The Rise and Fall of Design Within Reach

The Rise and Fall of Design Within Reach

Gregory Han
Nov 24, 2009

Apartment Therapy got an early sneak peek from Fast Company writer Jeff Chu of a warts-and-all exposé about Design Within Reach, mapping the dramatic trajectory of the retailer from a humble San Francisco studio to a heralded catalog and online resource for those in-the-know (and of certain means), complete with large showrooms where the design illiterate found themselves presented with options once only available via more exclusive means. Controversy soon kicked in with growth and the propagation of inspired-by pieces by DWR, setting opinions ablaze…

An excerpt from the Chu's The Rise and Fall of Design Within Reach paints a picture of where the design retailer went from introducing high design to sometimes outright copying (with a few tweaks) lesser known designs:

At least a dozen of the company's current offerings are essentially unauthorized reproductions of a foreign design. "Rather than saying, 'Let's come up with something better to replace it,' they said, 'Let's come up with something similar to what people liked,' " says a former DWR employee. French designer Christophe Pillet, who didn't know that DWR was copying his Tripod lamp until Fast Company directed him to the company's online catalog, says: "They are pirates and thieves, like the Chinese -- except even the Chinese are calling me now to ask me to make something original for them."

Not all is glum, as the article notes DWR has recently removed the CEO linch pin to these sort of shady business practices, with a return to their "original in-stock-and-ready-to-ship policy" and a commitment to renewing a stronger relationship to the design community that helped build the brand in the first place: "If there are people who are particularly pissed at us, I would like their names and phone numbers," he says -- and the company is discontinuing products that could be considered knockoffs.

DWR and their Tools for Living Store have remained important venues for discussion about design with designers at their regularly hosted events, including some of our own in the past.

Is this enough to bring back the company that helped thousands like ourselves learn, see, touch and dream of owning design pieces we once could only be exposed to by enlightened friends, via design books or by traveling abroad? We hope so. Despite all the controversy, Design Within Reach remains a bridge between those aspiring beyond build-your-own furniture retailers and extreme high end furniture brands. Their catalog is still welcomed with anticipation in our household, if not to just peruse and dream like we once did before owning a single piece beyond those purchased at IKEA, found curbside or purchased via Craigslist/eBay. At the same time, we've become perennial furnishings window shoppers, where admiration has taken the place of actual retail action, DWR or otherwise

Perhaps it's the inbetween niche DWR occupies in a society of extremes that makes the retailers such a controversial figure. We as a society seem to hail and covet unsustainable affordability or expensive exclusivity in equal measure, but the middle is prone to give birth to impassioned Goldilock's ire of things being "not affordable enough" or conversely, "too cheaply made". Getting it just right is more difficult said than done in a consumerist society in a recession, and debates are often most vocal and lively in the middle of any price category, because that's where most of us orbit.

In better economic times, one could take those two steps upward for a nicer piece without as much aspirational piece saved up for months or a year was a reasonable goal. Now, with the economy still in recovery mode, even the name "Design Within Reach" seems somewhat unsavory, even taunting, like a fruit just beyond the reach of our desires. Or perhaps this has always been the case in recent times when a great many of us no longer save like our parents once did for larger purchases, a forgotten process lost between generations in an era when we want things now, we want them at the lowest price with the highest quality…all without a wait.

There's likely as wide of reasons why people love/hate Design Within Reach as there are furniture pieces in their catalog, but put us in the camp for those cheering for a return to better times for DWR, because we think there's room and a need for that middle ground between boutique and large retailer for those always reaching for something a little better.

We fully expect and invite all of you to chime in with opinions one way or the other after reading Jeff Chu's The Rise and Fall of Design Within Reach, which is available in its entirety in the Dec/January issue of Fast Company or online here.

Thanks to Jeff Chu for sharing his piece with Apartment Therapy.

[Photograph by Jonny Valiant/Fast Company]

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