Comfort's the Gold standard

For years, furniture makers Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams have created relaxed designs that set trends without being trendy

Inspirations

October 01, 2006|By Elaine Markoutsas | Elaine Markoutsas,Universal Press Syndicate

FOR A GOOD CHUNK OF ITS 17-year history, the Mitchell Gold brand flew under the radar, despite the fact that it was quietly revolutionizing the furniture industry.

The modern-looking chairs and sofas snapped up by customers of Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware, Williams-Sonoma Home and Storehouse had no hang tags to identify their provenance: a factory in Taylorsville, N.C., where they were made. What they share besides style is comfort in the spirit of "relaxed design," a philosophy co-founders Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams espoused from the beginning.

First there was seating clad in casual wearables, such as denim and khaki. Washable slipcovers and distressed-leather club chairs, adapted from a vintage 1930s model Gold and Williams found at a Paris flea market, followed. There are chairs and a half, ottomans that double as tables, upholstered beds and a revival of sectionals scaled down for apartment living.

All of these are translated into an impressive variety of shapes and styles that captured the eyes and dollars of baby boomers and Gen-Xers to help shape the $100 million-plus company.

Not that any of the designs are totally new. It's like a cover for a pop tune, except that the Gold and Williams version often is more engaging.

"Mitchell has taken ideas that existed, like the leather club chair, and made them exciting and vibrant," says Jerry Epperson, 35-year veteran furniture analyst with Mann, Armistead & Epperson in Richmond, Va.

Success, of course, breeds knockoffs. One thing still sets them apart: production with minimal lead time. Much of their retailer core keeps inventory in stock, and when it must be ordered, most pieces are available within weeks rather than months.

There's something for everyone, including 19th-century English Regency, 1700s Dutch farmhouse, Art Deco, American Shaker, Indian Raj, mid-century modern, British campaign, 1970s Billy Baldwin, beachy cottage, French moderne, 17th-century Moorish.

The best way to furnish with Mitchell Gold products is to mix it up and keep it uncluttered.

"If a room gets too busy, nothing looks special," Gold explains.

While the outgoing Gold, 55, the company's "chair-man," is known for his marketing savvy, Williams, 45, is the design wiz, brilliantly translating visual bites from TV, fashion, travels, hotels and restaurants to designs that are hip, press-worthy and obviously in demand.

Last year the shyer partner was rewarded when Gold lengthened the eponymous company logo. Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams production was kicked up a notch, first with an ambitious 90-piece case goods collection (armoires, tables, dressers, beds), lighting, then accessories, rugs and signed fine art photography by longtime pal Tipper Gore.

Some in the industry were taken aback by the name change. But Gold never has been one to accept status quo. He shook things up a few years back with a provocative advertising campaign that featured not-so-ambiguously gay messages, savvily, some say, recognizing the strong buying power of that minority. One featured a buff, shirtless guy strolling through a loftlike space with wide-planked floors, empty except for two red leather chairs on casters. "Head over wheels in love," was the clever tag line.

Now extending their brand with 14 freestanding showrooms, the two have created a coffeetable book to be published by Meredith in March. Next month, they'll launch their own twice-yearly magazine, more a "magalog," to spotlight product mixed with features.

That's heady stuff for a former lighting buyer for Bloomingdale's (Gold) and a former art director for Seventeen, a magazine for teenage girls (Williams).

But not much has changed, at least philosophically. The guiding design light still is comfort, both physical and mental, which is why the book will be titled Let's Get Comfortable. It's loaded with how-to's and engaging photographs that show furniture groupings against simple backgrounds.

Gold and Williams don't design what's trendy. "We do pieces we have or would like in our own homes," Gold says. Sometimes pieces are whimsical, perhaps "antiques of the future."

"Our customers are of the income and taste level that they don't necessarily want to have what everyone else does. Bob and I love 18th-century but don't want whole houses full of it. It's the mix that makes pieces feel collected rather than decorated," Gold says.

Very often, Gold says, the details "make people want to buy your stuff."

It always comes back to comfort.

"In 1989, nobody used the word `comfort.' It was all about $799 sofas," Gold says. "But when you sit down, you don't want the cushion to feel hard. You don't want a real austere look. Furniture has to be comfortable."

SOURCES

Visit the Web site of Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, mitchellgold.com, for a listing of showrooms.

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