Design center opens its doors

When the doors of the 51-year-old Atlanta Decorative Arts Center opened to the public for the first time last week in Buckhead, it reflected the latest change to come to the battered interior design industry.

Like travel agents before them, interior designers are at a crossroads in their business as they learn to deal with the impact of the Internet, constriction of the recession and the democratization of access to furniture, fabrics and ideas.

As even highest-end shoppers have less money to spend on décor and as people with a knack for decorating feel more empowered to do so on their own — thanks to inspiration from TV shows and blogs — the exclusive ADAC showrooms have decided to finally let the public in to look, though not necessarily to buy.

Shoppers at the five-story center — the campus is about the size of a city block — will still need to partner with a designer to do their purchasing. But they will now be able to browse the showrooms on their own and see or even touch the furniture there in the same way they would be able to at Crate & Barrel or Pottery Barn.

The hope, ADAC general manager Katie Belveal said, is to show customers the wide range of pieces available at the center — and nowhere else — and convince them of the value an interior designer brings to a project. Whether the move will result in increased traffic and sales for the center remains to be seen. Other similar centers around the country have opened their doors to mixed results.

“In today’s economy, you can’t really weed out people,” said Jason Moattar, co-president of the 49-year-old rug company Moattar Ltd., which is located in ADAC. “But people walking in doesn’t mean they’re buying. Designers are still our bread and butter. They’re repeat clients.”

ADAC, long the main resource for Atlanta's high-end interior design community, is among the last of the major design centers in the country to invite in the public. When shoppers walk in for the first time, they will find a maze of glass-walled showrooms, each filled with magazine-like displays of top-shelf furniture and pricey fabrics and rugs.

For decades, centers like it were essentially private clubs.

Designers make their money by charging hourly rates for their services, by adding a markup to the wholesale price of furniture they acquire, or by working with a customer to create a design budget for a project. In the recession, many designers were required to take on smaller projects or even concierge-type duties — floral arranging for a client, recommending a good rug cleaner — in order to stay afloat, said Craig Cross, marketing director of the Seattle Design Center.

“They weren’t making a whole lot of money by doing that, but they were staying on the map,” Cross said.

Prestigious firms that turned away such smaller projects took a bigger economic hit, he said. In Georgia, the interior design industry suffered. In 2007, there were 2,200 interior design professionals in the state, 87 percent of them in metro Atlanta, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 2011, the number had fallen to 1,410 design professionals. Salaries also fell from an average of $50,700 a year in 2007 to $45,740 in 2011.

Just as high fashion trends trickle down to the mass market, the same is true for interior design. Television shows, magazines, design blogs and mass market retailers have made some of those high-end trends seem more attainable.

This increased interest in design has translated into a demand by consumers for greater access to the best the field has to offer.

Opening the doors at centers such as ADAC has been a growing trend, said Cheryl Durst, executive vice president and CEO of the International Interior Design Association. Letting shoppers into centers demystifies what interior designers do and adds transparency to their work.

That is why the 40-year-old Seattle Design Center began admitting the general public 21 years ago, Cross said. Historically, design centers such as Seattle and ADAC have been off-limits the public unless a shopper was a client of a designer and accompanied by the designer. While the move to public access was welcomed by Seattle consumers, Cross said, it wasn’t by many designers.

“There are those in our industry who still see it as a bit of treason,” Cross said.

Because a designer showroom can offer more options than a retail store in terms of finishes, fabrics and other custom details, a customer can wind up with a room that looks nothing like it came from the pages of a catalog. But designers, much like travel agents, make their money by serving as the middle person between their clients and the showrooms that sell those goods.

If shoppers can buy things on their own, why use a designer? It’s a question that underscores the discontent some designers have with ADAC’s decision.

In High Point, N.C., the epicenter of the U.S. furniture market, Association of Interior Design Professionals president Reanza Murray said showrooms that have started to sell to retail customers have lost business from designers.

“If they’re open to the public, they don’t need us,” she said.

The $80 billion furniture industry has suffered the past several years, although it is starting to recover. Before the recession, furniture sales grew by 7 or 8 percent a year, said Ray Allegrezza, the editor in chief of Furniture Today. Now, sales are growing by 2 or 3 percent annually.

While Allegrezza said some affluent shoppers have continued to spend, the slow economy has delayed purchases for other customers, who are reconsidering what they need and when.

Even the wealthy aren’t spending as freely. In its latest survey of Americans with a net worth of more than $800,000, the American Affluence Research Center found just 17 percent intend to spend more money on home furnishings in the next 12 months, while 31 percent intend to spend less.

Designers like Carole Weaks, the owner and lead designer at C. Weaks Interiors in Atlanta, said that while business has picked up this year, 2011 was the worst she’s had. Business is still down 20 to 30 percent from five years ago.

Designer Stan Topol, of Stan Topol & Associates, said people with an eye for matching patterns may not think of the necessity of buying a chair that keeps one’s back comfortable, or how difficult it might be to rise from a couch that’s too low to the ground.

And when a center hall table can cost $4,500 or a sofa can cost $20,000 or more, a mistake can be costly, even if the buyer has deep pockets. Topol said he welcomed the public to the showrooms, but he also applauded ADAC for requiring buyers to be interior designers.

“They can’t replace what we do,” he said.

Erin Kasari, a freelance writer and blogger at VivaLaLife.com, said she is likely to browse the center for inspiration, but will try to recreate a piece or a mood on her own.

“I like what I’m able to put together in my own house without a designer,” she said.

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