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Your Venice is Now

by Louis Postel

The Boston Design Center once felt like Venice on a May morning — mostly still does, minus the pigeon splatter —  rich in pageantry and promise — a car-free, close knit city projecting into the harbor, high-ceilings, its quiet broken only by human sounds. How pleasant to recall that early era when General Manager Laura Crosby, PR person Jacqui Budd, showroom owners Billie Brenner, Frances Davison, Bob Ostrer and other late century doges of design graced the BDC.

If you couldn’t figure it out, you’d just go see Billie Brenner.

And like Venetians themselves, citizens of the BDC could point to their city as proof of their acumen as traders, having successfully taken the leap from 40,000 square feet of showroom space in a beaux arts palace on Boylston Street to 400,000 square feet of converted army base and wool warehouse in what was then less than fashionable South Boston. Back then, in its stylish briskness, its tailored swagger, the BDC felt magical behind those Trade Only portals — a richly furnished stage where casual encounters and whispered confidences, courtly sighs and spiels turn that awkward Trade Only phrase into something uncannily racy.

Since the end of July, many of those whisperings carried the syllables Jamestown Properties and $72.7 million dollars responding to the sale of the BDC to the Atlanta firm from its former owners Millennium Partners, developer of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Residences. The deal made for exciting news because Jamestown’s plan involved turning Boston’s massive city within a city into an innovation complex with the formidable BDC at its front and center. Elkus Manfredi Architects will do the redo having redone it once before. Now almost a year later, the whisperings have turned to open speculation not only on what’s next for the building, but for New England’s design industry as a whole.

“Jamestown’s a fine company,” says Jim M-Geough whose antiques and reproductions showroom on the BDC’s fourth floor is a destination in its own right. “While I understand they play their cards close to the chest, I’d like to see more communications about their plans.  So far, we’ve only seen some posters of the interior.”

More innovative marketing ideas and partnerships between BDC management, showrooms, and designers is a refrain that has been heard in cries and whispers around the BDC for many years. Former House & Garden and AOL marketing chief Jill Rudnick offers a promising approach from as far away as London where she is currently launching a UK version of Town & Country. “Content today is king which makes magazines as relevant as ever for the upscale design market,” she says via Skype in London, “but what better way to showcase design than on video — especially now with this huge migration to mobile devices?” That said, one can easily picture a mobile app that would seamlessly link this page to a BDC blog detailing renovation plans, marketing initiatives, innovation news along with showroom video tours and projects by designers who used the building.

Casey Timm of C-Studio
Casey Timm of C-Studio

Also in the spirit of a fresh start upon Jamestown’s acquisition, there are these suggestions from other area designers beginning with those of Boston designer Casey Timm: “Please have a single drop box for returned fabric memos. I waste too much time taking them back to each individual showroom. Also I’d love to see greater diversity, a more robust presence from lines such as Palacek, Ebanista, Henredon, Bernhardt as well as from smaller ones such as Bungalow 5 Furniture in New York.”

Robin Pelissier | photo by Mary Prince
Robin Pelissier | photo by Mary Prince

Designer Robin Pelissier of North Hingham, MA joins Timm in calling for easier picking and dropping off of items, as well as an improved coat check system. “I’d love to see more networking (4-6 pm) receptions for designers – a chance to talk shop socially and swap ideas, with maybe some quick demos on the latest LED bulbs, etc.”

Designer Nancy Serafini of Boston and Nantucket would like to see a skylight with a spiral staircase outside the first bank of elevators. And adds: “I think the design center must come into the 21st century with more flexible hours — perhaps 10-6 or on a certain night open till 7 — nothing is more frustrating for clients than have to take precious time away from work. Au Bon Pain should stay open as well.”

Peter Wooding
Peter Wooding

Designer Peter Wooding of Providence hesitates sending clients to the BDC unescorted just because of the red tape they encounter getting in. “I understand there have to be protocols, but do they have to be so rigid?” Wooding himself visits the BDC almost weekly. A Past President of the Industrial Designers Society of America and major influencer around Universal Design where he taught at RISD, Wooding is at home in residential, industrial, and contract design. His clock design for Dansk makes this point in small. “While residential design has a strong presence at the BDC already, I’d like to see more contract. There’s just so much crossover into residential these days. I’d get a lot more done if we had Knoll, Kimball, and Jofco showrooms, as well more lighting options such as Nessen.  There’s a timelessness about some classic contract that would be great to see passed along to the next generation.”

Architect Leslie Silverblatt Saul of Cambridge, MA offers her own wish list for the Venice of South Boston: “management to keep rent not so high that we lose our favorite showrooms.” She’d also like to see “smooth carpet in the hallways that doesn’t make you wobble and better windows and HVAC. One’s either hot or cold.”

Boston Designer Marc Langlois is hoping Jamestown will help “protect the interior design industry from diminishing profits. Say no to going retail. Evict firms who sell their product on the internet and still say ‘To the industry’. The industry is being destroyed by greedy people who know nothing about how the industry works. It should NOT be about how much rent you can collect. We are all partners, or we used to be partners.”

Just as Venice wasn’t the whole story of the Renaissance, the BDC would never pretend to be the whole story of New England Design. Take Appleton Lighting in Chestnut Hill. When builder and developer Andrew Constantine along with his wife Pamela of Sandwich, MA bought actor Nic Cage’s palace known as Gray Craig in Middleton, RI, back in 2011 it was Appleton’s Loukas Deimezis who restored and renovated and occasionally recreated the numerous chandeliers, sconces, and other fixtures. Ditto for Don Giambastiani of Solomon +Bauer+ Giambastiani  Architects in Watertown, MA when he overhauled the Vanderbilt mansion HighLawn in Lee, MA, and for designer Susan Erickson of Lexington, MA who created an estate for the late Bank of Boston executive Edward O’Neill.

“For O’Neill the focus of every room had to be the lighting — a chandelier, a pair of sconces,” says Deimezis,  who at 74 appears regal in the glow of his crystal palace on Boylston Street. “I’m also buying up lots of antique glass — Czech, Venetian — it’s very popular these days, designing many of the fixtures myself. But the double etching of the 18th century glass bowls can never be replicated. For one, it’s just too dangerous. They used mercury to do it, which is a poison. In those days life spans were around 30  – so the toxicity went unnoticed –  today it’s totally banned.”

For that enchanted hushed effect typical of a May morning in Venice, you don’t necessarily have to fly to the city itself, walk the BDC, or bask in the crystals at Appleton Lighting. You can go outside. “We’re still doing big houses, but lately we’ve been designing open-stud weekend cabins and vacation homes — one right now in Vinylhaven for a German couple who wants to visit their son at prep school here,” says architect Tobias Gabranski of Bath, ME.  Where we can be most helpful is in tailoring the structure to the topography of the land — outcroppings, slope-side, a tree, or water view — maximizing the experience — and doing so yields some very unorthodox designs.”

Unorthodox, too, will be the years ahead for design overall, hence the timeliness of Jamestown Properties vote of confidence not only in the BDC but an innovation complex backing it up. With its mobile app in hand we can easily picture ourselves mounting a Winslow Homer rock formation outside our Maine cabin, previewing a lecture on classic contract furnishings courtesy of the BDC’s new video channel, then switching over to review 3-D layouts, drilling down effortlessly to actual sources in actual showrooms, and finally dispatching a drone to pick up fabric samples from Henry Dolan at the front desk — one of the most helpful humans alive.

Welcome to Venice of the future.