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Making art affordable

Jennifer Collins Feb 10, 2012

Tess Vigeland: So if going downmarket is working so well for fashion designers, the folks who decorate bodies, surely it could provide a boost to those who decorate more inanimate objects, like houses.

The home decor business has been paying attention to the partnerships between clothing designers and mass market retailers. Crate and Barrel, West Elm and Room and Board are collaborating with artists and designers, many who were heretofore unknown outside the design world.

Jennifer Collins reports on the newest trend in affordable luxury.

Jennifer Collins: Walk into West Elm, the home store, and you’re surrounded by the usual: Oversized baskets, funky dishes and dressers straight off the set of Mad Men. But look more closely, you’ll find some pretty unusual products too.

Holden: So it’s all done by hand.

That’s the chain’s creative director Vanessa Holden. She’s laying out plates and vases. They’re stamped with leaves and painted in soft grays. You can hear how delicate they are.

They were designed by Connecticut artists Dana Brandwein and her husband Daniel Oates. The duo sells their ceramics online for $80 or more. At West Elm, you can pick one up for under $10.

Holden: Any time you go visit our store, there’s probably at least a dozen collaborators products on the floor.

West Elm is one of a number of stores that are working with high-end designers to offer affordable home chic. Crate & Barrel, Restoration Hardware, Ballard Designs, Room & Board — all are producing exclusive lines to keep sales up. At a time when home owners are more likely to change their dining room table than their address.

Holden: There is an orientation to the home as a place to gather that was kind of compounded by the economic shift that then has made people’s homes very meaningful places to share with their family and friends.

West Elm sells glass terrariums by designer Shane Powers, pillows by textile designer Allegra Hicks, bookshelves by cabinetmaker Paul Loebach and prints by a number of artists.

Holden: I love this one with the pink dots. And I don’t know the name of the artist though; I feel like I should.

Pink dots are the specialty of artist Jennifer Sanchez. Sanchez lives in New York, in a five-story walk-up.

Jennifer Sanchez: My work is made up of many layers of circles, squares, triangles. But the circles have actually disappeared, wow, look at this work there are no circles.

Sanchez has a licensing deal with West Elm to sell prints of her work. It hasn’t made her rich. Her one-bedroom apartment still doubles as her studio.

Sanchez: Be careful, that’s still wet.

But it did keep her painting at a time when a lot of artists were hurting.

Sanchez: Artists have to take things into their own hands. And one way is to license your work and that makes your work more affordable and plus you reach a much larger audience.

A larger audience that includes customers like Los Angeles resident Karuna Venter.

Karuna Venter: So we’re in the entry way to our home.

The ceiling stretches to the roof of the two-story house. Covering the slate tile floor, a big rug you just want to curl up on.

Venter: It has these beautiful wavy, browns and grays and beige-y threads running through it.

Those are the hallmarks of textile designer Allegra Hicks. Venter bought it at West Elm.

Venter: And we got it during a 20-percent-off rug sale.

She says she paid around $500. An original could easily cost 10 times as much. And Venter’s house is filled with this type of affordable chic.

Oscar Venter: Ah!

Her six-year-old son, Oscar, launches himself into in a giant pillow printed with huge magenta poppies, the signature of Finnish textile designer Marimekko. It has a long running exclusive deal with Crate & Barrel.

David Brogna is a professor at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. He says these designer collaboration have become necessary for stores.

David Brogna: It’s very hard to differentiate yourself unless you have product that is exclusive to you.

And Vanessa Holden with West Elm says the same goes for consumers.

Holden: I don’t think our desired response is to go “Oh my god, this house is so West Elm.” We want for people to go, “This house is so you.”

Well, you and Jennifer Sanchez and Allegra Hicks and Marimekko and…

I’m Jennifer Collins for Marketplace Money.

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