Can new home decor collections save J.C. Penney? The struggling department store threw a housewarming party Thursday in New York, heralding new lines from an impressive roster of designers: Jonathan Adler, Conran, Martha Stewart, Pantone, Bodum and, freshly jumped-ship from Target, Michael Graves.
The first impressions, based on the electronic "look book" of merchandise sent to media and a stealth walk-through of a J.C. Penney home department as it staged the new merchandise in the Arcadia store recently: Surprise, surprise. J.C. Penney has itself a winner. Several of them, actually.
The biggest revelation for many shoppers who haven't browsed furniture or housewares at J.C. Penney for some time (or anytime) will be Design by Conran, the collection from the London-based business run by Terence Conran. Every piece in the JCP collection is an original, he said, an attempt to bring the Conran Shop's high-design sensibility to the American mass market.
The Design by Conran Hyale coffee and console tables at JCP, for example, are constructed of solid oak. The efficient design accommodate a nice practical touch: two coordinating trays that slide into the recessed tabletops and give hosts an easy way to freshen up appetizers or prepare cocktails in the kitchen, then present everything to guests. Prices? The coffee table, regularly $465, is on sale for $279. The console, regularly $425, is on sale for $255.
Even better is Cairns dining table, which looks more substantial in person (and in our related photo gallery) than the image on jcp.com might imply. "The jointing is visible and beautiful, so it looks craftsman-made," Conran said by phone Thursday from New York, during a break between celebrations for the new line.
"When you see the collection, you will that JCP insisted that every item not just look good but actually be terrifically good quality."
Another pleasant surprise: some of the small appliances, cookware and tabletop accessories from Michael Graves Design. A shiny steel and aluminum toaster -- amusingly shaped like a loaf of bread and yet bullet-like in its sleekness -- is hitting shelves with enameled cast iron cookware, chip-and-dip bowls and minimalist, nickel-plated candle holders that just might make converts of CB2 and West Elm shoppers.
Jonathan Adler's Happy Chic collection consists of more than 400 SKUs, many buoyed by the saturated colors and bold prints that you'd find in his Melrose boutique. While the designer will be testing J.C. Penney shoppers' willingness to spend on a tufted sofa with midcentury lines (the Crescent Heights, regularly $2,895, on sale for $1,735) or a six-drawer walnut-veneer dresser (the Bleecker, regularly $2,195, on sale for $1,315), he also has loaded his shelves with pillows, poufs, picture frames, vases and other decorative accessories at mass-market prices. (Adler's personal favorite: the bedding, an assortment of pattern-rich quilts, shams and pillows.)
The Conran, Graves and Adler designs, combined with party decorations from Martha Stewart, coffee and tea equipment from Bodum and a rainbow of bedding and bath design from Pantone, represent a departure for JCP -- not only in its inventory but also in its strategy. The JCP makeover stands in sharp contrast with Target, which this spring has pushed Threshold, its house brand.
For J.C. Penney, the launch also is an accomplishment in sheer speed. Conran said his team didn't first hear J.C. Penney officials' brief on their vision for the revamped store until about a year ago. Conran quickly visited JCP's existing manufacturing network, then matched those factories with Conran's design ideas. It's impressive that pieces such as Design by Conran's smart little Beep floor lamp -- selling for $420, or $239.99 if you can catch it on sale -- have evolved from conception to finished product so quickly.
"I'm hoping people will be very surprised to find collection of this quality and what I like to call intelligent design in the mass market," Conran said, emphasizing "intelligent design" in his British accent. "There are not gimmicks in it at all -- just good quality furniture. I hope the American market will like it."