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Making Showroom Magic

NEW YORK - Here's a riddle: When is a bed not just a bed?
     When it is part of a showroom, one that is all tricked out with carefully chosen lighting, wallpaper and accessories to highlight the bedding or other textiles and appeal to retailers' sensibilities.
     And for that there is a small army of professionals who elevate the bed - and the space around it - from humble sleep zone to buying tool by interpreting the mood of the collection, building showrooms with the ingenuity of set designers and making the bed with the precision of a food stylist. The fruit of those labors can be seen at this month's New York Home Fashions Market.
     And while those showrooms are typically visions of serenity, how manufacturers arrive at the finished product is typically a frenzied process.
     Surprisingly, it all often starts out with a single word, according to showroom designer Tracy Bross, who has a background in interior design and has worked for Tommy Hilfilger and Ralph Lauren in the past. To get the ball rolling, her major bedding client will show her the collections and produce an inspiration board made of magazine tear sheets that display the vibe of the collection and supply a theme, like "urban" or "country."
     "Just a few swatches and words - that's all I need," said Bross. "I'm used to interpreting."
     Once she has her theme, she's off and running to build an entire room. "In my showrooms - I do wallpaper, decorating, lighting, curtains." She likened it to designing a set. "It's creating a lifestyle. My showrooms feel like they're in someone's home - except that there are five beds."
     And showrooms come together under very tight deadlines, because as Bross points out, "bedding samples come in so last minute." Since designers like her can't pick the props until they see the samples, typically the bulk of the work is done in the weeks right before the market opens, she said.
     Bross uses the time between markets to shop for accent pieces and side tables from home stores and websites like Ballard Designs and Mecox Gardens. "I buy everything, recycle, recover it," she said. "I can use mirrored side tables multiple times." Then every so often, she clears out her warehouse, much to her staff's delight, and starts buying fresh.
     While Bross has a lot of room for interpretation, there are some basic rules she must follow, namely: 1) don't block the bed, 2) light the bed well, 3) don't touch the bed. Don't even lean on it.
     That's because her beds are typically made up by one particular specialist, who declined to be interviewed for this story. Her work is so precise that Bross likened her to a food stylist and said she possessed a "really specific talent" when it comes to dressing the bed.
     Similarly, the bed tailoring team from another showroom designer, Mayo Studios, uses an elaborate checklist for preparing a bed, including pressing, steaming and pinning bedding to lay on a bed in an attractive way. The preparation for a single bed can take up to one hour. And that's just the bed - then there's the rest of the showroom to set up.
     But all this effort begs the question: why do it? If the focus is supposed to be on the bedding, why take the time - and money - to create displays as elaborate as one bedding manufacturer did for a past market that required actual sand on the floor for a Tiki beach hut theme.
     One bedding manufacturer, Revman International, had this response.
      "The cost is significant, but the investment is worthwhile," said Diane Piemonte, vp of creative services. It's all about giving the retailer a great experience, she explained.
     "If you create the proper lifestyle context for each collection, it helps to highlight the brand's image and visualize the customer who will purchase the products. It also helps to instantly differentiate among our many brands and helps the retailer ‘shop,' the same way that great visual merchandising displays in a store inspire the consumer to purchase," Piemonte said.
     Some of the most memorable displays Revman has done in the past, Piemonte said, included the Tommy Bahama launch, which required removing a wall to double the space. More recently, she said, the front of Revman's showroom went through a transformation for the Vera Wang collection, which added a minimalist setting quite different from what Revman has done in the past.
     Mayo Studios is currently involved with three projects at 295 Fifth Avenue. The company is working with Victoria Classics to design its large new showroom for spring 2012. Mayo is also doing another revision of the Kassatex windows. And Nourison has engaged Mayo Studios to design its Fifth Avenue window display for the upcoming market week.
     Mayo Studios, which started out by photographing home fashions for print, catalogs and the web, in recent years added showroom design. Mark Mayo, who runs the company with his wife, Sandy, described the importance of creating a comprehensive depiction of the brand in the showroom.
     "In many cases, our role in a showroom design project extends beyond the bed, bath, floor-covering product our clients sell: it's the environment as a whole that tells a story about the company and directly affects the ‘memorability' of a showroom."
     Mayo Studios can enter the showroom design process as different stages. They often jump in when a space is gutted to collaborate with the client and architect to create space for display and offices. Or enter when the space is further along to assist in the decorating.
     Manufacturers with more complicated needs, such as those with multiple licenses "require a strategy that will walk the buyer sensibly through the showroom and allowing for a clear focus on one product category at a time," Mayo said. "One of our basic bedding customers had only a handful of down comforters and pillows to feature - in that instance we presented each product almost like a jewel in a museum."
     Mayo described the work as highly collaborative and said his team does their research, immersing themselves in a client's product line. "We often ask the client to walk us through their existing space or showroom and present product to us as if we were one of their buyers," he said.
     His clients, he said, "have a lot of input along the way" and receive progress reports. "We find the most successful design projects are those when our clients are part of the decision-making process and by the end of the project, they share a sense of the creative ownership that we certainly do."

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