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.

"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."

Professor Dhar carries the fashion analogy further. He refers to a "democratization of style," or "Gapification," where there is a decreasing distinction among social classes in dress. Marketers like The Gap have created a type of affordable yet chic "uniform," such as khaki pants, white Oxford shirt, and sweater slung over the shoulders. This ensemble might be worn by a high school freshman from the Bronx or by a wealthy sorority sweetheart in Atlanta. It was just a matter of time, says Dhar, before this democratic approach to sportswear trickled down to lamps and blenders.

While mass discount stores are just picking up on this trend, higher-end mass-marketers of housewares, like IKEA, Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, and Umbra are well aware of it.

IKEA, the Swedish design empire with a clientele spanning 29 countries, reports an increasingly well-educated, thin-walleted customer buying its low-end bar stools, minimalist glass-and-metal tables, and voluptuous polyurethane kitchen gadgets.

At Bowl & Board, too, a $12 Umbra trash bin, by Karim Rashid, is selling off the shelves, says Diane Rosolik, buyer for the Cambridge, Mass., housewares boutique. Karim Rashid was named last year's Young Designer of the Year by the Brooklyn Museum.

"The biggest shock," says Ms. Rosolik, "is that nowadays, young college boys even seem to have a design sense, a vision of how they want their rooms to look."

Target and Kmart executives are aiming for this design-savvy consumer. Graves says that "retailers have discovered that it costs almost the same to hire a cutting-edge designer or architect as it does an unimaginative run-of-the-mill one." In essence, quality design can be had at little financial risk to stores like Target and Kmart.

These stores are also trying to differentiate themselves, particularly against the biggest US discounter: Wal-Mart.

Certainly, a sassy Graves wall clock is a different look for Target. Graves himself is a product of the trendsetting Italian design company, Alessi, where he produced pepper mills, sugar bowls, coffeemakers, and other products sold at prices upwards of $200.

At Target, Graves's designs of picture frames, utensil holders, candlesticks, toasters, hand mixers, vases, and patio furniture will range in price from $3.99 to $159.99.

At Kmart, Martha Stewart's eponymous Everyday Garden line will debut this spring. Stewart is expanding into signature plants, seeds, outdoor furniture, and such gardening products as bamboo rakes, Japanese-style weeders, and a Miami-inspired outdoor cafe set, all priced from $1.50 to $99.99.

Stewart's affiliation with Kmart began in 1987, but weak publicity efforts soured the relationship. Realizing the gold mine he had in the queen of "good things," Kmart's chief executive pushed for a multimillion-dollar ad campaign to revitalize the partnership.

Griping by the competition

Designers are a competitive bunch, too. And Graves's move to sell to a broader audience is meeting some criticism. "Graves just wants to make money," asserts Gaetano Pesce of the Pesce Ltd. design firm in New York. Considered by many in his field to be at the forefront of jolting, singular design, Mr. Pesce says Graves is selling "old" designs as high art. He says that Graves's postmodernist delight in ornamentation, useless texture, and nostalgia are far from the cutting edge.

Graves says he does not want his designs to be so abstract that people won't know how to use a product. Pesce's recent volcano-inspired Vesuvio coffeepot was essentially an ambiguous and sculptural piece, while Graves has sought to be obvious about "what's a handle" and "where to sit."

He says that profit is a obviously a concern of any business enterprise - including Target's - and he hopes that by designing affordable pieces with both "pragmatic and symbolic functions, "he can put a smile on someone's face."

Apparently it's working. Jack Poissant, manager of the Tigard, Ore., Target store where Nancy Davis was checking out Graves's vase, reports that about half of the merchandise is sold out. The teakettle, ice bucket, and toaster sell best. "People come in and say, 'Wow.' "

*Elisabetta Coletti is an intern at the Monitor.

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