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Upscale furniture chain heading to Downcity

Design Within Reach is the first national retailer to commit to opening in the city's core.


Journal Staff Writer | October 21, 2004

PROVIDENCE -- A high-style furniture store chain has designs on Downcity.

San Francisco-based Design Within Reach will make its first foray into a medium-sized market, announcing plans yesterday for a Providence store expected to open in January.

The company's Northeast area manager said during a news conference held in a bare Westminster Street storefront that the district's historic character is a perfect showcase for Design's brand of urbane home furnishings, which leans heavily on the spare, modern character of European styling.

"This is just fabulous for us to showcase what we do," said Kristine Langevin, referring to the brick walls and high ceilings around her.

The commitment, the first from a national retailer, has Cornish Associates, the company redeveloping the area, positively giddy.

"We were so excited we couldn't see straight," said Arnold "Buff" Chace, Cornish's head.

The developer says the deal is a milestone in the Downcity district's revitalization and a concrete indicator of what is in store for the burgeoning neighborhood.

"It typifies for us the rebirth of this street" as a shopping district, Chace said.

As the hollow thump of construction rumbled from down the street, Chace the retailers that once drew Rhode Islanders to Providence -- Shepard's, Gladding's and Cherry & Webb among them. The space at 210 Westminster St., where the news conference was held, once housed a Lerner store.

CONSTRUCTION WORKERS stripped off the two-story metal facade that had been tacked on to the building and used historic photographs to rebuild it, Chace said.

"We felt this very much compared to lower Manhattan," he said.

So do executives of Design Within Reach (DWRI:Nasdaq), a publicly traded company in the midst of a modest expansion.

According to documents filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the company opened its first store, or "studio" as it prefers to call its outlets, in San Francisco in 1998, but has relied heavily on catalog and Internet sales to attract customers from outside its metropolitan base.

It mails out 800,000 catalogs monthly, along with 240,000 e-mail "Design Notes" to potential customers.

Design Within Reach outlets can be found in such major cities as Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Boston and Washington, D.C. There is also a store in Cambridge, Mass.

The company went public in June, netting $31.8 million in an initial public offering. It is using the proceeds to finance about 15 store openings this year and next.

"We knew we wanted to be in Providence," Langevin said, noting that a company vice president is a native Rhode Islander, and her own roots are in suburban Boston.

Founded by designer Robert Forbes Jr., the company brought in an experienced retailer to be its chief executive officer in advance of its stock offering.

Wayne Badovinus, formerly president of Williams-Sonoma Inc. and chief executive officer of Eddie Bauer Inc., now leads Design's operations.

IN THE PROVIDENCE STORE, customers can expect to find a minimalist style that showcases individual pieces of bedroom furnishings, bathroom fixtures, floor coverings and such. Products such as the Aeron office chair, noted for its ergonomic curves, and Eames lounge chairs typify the offerings.

Orders are filled from a roughly 220,000-square-foot warehouse in Kentucky, and most products are shipped on the next business day.

While shoppers won't be carrying out furniture, Cornish Associates predicts that they will carry in money to spend at Design Within Reach and other stores it wants to attract to the neighborhood.

"This particular use will set off a chain reaction," said Francis Scire, Cornish's marketing and leasing director. "It gives me the ability to go out and get [other] national tenants."

Cornish said it wants to draw other retailers of home-goods products to the area, mixing national retailers such as Design Within Reach with independents that can thrive on business from people living in the nearly 100 apartments the developer is creating, as well as visitors to the district.

Already, 93 apartments are leased, Scire said.

He said he plans to survey those new residents soon to learn what shops they would like to see in Downcity, and is working on a Nov. 15 breakfast for prospective retailers.

From The Providence Journal

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