Design Q&A with Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams

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“Surreal” is Bob Williams’ description of how it feels to be celebrating 25 years in business for Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams. The partnership, which began with a meeting in New York bar 27 years ago, has progressed from romance, to a business focused on creating dining room chairs and occasional tables, to a full line of furniture, case goods, accessories, and art. I talked to Gold and Williams while touring their new store in Beverly Hills, two floors and 12,000 square feet of comfortable, modern furniture in inviting vignettes. I asked them about how they got started, what's important to them and, of course, their favorite decor tips.

How — or maybe I should say why — did you decide to work together?
Mitchell Gold: I have best friends who’ve worked together since they were 18 and I’ve always loved the idea. I was working for a furniture company and Bob was working as an art director at an ad agency and it just evolved. I saw that Bob has this great eye and sense of style and I was more sales and marketing.

How does an art director prepare for designing furniture?
Bob Williams: There was a lot of trial and error and a lot of learning! But it involved taking my art school training and my graphic design background and bringing a three-dimensional element to it.

MG: We bought into a small existing factory. He learned quickly! We were making upholstered dining chairs and occasional tables and someone asked, can you make a living room chair? And we said, “Yeah, we can do that.” And then it was, “Can you make a sofa? Can you make a sleeper? Can you make a sectional?” And it just kept evolving. Our idea was that we were going to give customers incredibly good service in an industry that doesn't. And we've cracked the code of how to do that.

Which was?
You have to be determined. And you have to be willing to buy raw materials. Anything that you see here on the floor — and actually it’s part of our model — we can deliver to you within a week to two weeks. If you want a different fabric — we have 350 fabrics and 50 leathers — we can deliver it to you in about 6 weeks. We monitor our production closely.

There’s a wide range of looks here — traditional, contemporary, modern, mid-century.
Yes, but notice that it’s all got a modern feel. We do things that look like something you may remember — oh, yeah, my grandmother had one of those — but we take it and make it more current. How do you make something that's traditional feel young? And a lot of time it's changing the fabric or using a different color so it doesn't look like grandma's old sofa, but it still has those familiar lines.

Everything you have is very tactile.
BW: I grew up in a house where the sofa had Herculon fabric, which was was very scratchy. One of the things was I really wanted fabrics that feel good, that you would almost want to wear. It's part of our relaxed design.

So let’s talk about some of the other things you’re known for. Your factory is in the US. You’ve always been environmentally responsible.
Our factory’s grown to 650,000 square feet, but that kind of consciousness wasn't at the forefront. What happened was that about four or five weeks after we started I read an article in The New York Times about the depletion of the ozone layer, pointing a finger at furniture manufacturers in North Carolina. When foam is made, it emits CFCs. I called Bob and said, “You can't believe this, but we are getting into an industry that's horrible for the environment”. And so we set out to find materials that were environmentally responsible. And we found this new foam that was being manufactured that was water-based and that didn't emit the CFCs and that got us thinking: What about packaging? What about the wood that we use? We could see that customers really liked that. And now I think it is a must for the kind of customer that comes in our store.

You’re also known for being very socially active.
BW: We nationally support various organizations and each store is responsible for supporting local activities.

That’s one of your mantras, isn’t it?
BW: Yes, one that’s very important to us. “We give to our communities.”

What are some of your other favorites?
“We provide comfort. For everyone.” “We are forward in thinking and design.” “We never miss a meal. Ever.”

MG: We have that list in every store and we see customers come in and read it and nod their head in approval and smile. So those mantras are the jumping off point for Who We Are, our new book.

So I have to ask, what's your favorite styling trick that doesn't include scads of fresh flowers or paint?
MG: I think that mine would be putting dimmer switches everywhere. They're not that complicated, you can even do them yourself. It lets you have control over the mood.

BW: And I would add candles. Because I think having a softer lights and a few little candles flickering is nice.

Any decor tips?
BW: One of the things I always stress is that people need to think about how they're going to use the room. Is this going to be a room that you entertain friends and family in? Are you're going to be watching TV and reading a book? Because that should really dictate the kind of furniture. And another thing I think is very important is, figure out where the entrance to the room is. How does the room present from that angle?

What is one misconception about the brand?
MG: That we’re expensive. Apples for apples, our pricing is very much the same as Crate & Barrel or Pottery Barn. Our sofas start at around $1295. One of the things our stores report to us is that so many people come in and they're surprised at the pricing.

But then you also believe in building a house or a room slowly and choosing quality.
It’s one of our mantras! Every season is an evolution, not a revolution. We wanted to make it very easy for people to add a piece. If you’re on a budget, it’s important to come in and talk to a design associate and get the rhythm of a store and find out when the sale periods are. There are very legitimate customers who don't have unlimited funds, and we want to be able to take care of them also.

If someone comes in and they have limited funds and they're furnishing their new apartment, where would you tell them to start? If they have nothing then I'd certainly want a place to sit before anything else. Start with the piece you're going to use the most. In a living room, it’s a couch. In a bedroom, obviously it's the bed. And then maybe you want a table next to your bed for storage.

People can be intimidated when it comes to decorating.
It was one of the things that’s important to us and that we addressed from early on. We want to make it fun. We can help you design a room. Our associates are very knowledgeable about the furniture. Just because we have a really pretty store, that doesn’t mean we don’t want it to be warm and genuine and make people feel comfortable.

Thanks, Mitchell & Bob! To see the entire MG + BW line, click here.

(Image credits: Courtesy Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams)