach.
Egg Collective, like all of the designers who work with DWR, designs, sells and manufactures their own work. What they do with Design Within Reach is design-licensed, so DWR has purchased the design rights to the pieces and then produces them.
“We really love what they do and their commitment to emerging talent,” Ellis says.
Ellis says the Egg Collective takes inspiration from the world around them, creating a style they consider contemporary with a traditional craft.
“We all were makers as well as designers, so the process of construction is extremely important to us. The level of craft is very important to us,” Ellis says. “We think a lot about materials in our combinations. You can really add a richness to a piece of furniture by the materials that you make it out of.”
Petrie agrees that it is their intention that the pieces they are manufacturing and putting out into the world not only stand the test of time from a design perspective but from a construction perspective. Plus, they evoke their own personal histories, like the Harvey Mirror[SJ2] , a nod to Ellis’ grandfather, aeronautical engineer Thomas Harvey.
“We’re hoping and planning that these pieces will be around a lot longer than we will,” Petrie says. “We live our lives in and around these things, and they really do create memories.”
When they came to Nashville for the Design Within Reach opening, they stayed pretty close to the Gulch the few nights they were in town — long enough to experience one of the area’s biggest phenomena.
“There was this overwhelmingness of the bachelorette party crowds,” Petrie says. “I was just blown away to be honest, but I imagine there’s parts of Nashville that that doesn’t happen. But I wish we’d had more time to investigate because it seems like such a great city.”
Petrie and Beamer also hit up the flea market on their way out of town, and Petrie had to hold herself back from buying a Native American mortar and pestle.
“It was very expensive. I just couldn’t,” she says. “Plus it was going to be thirty pounds in my luggage so I needed to make good decisions.”