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Fine Design at a Discount

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Until recently, no one would have imagined that elite architect Michael Graves and discount retailer Target would share the same sentence, let alone the same toaster. But that is what home furnishings has come to.

And that’s good news for consumers.

Target just unveiled its line of 200 household products designed by Graves exclusively for the retailer. Most items appeared in stores last week. The partnership, while innovative, reflects a growing trend of discount chains bringing higher-end, better-designed yet still affordable products to the masses.

Call it the democratization of design.

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Following in the wake of Martha Stewart, whose housewares line appeared two years ago in Kmart stores, some believe Graves and Stewart are doing for home furnishings what Jaclyn Smith, Cheryl Tiegs and Kathie Lee Gifford did for Kmart, Sears and Wal-Mart fashion, respectively: They’re bringing their cachet to the masses--with one big difference: Stewart and Graves replace celebrity with authenticity.

Graves probably more so than Stewart, although Graves credits her.

“We certainly wouldn’t be here without her,” he says from his office in Princeton, N.J.

Capitalizing on Stewart’s name recognition, Kmart can attribute much of its revitalization to that line’s success. According to Laura Mahley, spokeswoman for the 2,100-store chain, the line is expected to exceed $1 billion this year. The addition of the Martha Stewart Everyday Garden line, just now rolling out, will likely fuel that growth.

But Graves designing for Target is emphatically not another Martha Stewart approach to housewares, insists Ron Johnson, vice president of merchandising for Target, a subsidiary of Dayton Hudson Corp.

“Our strategy is not about celebrity. It’s about an extremely talented architect and product designer who has a unique approach to designing products for the home. The average Target guest doesn’t even know who Michael Graves is. But they will.”

Moving further from celebrity toward authority poses a particular marketing challenge, says Lois Huff, a PricewaterhouseCoopers consultant. “The less an expert is known, the harder it is to leverage sales off his name. You have to question the efficiency of that.”

However, Huff adds, as these authorities become established, we can expect to see them extend their names into other areas. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see Martha Stewart apparel.”

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And Michael Graves footwear?

For now, consumers will come to know him through his products’ distinctive character. Cartoony in feel while classic in approach, the pieces are signature Graves. This from a man who drew inspiration from classic Greek temples when designing the Disney Co. headquarters in Burbank. Except instead of statues of the gods, he used statues of the Seven Dwarfs.

To inspire his Target line, he looked to another ancient form--the egg.

“Because I was making things people would hold and touch, I wanted a comfortable shape.” So he used the egg, smooth and almost symmetrical, in various guises. That shape and his color palette--which uses white, black, silver and gray as neutrals paired with toned-down primary colors--unify the line.

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His expressive blend of classic and whimsy takes form in a range of home products from spatulas ($4) to lawn furniture ($480) and much in between: toaster ($40), can opener ($20) and tea kettle with a red toy whistle on the spout ($40). But some wonder how a man who designed a teapot for the Italian manufacturer Alessi that retails for $150 can also make a teapot that retails for $40.

When a designer designs a product for Cartier or Tiffany’s and a similar product for Kmart or Target, says Graves, he or she puts the same design energy into both products, but the prices will be less for the low-end store for two reasons. First, the materials will be different; the designer may use stainless steel instead of sterling silver. Second, high production volume will bring the price down.

“I always wanted the objects designed to be available to everyone,” Graves says, “but if I’d started a line of stores, I never would have amassed the volume or buying power that 851 [Target] stores can generate. That’s what brings down the price.”

As for the competing teakettles, Graves says both products use the same metal in the same thickness and are basically the same shape. The accessorizing materials and details differ. For one, Alessi’s spout features a red bird that tweets; Target’s the red whistle.

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But whether you fancy tweets or whistles, the fact remains that “a well-designed teapot can set your mood for the whole day,” says Paige Rense, longtime editor of Architectural Digest. “There’s no reason to be snobby about good design.”

She is pleased to see the creative world becoming more homogenized. “The barriers are breaking like the Berlin Wall,” she says. “It’s starting to be a very exciting time in design again, and this ferment is a part of it.”

The teakettle is but one example of the improved design now available to the masses as discounters work to make the oxymoron--quality merchandise at a bargain price--a reality.

“We used to trust [discount stores] on low price,” Huff says. “Now we’re trusting them on matters of quality and design. As that trust builds, we’ll likely give them leeway in other product and service areas of our lives.”

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According to industry reports, upscale shoppers are frequenting discount stores twice as often as they were five years ago.

“People who can afford anything are buying from IKEA,” Rense says. More and more people can afford well-designed home furnishings, available not only from the formerly design-challenged discounters, but also from specialty stores like Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn and Pier 1 Imports.

The only ones losing are department stores, which have watched home furnishing sales dwindle as sales for discounters and specialty stores rise. “The department stores are hurting,” Johnson says, “because they’re not keeping up. They’re lost in their old merchandising methods in stores that are no fun to shop.”

Asking Graves to design for Target is a bit like asking Luciano Pavarotti to sing on the Lollapalooza tour. It was Target’s Johnson who mustered the nerve.

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Johnson met Graves just more than a year ago during the renovation of the Washington Monument. As one of the project’s sponsors, Target asked Graves to design the scaffolding.

“As we got to know each another,” Johnson recalls, “I learned we shared two beliefs: that good design doesn’t have to be expensive and good design is unavailable to most people.” Then Johnson suggested they work to fix that.

“I had no idea how he would respond. I half expected him to smile and say, ‘Are you kidding?’ ” Instead, he went for it. Fifteen months later, 150 of his products are in Target stores, with 50 on the way and 100 more on paper.

Does this mean Graves is abandoning architecture? Not a chance, he says.

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“I like to do as much as people will let me do,” he says. “Whenever anyone asks me what my favorite project is, I say the one I’m working on.”

Johnson’s personal Graves favorite is the toaster.

“I use it every morning in my home, and it makes me smile.”

The other day his children’s 17-year-old baby-sitter, who Johnson says has no idea what he does for a living, asked as she was leaving: “By the way, where’d you get that cool toaster?”

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