Open House : High-End Showrooms That Used to Be Exclusive 'to the Trade' Now Let Anyone Join the Party : PACIFIC DESIGN CENTER

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an effort to bolster sagging sales, West Hollywood's 16-acre PacificDesign Center is making all of its 200-plus high-end wholesale showrooms accessible to the public.

The center's new program--called the Concierge Service--is, says Pacific Design President Andrew Wolf, "for the user who found this a foreboding, confusing place. Our job is to take each group and make it easy for them to use the PDC."

And easy to spend money there.

The Pacific Design Center's push will be in full swing by next week's WestWeek, the largest residential and commercial furnishings market in the country. While WestWeek is strictly for the industry, the design center is increasingly for those outside it too. The more open policy is part of a nationwide trend to give wholesale marketplaces a retail lift.

Three years ago, the American Society for Interior Designers estimated that there were 325,000 customers nationwide who used interior designers--hardly enough to keep all the designers and showrooms in the black.

Michael Love of the New York chapter of the ASID notes that, while some showrooms have always sold to the public, "now they can't stay alive without it. The real crux of the matter is, there's not enough design business."

Traditionally, home-furnishing showrooms sold goods to professionals for 60% of the list price. The architect or designer would, in turn, tack on 30% when the merchandise was sold to a client. Thus, the client would pay 90% of the list price. The client was also paying the designer or architect an hourly rate, from $50 to $250 an hour.

The problem faced by those who run wholesale markets was how to streamline this complicated procedure for the public. And how to do it without alienating designers and showroom managers--who are often leery of selling directly to the public.

"There are so many variables involved," explains Rosalind Walker, manager of the Manuel Canovas showroom, where fabrics and wall coverings are sold.

"Once you find a fabric you think you can live with, you need a designer who can visualize the scale. Is it going on a seven-foot sofa or two dining-room chairs? Is it for bedding? Then it will need a stain-resistant treatment.

"The lead times are longer too, and it can be frustrating for the retail customer. It takes two to 2 1/2 weeks to get the fabric from Europe. Then the sofa frame has to be ordered--that takes eight weeks. You may be eighth in line at the upholsterer's, and add another week for delivery. That's a lot of time," Walker says.

The Pacific Design Center has set up a variety of approaches for the public to use the center:

* People who want to cruise the hallways just to see what is available are welcome to do so at no cost or obligation. A directory is available at the information desk in the lobby. The Concierge Service can also direct customers to specific showrooms or provide guided tours.

* Customers who find exactly what they are looking for can proceed directly to a purchasing agent provided by the Concierge Service, and the agent will handle the paperwork.

* Some showrooms will insist that a designer handle the order in the case of fabrics, kitchens or anything that needs specific measurements or specifications. Because most of these furnishings are made to order, there is a no-return policy. Errors can result in a very expensive mistake. For those purchases, the Concierge Services provides designers on-site to handle negotiations.

* All purchases made through a concierge agent or designer are priced 20% below list price. If a shopper wants to consult with a Pacific Design Center designer, the first hour is billed at $50. Consultation beyond one hour is negotiated between the customer and the designer.

* If you are ready to go the next step and hire a designer to work on a project, there will be portfolios available to look through, and many of the showrooms will have lists of recommended designers.

*

Most professionals in the interior design business applaud the center's effort to welcome the public.

"This is going to be good for the design industry," says Sally Sirkin Lewis, president of J. Robert Scott, whose shop on Melrose Avenue lies in the center's shadow. "Andy Wolf doesn't want to hurt our industry--he wants to open the world to the theater of design and all those floors of furniture. There's nothing wrong with that."

The Pace furniture showroom, on Beverly Boulevard, has always been open to the public.

"We want to take away that aura of snobbism promoted by 'to the trade,' even though 90% of the time our customers work with interior designers," says owner James Rosen.

"That's why we stay out of the design centers," he says. Rosen's other Pace stores are on Madison Avenue in New York and on Oak Street in Chicago.

"Consumers are more sophisticated," Rosen says, "and there are many who have the money to buy the high-end furniture. They are more confident than ever before and more capable of making design decisions."

But what about interior designers? How do they feel about the possibility of being cut out of the equation?

At least one thinks the time is right. Ron Meyers says that in the past, some designers abused the system by marking up the merchandise they sold their clients far above the standard 30%.

"It was becoming a rip-off industry," the designer says. "A lot of designers were marking things up 100% at each turnaround. . . . People got piggish. Any time they could mark it up, they would.

"It worked great in the '80s. When the money disappeared, the balloon burst."

Now, Meyers is a part of the new push at the Pacific Design Center. He designs a line of furniture that will be shown in an area called The Future Is Now, which the center set aside to showcase the work of young and trendy designers not yet represented by showrooms.

"The intimidation that was associated with the business was just a lack of information," Walker says. "We are no longer just for the elite. And the designers are prepared for clients who are looking for short-term and long-term assistance."

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Pacific Design Center

What: A collection of 200 designer showrooms featuring home furnishings in the West Hollywood design district in Los Angeles.

Where: At San Vicente Boulevard and Melrose Avenue. The surrounding area is crammed with showrooms and retail stores. The area spreads south from the center and is bordered by Robertson and San Vicente boulevards, Third Street and Melrose, with a wayward arm straggling east on Melrose.

Who: A newly adopted policy gives the public access to all showrooms.

Purchases: Some showrooms sell directly to the public; some refer customers to the Concierge Service, where they can work with a designer to complete a transaction.

Hours: Showrooms are open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Many stores and showrooms in the surrounding area are open six days a week, but hours vary widely.

Parking: $1 an hour or $6 a day at the center's garage.

Phone: (310) 657-0800.

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