Four New England importers talk about tea kettles, chiropractors, and the importance of importing.
Interviews by Louis Postel | Publisher/Editor | Photography by David Desroches | Design Times
One day last winter, four New England importers set aside competition to talk shop with Design Times. Three of them import Italian furniture to showrooms in Boston, Colby Andrus for Sedia; Rick Garofalo, for Repertoire; and Rick Grossman, for Adesso. The fourth, Jack Markuse, president of the Markuse Corporation in Woburn, Massachusetts is the U.S. agent for Alessi, a line of Italian housewares and designed accessories.
Together, they have the will to make New England a center for design all ultima moda. And where there’s a will, there’s a way.
DESIGN TIMES: Why Italian furniture in Boston?
GROSSMAN: Boston, of all places should have a real appreciation for cutting edge furniture design, because it had such an early start.
DESIGN TIMES: How do you mean?
GROSSMAN: I am thinking of Ben Thompson. He started importing European furniture and textiles for Design Research [in Cambridge] in 1953, so this population has been well educated to design for the last 40 years, but we’re still trying to get it started.
DESIGN TIMES: What’s the hung up?
GROSSMAN: Boston is hung up on the classics. Classic contemporary furniture is very well appreciated in this market because architects love it. And why do architects love it? Because it isn’t overly decorative and it doesn’t intrude much on architectural space. Every architect who graduates from the Graduate School of Design who is going to put money into furniture is going to buy Breuer and Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. They are going to buy, almost exclusively, some newly made reproduction of furniture that was designed 50 years ago.
DESIGN TIMES: What’s wrong with that?
GROSSMAN: There is nothing wrong with it. It’s wonderful stuff, and it looks great, and the prices are fair. But it’s not cutting edge, and we’re not educating ourselves any longer. Furniture technology keeps moving forward, at least in Europe, and the new furniture is beautiful to look at and comfortable, too. But architects are resistant to it. Why? We don’t buy our cars that way. We don’t buy our clothes that way. So why are architects specifying furniture that way? I don’t get it.
ANDRUS: Well, what architects really understand is space. You’re not taught about interior design in architecture school, and on a project, interior design is generally a separate contract altogether. That’s why architects go back to the classics. It’s easy to think about.
GAROFALO: Also, the roots of the “new” furniture are in the classics. Things are more decorated now, but the bones still come from the classics.
GROSSMAN: Right, but when someone comes to me and says, “I really want a Corbusier sofa,” I always stop and wonder why. It’s not as comfortable as pieces made by designers working today, and it’s not more beautiful. It’s just more accepted. But why should our comfort level with a piece of furniture come from its “acceptance” rather than from the feeling we get in our backs? I may be overstating it, and I don’t mean to be insulting, but I wish America would grow up. I really would like to see the architectural community open up and start supporting living artists and more inventive design.
MARKUSE: Architects aren’t the problem with the market. There aren’t very many of them, after all. He bigger problem is that Americans tend to look at contemporary design not as a way of life, but as a lifestyle. Conran’s is a ifestyle. Crate and Barrel is a lifestyle. The issue, as I see it, is that there are a lot of people out there who like contemporary furniture design and appreciate it, but who also feel that when they “grow up” – quote, unquote – that when it’s time to get “serious” about, say, a dining room table that they expect to have for 10,15, or 20 years, then they won’t want contemporary furniture anymore.
DESIGN TIMES: Why not?
MARKUSE: Because they don’t want to invest a lot of money in what they perceive as being only lifestyle, not life. Basically they think, “Great! I’ll do mauve and gray for six or eight years, then move on to the next thing.” Whereas what they think they want for the long haul is something by Ethan Allen. That’s what we have to work to change.
GROSSMAN: I know exactly what you mean. One day a young fellow walked into Adesso wearing an Armani suit and a Porsche watch and Vuarnet glasses, and he’s got his BMW parked out at the hydrant, of course. And he’s just been at Bang & Olufsen buying this really contemporary stuff.
GAROFALO: Right. This guy lives his life like a checklist.
GROSSMAN: Exactly. So he comes into Adesso, big as life, looks around, and says: My taste are very much like my mother’s – very traditional. “It just didn’t compute. I’m sure I smiled, but I wanted to wring his neck. Why must our population be so traditional in their furnishings when it doesn’t fit the rest of their lifestyle and the rest of their taste?
MARKUSE: Well, here’s one way to look at it. The BMW and the Bang & Olufsen and the watch are all trophies. They represent a certain economic status, and they are easily identified brand names. But when you’re buying furniture, you can’t just pick up the brand name. You actually have to appreciate it.
DESIGN TIMES: Are there things about Italian products that have to be redesigned or reinterpreted for the American market? Or things that just don’t fly here at all?
MARKUSE: Well, we ran into something like that early on, with the teakettles. The first kettle we marketed was designed by Richard Zappa and it was very European. By that I mean two things: It had a trigger mechanism that opened the spout to allow you to pour, and you cleaned it by boiling water and vinegar and then pouring that mixture out through the spout. That’s very un-American, and we remembered that when we asked Michael Graves to design the second kettle – you know, the one with the bird and the whistle.
DESIGN TIMES: But what’s un-American about Zappa’s design?
MARKUSE: Well, during the research stage we did a study of Early American teakettles. And what I got from that is that the lid of a teakettles has to come off.
DESIGN TIMES: Why?
MARKUSE: So you can clean it. Now, true, you can always clean a kettle by boiling a solution of vinegar and water as you do with Zappa’s teakettle, but in America, the way my mother cleaned the teakettle and the way my grandmother cleaned the teakettle is they took the lid off and put their hands in there and scrubbed it. That’s how you know a kettle is really clean in this country. And for some reason, you just can’t get past that.
GROSSMAN: Here’s another example: A European furniture manufacturer might make what we call a “German sit”. Much too hard on the American backside. Very comfortable, but it’s more like sitting on a bench than sitting on a sofa. Whereas American producers make a cushion so soft that it leaves your lower back unsupported and gives you a backache. So Americans will sit in a sofa at Jordan Furniture and say, “Oooh, this is so comfortable.” What they mean is, “This is so soft.” Sit in that thing for 10 minutes and they’ll have to go see their chiropractor. But Americans are nutty like that, myself included, and they won’t go for the German sit, no matter what.
DESIGN TIMES: Is importing mostly fun or mostly headaches?
ANDRUS: There’s a lot of fun to the importing business, like going to Milan, and it’s always exciting when a container comes in. But there are downsides, too, Like the dollar. And communications with the factory – that’s my biggest problem. I constantly have customers calling me, “Where’s my furniture?” But try to get answers out of the factory; try to get them to send a fax or to return a phone call. It’s some sort of black hole.
DESIGN TIMES: If their production is so cutting edge, where’s their service?
ANDRUS: It’s an organizational problem, really. The Italians have pushed artisans workshop to the max, to the point where they can get volume and quality comparable to industrialized, assembly-line production. But it’s still an artisan economy; it’s still working ladies in the hills.
MARKUSE: Which is part of the reason the prices are what they are?
GROSSMAN: Remember, there are more than 20,000 furniture producers in Italy, and it’s true, once in a while they don’t answer their fax very quickly. But in general, I don’t find the problems that bad. The northern Italians are especially good. There’s an office furniture manufacturer in northern Italy that has a million-square-foot facility. And they quote a two-week delivery. And there’s a company in southern Italy that pumps out furniture than anybody in the U.S.
ANDRUS: Actually, my factory can do a piece in about a week. But they won’t start my work right away; they wait until they have a bunch of orders or until I’m ready to ship, which puts a burden on me, because my company is small.
GROSSMAN: If something takes two years to get from Italy, it’s usually the Americans importer who’s at fault, not the Italian producer. But, hey, I hear people complaining all the time that it takes 6 to 12 months to get something from North Carolina through their interior designer. Italy is not slow, in general. The producers we deal with can get us product in 12, 14 weeks, and that’s including the long distance shipping, unloading, Customs, and warehousing.
ANDRUS: But they don’t understand how to do business here in the States. They don’t understand distribution.
GAROFALO: No, not at all.
GROSSMAN: It’s more than that. They don’t understand the American market. When they first come in, they think they’re going to do huge volume. And why not? The United States is bigger than all of Europe put together. But in fact they do a pathetic amount of business here compared to what they do in Europe, so they think of us as one giant failure, a disappointment. And, truly, we are – at least in their terms – because when the Italians turned to Germany and even to their domestic market, they got huge orders. To them, we’re a giant on the elephant’s back.
ANDRUS: It’s true. At one time, two or three years ago, our factory in Italy was doing $20-30 million in business, and the U.S. accounted for maybe $3 million of it. That’s it, all the rest they did in Europe.
MARKUSE: It’s the same with Alessi. They sell to 75 countries and they’ve found that the U.S market for designed items is so small that it’s just looked at as incremental business. Now here’s an example of the same thing in reverse. Besides importing the Alessi line, my company manufactures a line here in the U.S and we do some exporting of that line. And Germany –a country only one-fifth the size and population of the United States – does five times the volume in those lines that we do here in the U.S.
GROSSMAN: They’re 25 times more successful in our own product area.
ANDRUS: Maybe we’re in the wrong business. Maybe we should all be in exporting.
GROSSMAN: Here’s something I’ve never understood. I used to think if we were out there, selling good furniture and educating our clientele, then sooner or later the furniture would kind of speak for itself. I mean, by now Adesso has thousands of pieces of furniture in people’s homes throughout New England. So why aren’t more people coming in looking for that great sofa from Adesso that they saw in their friend’s house in Concord?
DESIGN TIMES: You mean you don’t get word-of-mouth referrals?
GROSSMAN: Oh yes, of course it happens sometimes. But in general I feel the conversation about design is not there in this country. And why not? If somebody comes up with a good software product, they tell their friends. If a movie is good, they tell their friends. But if one of us brings a great new furniture product in, the Boston Globe isn’t even going to mention it. What seems to be true is that people don’t notice. They don’t even notice when they’ve sat comfortably on a dining room chair for two-and-a-half to three hours. Why not? Why do we, as Americans, seem so shut off from noticing design and comfort and the quality of furnishings Whereas in Scandinavia, say, even the children know who design the forks and the knives and the plates and the chairs.
MARKUSE: European children are exposed to design from a young age, whereas here there’s not much design in people’s lives. But I don’t know what the solution to that is, because there’s no profit in exposing people to design, except maybe for us. And how do you teach taste, anyway? I think that’s one of the greatest frustrations. For instance, when I travel around the country, I have to teach design at a very low level to, I would say, 98 percent of the retailers I meet.
DESIGN TIMES: But how do you do that? If you said to me, “Lou, come buy some Italian furniture,” and I said, “Oh, well, Italian furniture – it’s just black leather and chrome. I’ve seen it, and it doesn’t do much for me.” What would you say to me?
MARKUSE: I might be able to talk you into buying the black leather and, but I’ll never be able to teach you to buy another piece to go with it. At least, not on your own. Because you didn’t like it to begin with.
ANDRUS: That’s exactly right. It’s tough to teach mature taste. All you can teach people is artifacts, and that’s not the same thing at all.
GAROFALO: Also, there is a discount mentality here that is generally absent in Europe. In Europe, retailing and shopping are about education and appreciation. Here, it’s “Wait for the sale,” especially for furniture. Now, don’t misunderstand me: a warehouse discount sale is fabulous; it’s one of the best buys you’ll ever get. But the pricing structure for furniture in this country is a disaster.
DESIGN TIMES: How do you mean?
GAROFALO: I mean Americans think furniture ought to be cheap. We’ve tried the European approach in the showroom – all service: greet you, educate you, treat you well. But it’s not enough. Nine times out of ten I’ll still lose the sale to a sofa from Domain. And that’s got to be about price, because we’re not selling the same quality at all. So I guess my sofa’s not supposed to cost what it costs.
GROSSMAN: That was always very frustrating for me when we had a store in the Mall at Chestnut Hill and people would come in carrying bags from Ann Taylor. Those people had no problem buying a blouse, probably made in China, costing probably $300 to $400. In multiples; in different colors. If those blouses got six wearings, that was a lot. But then they’d come next door to Adesso and book an Italian leather chair that would give them 20,30 or 40 years of good service, comfort, and beautiful craftsmanship, and they couldn’t grasp why it should cost $300.
GAROFALO: It’s absurd when you think about it. A product that would last you a lifetime, versus a completely disposable item.
GROSSMAN: Right. Pennies a day. It doesn’t compute. But in a way, it does. Because, in a way, America makes a truly great piece of furniture.
DESIGN TIMES: What do you mean? I thought you were arguing that Italian furniture is so much better.
GROSSMAN: It is. But American manufacturers make an excellent piece of furniture for the price, which is to say inexpensive. The basic sofa product in the U.S. is cheap: It’s a $200 or $300 frame in all cases. What you’re really paying for is the cover.
DESIGN TIMES: The fabric, you mean?
GROSSMAN: Yes. But a printed American fabric cover is only good for three to five years. So what are you really getting? You’re getting a very inexpensive frame and a cover that’s not going to last for five years. Could that product be a good purchase? No. It’s a ridiculous purchase. So why buy a $499 sofa? It’s cheap but it’s not worth buying.
MARKUSE: Unless one thing…
GROSSMAN: No, Jack. It’s senseless.
MARKUSE: Unless you have the mindset that says that contemporary design is just lifestyle, not life-lasting, anyway. Then it’s OK to spend $499 on a contemporary sofa. If it’s going to last five years, then that’s perfect. Because after that, you expect your life to become serious, and then you’ll buy your traditional furniture.
GAROFALO: There’s an important point here that we haven’t discussed and it has to do with price. Ten, fifteen years ago, European furniture was overpriced. And that’s because huge importers like Stendig and Knoll controlled most of the sales of European products in the U.S. The market structure in that kind of industry is outrageous, but understandable – unless, of course, you’re the consumer. There were New-York style salaries to pay, area-reps, showroom rents, and national advertising – all built into the price of the furniture. So, literally, if a product sold for $200 in Europe, it would list in America for $1000.
GROSSMAN: But that’s changed. Stendig’s gone now. Prices have fallen. In fact, our retail price is lower now than the net price architects and designers pay through the wholesale showrooms at the design centers, because they’re still paying those multiple mark-ups for the middlemen. But us, we are our own showrooms, and our prices are terrific compared to the prices in Europe.
DESIGN TIMES: Let’s end with the big question: What’s the importance of importing?
GROSSMAN: Well, besides servicing our own clients, I would say that the importance of importing is to try to get American manufacturers to have greater faith in the American consumer and, little by little, to move them toward better design.
DESIGN TIMES: How do you mean?
GROSSMAN: Well, maybe it’s a chicken-egg kind of question, but is it the American consumer who demands that producers make the horrible stuff we make here in the U.S. – this oversoft, antique style, nothing ever truly fresh? Or is it the producer ignoring the potential and just assuming, “This is what our markets wants”?
DESIGN TIMES: What do you think?
GROSSMAN: Look, I go to North Carolina [to the High Point furniture fair] once a year or so, and I go through millions, literally millions, of square feet of showroom space looking for something I can buy on this side of the ocean. This year I finally found one frame of a sofa that I would try for style and quality at the price. One piece. That’s outrageous.
DESIGN TIMES: What will it take to change?
GROSSMAN: I don’t know what it will take, but it’s extremely important that those of us who are around this table keep doing what we’re doing, because sooner or later it will have an impact and those white men in North Carolina will wake up. But right now American manufacturing truly is a good old boy network – very few women executives; very few people in minorities; the gay community really isn’t down there – and they are not creating design. They have nothing new to show. And why? Because we’re not trying hard enough.
DESIGN TIMES: So this is a rallying cry?
GROSSMAN: Yes. I think the importance of importing is to inspire the American manufacturers to get off their duffs and hire some talent already. Do an order. Invest in a small division and take a shot at it. We have great design in this country. Let’s put it to use.