Haute designs, low prices
Housewares get the designer touch from such names as Michael Graves andMartha Stewart
Glad in a Nike baseball cap, Nancy Davis fondles a Michael Graves aluminum vase.Skip to next paragraph
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"It's modern, but clean modern," observes the Portland, Ore., resident. She regrets that the quirky housewares weren't available at Target before her recent wedding. A teakettle with a coach's whistle, a clock on Egyptian stilts, an ice bucket - all might have gone on her bridal registry.
"Won't my friends be shocked when I say I got them at Target? They look like something I'd buy in a fancy shop for twice the price," she enthuses.
Designer goods at a discount? Yes, Michael Graves, the Post-Modernist architect, is now hawking his designs alongside Pampers and Zebco fishing rods at Target, a national discount-store chain. He's not alone. Ralph Lauren sells a line of paint at Home Depot. And, domestic maven Martha Stewart, who puts her name on 200-thread count cotton bed sheets at Kmart, is expanding beyond her bed-and-bath line into gardening products.
Italian housewares and furniture once belonged to a rarefied club consisting of snobbish Milanese tastemakers and New York ladies-who-lunch. Today, the trendy minimalist lines and visionary forms of architects and industrial designers are increasingly available to the masses at affordable prices.
"If I design a vase for Steuben or a watch for Cartier," says Mr. Graves, "how long until my designs trickle down to other markets?" By offering "great design at affordable prices," at Target, Graves eliminates potential imitations of his designs and widens his fame.
The coming together of two worlds that seldom meet, says Robin Whitehurst, partner in the Chicago architectural firm Bailey Edward Design, hinges on three factors being in sync: consumers (demand side), retailers (supply side), and designers who are willing to sell their products to a broader market.
The hoopla over Apple Computer's new line of transparent grape, strawberry, lime, blueberry, and tangerine-colored IMacs, and Volkswagen's rejuvenated "Bug," is indicative of an American consumer hungry for distinctive expressions of whimsy in everyday objects.
The merchandising of a lifestyle
That appetite is whetted by an exposure to quality designs in myriad forms. The Internet, travel, home, and gardening magazines, and the prevalence of shows like "This Old House," "Martha Stewart Living," and cable's Home & Garden Television channel, are all contributing to Everyman's embrace of better design.
Many people consider their homes mirrors of themselves. By purchasing a product undersigned by a trusted connoisseur like Ms. Stewart, say experts, consumers feel validated in their own taste: If Kmart's offerings of sheets, comforters, and towels are good enough for Martha, then they must be good enough for me!
While not a designer, Stewart has been wildly successful in the merchandising of what Graves calls "an elevated quality of domestic life."
The fashion industry has already gone down this designer-discount road, in effect, teaching American consumers - of all incomes - to look for sophisticated goods at discount prices.
Discounters like Marshalls and T.J. Maxx are tapping an eager market of consumers willing to buy less-than-perfect Donna Karan and Calvin Klein "irregulars," based chiefly on recognizable brand names.
For example, Brenda Micetich, a financial analyst from Edmonton, Alberta, never buys anything that's not on sale, but she decidedly prefers designer clothing. "I sometimes go to T.J. Maxx or Target when I'm traveling in the States, but I'm just as likely to look for a bargain at Lord & Taylor and Macy's. It's great that I can get more value now."
Rhavi Dhar of the Yale School of Management in New Haven, Conn., says that discount designer products feed consumer "aspirations of buying better things."
The associate professor of marketing says that you might really want a Rolex, but you feel too guilty to splurge and feel you're flaunting your status and wealth. But that guilt disappears when you get a designer name at a bargain; It becomes savvy shopping. This is why many wealthier consumers might be eager to buy into a piece of the Graves name with his Target teakettle instead of his tony Italian version. "People are looking for value, on both ends of the financial spectrum."