Mid-priced but high-profile, West Elm furnishings come home to a DUMBO headquarters
Fred A. Bernstein -- Interior Design, 9/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
On an early episode of Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, designer Thom Filicia is extolling the virtues of the West Elm catalog, which lies open on a square West Elm cocktail table. On MTV's The Real World Paris, twentysomethings are having a heart-to-heart on a West Elm sofa—chocolate-finished base, tufted white cushions.
If West Elm is everywhere, credit Lisa Versacio, the dynamo who runs this division of Williams-Sonoma. The 16 million West Elm catalogs in circulation are reaching a younger audience than sister brands Pottery Barn and Hold Everything. Think college grads, moving into studio apartments.
Versacio spent two years commuting from New York to San Francisco, where Williams-Sonoma is based. But around the time that West Elm mailed its first catalog, she moved the company East. "For a fast-moving, fashion-influenced business, New York had more to offer," she says.
Williams-Sonoma gave Versacio full approval but very little money. And why not, since West Elm is all about affordability? (A typical sofa runs $699.) "I was thinking Manhattan, but my budget said Brooklyn," she recalls. In DUMBO, she found space on the top level of an old factory. There were piles of construction debris on the floor, but the glazed roof and skyline view were spectacular, she says: "I felt like I could reach out and touch the Manhattan Bridge."
Versacio was hooked, and her prospective landlord, DUMBO überdeveloper Two Trees Management Company, put her in touch with Brendan Coburn of Coburn Architecture. Analyzing Versacio's bubble diagrams—showing the organization of marketing, merchandising, finance, and design departments—Coburn maximized the penetration of light and views.
All was "done on the super-cheap," he says, but all 30 employees enjoy one astounding luxury: 16,000 square feet of breathing room. The spaciousness, Versacio says, keeps her team organized: "There's a place for everything." MBAs get offices, while MFAs get "common rooms" with half walls. Except for the half walls, the space is pretty much as Versacio found it.
Only a lot whiter: pure optical white. "White," Versacio explains, "is clarity. I think better in a white room." (Her own Greenwich Village apartment is just as white, furnished in neutrals. Asked if she'd ever go so far as to paint the place, say, eggshell, she replies, "No, no, no, no, no.") What isn't white is predominantly gray or silvery: self-leveling epoxy on the concrete floor, ductwork overhead. Indeed, the only colorful object is a red standpipe, which firemen must be able to locate instantly.
Like the standpipe, West Elm's furniture really pops against this snowy backdrop, and that's the point. Almost everything here is manufactured and sold by the company, including the wall-mounted L-shape shelves that have starred on both Queer Eye and Real World. West Elm dining tables, topped in stainless steel, serve as desks for marketing staff. In the lobby, signature nesting tables stack in a pyramid. Visitors to Versacio's office sit on a West Elm futon sofa.
Pieces are compact, because typical customers don't have room for an 84-inch sofa, Versacio explains. They also eschew conventional furniture arrangements, so she makes sure that the designs look good from every angle. Even architect Coburn is a fan: "My wife and I just bought a West Elm hamper, and it really works."