Supply chain issues highlight the inherent unsustainability of the design industry. Flourish Spaces responds by going locally, sometimes as close as your attic.
Photo by Ethan Hickerson
We waited months. Summer has turned into autumn. Thanksgiving passed, then Christmas. It was well into 2022 when we finally got the email that my client’s dining chairs, the final piece of a home renovation that had spanned years, were finally being shipped.
At this point, the missing pieces, a set of Layton chairs with Rattan in Dusk, still have a long way to go. They come from Asia, where most high-end furniture is made. They need to get to a loading dock and then be put into a shipping container, hopefully without too much delay. It could take weeks to cross the Pacific. When they arrive at the Port of Long Beach, they sit (in an unpackaged crate) until the disadvantaged workers can unload them. Then my beautiful chairs sit on a truck, making their way across the country. If, that is, we can find a transport line with available drivers.
Finally, the moment arrives. These magnificent chairs that we have been dreaming about for almost a year cross the threshold of my client‘at home, in the dining room and around the personalized table, where they are even more beautiful than me‘I imagined. I‘I’m happy, the customer is happy and everything is fine.
Within a month, I get a call that those beautiful, expensive, unique chairs that should last several lifetimes are starting to break. The beautifully caned seat of a chair broke when the family‘A 12-year-old girl sat on it, followed by another. And yet another.
It turns out these chairs, while great looking, were made from a non-native species of tree whose wood isn’t made for our hot southeastern climate. Plus, they were never meant to sit in unconditioned containers during their months-long journey to their final resting place. The shrinking and swelling through the miles and places had weakened and eroded the quality of these pieces before anyone sat in them.
I’d love to tell you this story is an anomaly, but I can cite many more (and probably build a support group with my fellow interior designers who have had similar battle stories over the past two years) .
When the pandemic forced me to close the doors of my interior design studio in early 2020 and send my team to work from home, I panicked. Our commercial and hospitality projects have stalled and our residential customers told us to pump the brakes.
Luckily, before I could pop a Xanax or take deep breaths, the phone was ringing nonstop for residential design services… home offices, new kitchens, whole house renovations, second homes! It was a dream for a design company like ours to have more business than we could handle. But before long, we realized that this dream also had the makings of a nightmare. Many customers were eager to buy beautiful products, but these products were unobtainable.
Anyone brave enough to take on a renovation project since 2020 is painfully aware of the supply chain challenges COVID poses to us, labor shortages in transportation and logistics, a shortage of foam due to freezing 2021 deep in Texas and a war in Ukraine (Did you know that 10% of the US timber supply comes from Russia?), and now gas prices are volatile. How many collective hours have been spent on the phone by eager furniture shoppers, only to learn that their product continues to be delayed or out of stock indefinitely?
I thought a lot of this could be avoided by sticking with premium, trusted brands. These luxury trade-only sources weren’t in demand on the same level as more accessible retail brands, so I thought I was relatively safe. I was able to order my product and get it here, but with a longer lead time than my customers and I would have liked. But the long delivery times were only part of the nightmare.
Experiences like this made me rethink what sourcing luxury goods looks like for design projects. For starters, it’s a terrible experience for my clients. But it’s also repellent to conscious consumers for whom the materials used in manufacturing and their impact on the environment matter as much as their quality. Not to mention the hidden environmental costs of transporting materials around the world. And as the pandemic has opened many of our eyes to income disparities, equality and inclusion issues, and other injustices, supplier diversity practices increasingly matter.
Notably, there are design benefits to thinking responsibly about sourcing. I found a richer well of more unique, higher quality, and more readily available sources. We found ourselves sourcing from more regional, small and custom manufacturers. I had always relied on a host of artists and makers where I am in Richmond, VA to provide special custom touches to my projects. The unavailability or unreliability of project-critical products made me depend on these trusted partners and encouraged me to explore and discover new ones.
That’s why I opened The Flourish Collective, showcasing the products and potential of these local manufacturers on the first floor of my design studio. This could be where my clients could come in and create or co-create a bespoke, personalized space with anything and everything from lighting to wallpaper to dining tables. My experiences with my partners in The Flourish Collective, like Umanoff designs Where Alicia Dietz Studioslead me to similar sources like The Collective Mill, which organizes and showcases small domestic manufacturers across the country. And an exploratory shopping trip to Charleston led me to The Fritz Porter Design Factorywhere customers can access beautiful and unique products from textile manufacturers and customizable home furniture suppliers.
The supply chain crisis has also made it easier for my customers to buy into reusing interesting but tired or worn parts. As a designer, I‘I have always encouraged my clients to let us incorporate family rooms and meaningful objects into our designs – this imbues a space with history and meaning, elevating any plan to create a more acquired or organized feel. Alternatives to parts that we wanted and couldn’t get in a timely or guaranteed manner were already hiding in plain sight in my clients’ homes. Lacquering that ubiquitous brown piece of furniture in an unexpected color and decorating it with updated hardware (the jewels of case ware) or reupholstering that old Chippendale sofa with modern fabric not only solved availability issues, but became the piece mistress of design. Reuse—Recycling has never looked so good.
Of course, not all of my clients have a treasure in their attic to choose from. I‘I turned to vintage sources like Chairish or First Dibs when I can‘I can’t find this particular item in my favorite local places like Verve Home Furnishings. Visits to the Scott Antiques Market have helped us layer and complement projects and offerings in our showroom with unique decor and artifacts. This year we ditched the High Point Market in favor of the Round Top Antiques Fair in Texas to stock up on the beautiful wares available. In the process, I discovered even more small makers and artists offering quality bespoke and heirloom products.
If I can make one recommendation for when you’re dreaming up the next project or purchase for your home, think small and hyper-local (and nothing is more hyper-local than your attic!) It’s a great way to minimize your footprint. carbon, supporting local artisans in refinishing and repurposing, supporting small artists and regional businesses (including women and minority-owned businesses), and producing a beautiful product in the process.