John Edelman, the new CEO of Design Within Reach, officially starts work on January 3, but he's already unofficially on the job and trying to orchestrate a turnaround for the woebegone retailer. He recently spent four days in San Francisco, brainstorming and meeting people. (For the time being, he'll be commuting between his home in Connecticut and DWR headquarters in California.) In his first interview since his appointment, he talks about the big mistakes that DWR has made, his background running his family's leather business, and the disrespect that many people show "to the entire nation of China." Here are some choice bits from the conversation:
FAST COMPANY: What's the first thing you did on the job?
EDELMAN: The first thing when I got to San Francisco was I had every catalog in the history of the company laid out in a room. I did this so that I can understand and relive what turned me on. I said to the staff, Let's see what made us magical—and profitable. It's beauty, it's education, and it's an extremely clear vision of design—bringing modern to people who don't go to design centers. I also know part of what it was originally was knocking off Knoll, and we're not going to do that.
I used to save the catalog. I want it to be a learning tool again. I don't want the term "sale" or "promotion" anywhere on it. I don't know if this is doable, but it's not a promotional tool—it's an educational tool.
What are the biggest mistakes that DWR has made?
A whole bunch: The de-emphasis of the Web is a big one. I don't get how you could see how we live today and not focus on that.
The Web site is weak.
A lot of money hasn't been invested into the site. If you invested what we would invest for five store openings, we'd have the best site in the industry. We don't have the best Web site right now, but we will. We're going to hire. We're going to inject a large dose of capital into IT. We will have Web-only product—in the past, they didn't seem to understand that the hunters and gatherers will find stuff there. Maybe we'll even go into vintage; I'm a huge fan of 1stdibs—and I have a feeling many of our clients are. But we can't do all of it overnight.
Are personnel changes coming?
People have been so rash in the past and made crazy decisions. I've been in the office for four days, and I'm thinking about how they were impacted by what they were told to do versus what they wanted to do. Management was mean, dictatorial and mercurial—that doesn't breed confidence. The people are hand-shy, like a dog that's been hit. It's almost like I have to put a piece of food in my hand to let them know I'm a friend. They don't really know me. They Googled me, and there's not much out there.
How about the Tools for Living business?
[Long silence] I have to think about how to phrase this: I love beautiful, hard-to-find, well-produced pieces. The perfect stapler? It's great design, and DWR should be involved in great design whether it's a bottle opener or a sofa. But I think it has to be more tightly curated—such a large assortment is not necessary—and it has to be available in all of our stores. If we're going to pay for those stores, I think you should have something in there that you can buy. It should be a super-tight collection of ever-changing items. Right now, it's overwhelming. I'm a hunter, and I'm a collector, but it's too much—I won't do it. There are too many SKUs. You can't overwhelm the consumer. You have to curate and excite them and give them a reason to go back for fresh merchandise. But I love the idea.
What's your design background?
I started in the business collecting furniture in flea markets on 26th Street [in New York]. I became an expert just by starting in the markets and researching. Then this amazing catalog showed up and helped educate me.
My grandparents made leather in Russia before immigrating in the early 1900s. My parents took over the business in the 1950s. Andy Warhol did graphic design for us—he never really spoke; he just did these amazing drawings.
I grew up in an incredibly eclectic home: Bruno chairs in our leather, Chesterfield sofa that my parents had made in London, Flos lighting fixture next Old Master paintings, Tiffany lamps bought from flea markets upstate for $20. But I didn't know the name of a design or a designer. It was only later, thanks to the thrill of the flea market, that I made that connection of my own. This was 12 or 13 years ago, and I bought stuff for nothing—Knoll tables for 200, Womb chairs for 400.
One of the common knocks, of course, is that much of what DWR stocks is not within financial reach. That isn't exactly in keeping with some of the history of modern design, which was meant to be somewhat more accessible to the masses.
I agree. I think if Charles and Ray Eames were producing today, they'd be in China. One of the unfair knocks in this business is against China. If you were to do a knockoff in China, that's bad taste, bad business, and bad form, but why not do a new design there? What's the problem? If you're saying it can't be done, what a disrespectful comment to the whole nation of China.
Ninety percent of women's footwear—even the upper part of the market—is made in China, and people are perfectly happy with it. The shoe business did not leave America for price. It left for ease of manufacturing and because American factories just couldn't adapt. If we work with a top designer, we can do it. It depends on the type of piece. They may not have the quality control in general, but you have to plant one of your employees in China to make sure you get that quality control. You have to get a perfect prototype and you have to babysit and you have to live with production. But you'd have to do that in Italy, America, or China. Just because it was made in Italy doesn't make is better. In real sourcing, you go to the best place—you should expect new DWR designs that are made in Italy, in America, in China. And it has to be heirloom quality.
That's not what many people say they have been getting from DWR anyway.
I can't say I disagree. But I know how to make things that last. It's not brain surgery. It just requires dedication to quality control.
You mentioned new designers.
DWR bringing design that was only available to designers—that was a great idea. But we've done that. Now we're going to develop new products from top designers—we'd like to work with people like Marc Newson, David Rockwell, Peter Marino. Without exclusivity, you can't make money. What DWR did in the past, without aspiring for exclusivity, was they knocked off. But there are ways to do things and have exclusivity that are profitable and honorable. There are some forms from the 1950s and 1960s that don't have authorship—we can have fun with that. Charles and Ray Eames got their big break at the Museum of Modern Art in a design contest [the 1948 International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture] and then started working with George Nelson and Herman Miller. We can mimic that type of thing.
I've reached out to some designers I adore, and they're going to do some work for us. It's not going to happen as quickly as I would like, but we might have some things available in May—that's turbo rocket-fueling your engines in this business.
So no more knockoffs?
The directional future of the company is not to do knockoffs. We will phase out of knockoffs and move toward originality.
Are you going to close stores?
Optimally, we'd do better with fewer, but we have 10-year leases and 5-year leases. They're expensive to break. It's a tough one.
You're coming on board with COO John McPhee, who worked with you at both Sam & Libby and Edelman Leather.
He's the balance to what I do. I'm not a fine-print guy. As a team, we're the whole package. I'm in charge of the passion, and he keeps me out of trouble. Working with us, we'll give you the exact same answer—from a different perspective. You know how some kids go ask Mom when they don't get the answer they want from Dad? You don't play that game with us.
Skeptics will say that this all sounds like relatively happy talk, which is what we'd expect.
At least they won't say I'm an asshole. Let's do another interview in six months—change isn't going to happen overnight. It can't.
Read more Design Within Reach coverage: The Rise and Fall of Design Within Reach
[Top Photo by Jonny Valiant]
[Edelman photo: Bonnie Edelman]