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News / Northwest

At 50, the Seattle Design Center has influenced NW design, our homes and beyond

By Sandy Deneau Dunham, The Seattle Times
Published: May 7, 2023, 8:30am

WE ARE TOURING the Seattle Design Center, and we have invented an impossible guessing game: Just how much fabric is in this place?

Well, there are six massive fabric panels, all in coordinating shades of blue, draped in the soaring atrium (they served as the stage backdrop for Spring Design Day at the end of March). That’s a start.

But then there’s that entire rack of fabrics in the Kravet showroom behind us. And a whole fabric room in Trammell-Gagné. Plus brand after brand of samples filling the walls of Perennials & Sutherland Studio.

Add all the overwhelming options from oodles of other stunning showrooms, and … pop. The mind boggles to bursting. Yet still we try to quantify:

• Seattle Design Center assistant marketing director Elliott Wong plays it safe in a smart-aleck way we respect, especially since we just tallied those six massive panels: “I’d say more than five, for sure.”

• Richard Seges, property and project managing director for Greenbridge Investment Partners, which has owned the SDC since 2014, ups the ante considerably: “It could be tens of thousands of different fabrics,” he says.

• And then Trammell-Gagné president Tom Hunter launches us into certain incalculable territory with estimates of 300,000+ in his magnificent showroom alone, and “a few million” in the whole SDC.

Counting is futile, but spotting one (or more) you love is pretty much a given. Says Seges: “You can come in and test-drive a sofa, and if you can’t find a fabric here to cover that sofa in — you just can’t be pleased.”

And there is so much more to this pleasing landscape than mountains of fabric: the sofas themselves, for example, plus every other kind of furniture, and textiles, rugs, flooring, lighting, paint, art, wallcoverings, accessories — basically (but in a luxurious, anti-basic way) anything you would ever want inside a thoughtfully designed home.

“The idea is, you can find everything,” Seges says. “If it’s something that an interior designer is likely to specify for a project, it’s here.”

Since the SDC opened in Georgetown in 1973 (originally as Design Center Northwest, built by Jack Benaroya’s company), more than 2 million people — mostly design professionals, but design-it-yourself consumers, too — have relied on its unrivaled one-stop resources, and the showroom staffs’ global expertise, for inspired creativity and creations.

In its 1980s heyday, back when there were more than 50 showrooms, the SDC had expanded to include the next-door, five-story Georgetown Squared (G2) building (also built by Benaroya and also now owned by Greenbridge), which is connected by a shimmering glass skybridge that Seges calls “the sunniest place in Seattle.” These days, after gloomy clouds darkened by a thundering recession and a blizzard of online shopping rolled through, the remaining 22 showrooms are consolidated into the original 150,000-square-foot building (which Greenbridge renovated in 2015 with JPC Architects), and G2 has been converted to creative office space.

Those are the easily measurable numbers. The enduring influence and relevance of the SDC are as tough to calculate as our swatch challenge, but they’re definitely just as substantial — and very much worth celebrating. For its golden anniversary gala on Oct. 6, Seges says, “We really want to highlight the Design Center’s role over 50 years and into the future. It’s not just about the past. The Design Center is here to stay.”

It is, after all, the fabric of Seattle’s design community.

THE SDC IS AN international smorgasbord of ideas and inspiration, but it is not Ikea. The enticing showrooms (plus the Heritage School of Interior Design and offices for the Northwest Society of Interior Designers and the American Society of Interior Designers-Northwest) fill two floors around that luminous central atrium, and there is a cafe, but the main entrance is via an artfully remodeled, modern lobby with a sleek concierge desk, and there are no crinkly tote bags.

It’s calm. It’s uncrowded. The light is sublime, and the showrooms ooze serene sophistication.

There are generally two types of showrooms here: corporate ones (Baker, Kravet, Perennials & Sutherland Studio, for example) “that are like the Nike store that sells Nike products,” Seges says, and multiline ones “that are more like Nordstrom” (including Trammell-Gagné, Kelly Forslund and The Dixon Group), selling multiple lines from multiple companies.

The largest showroom is 13,000 square feet; the smallest is 100. “It’s actually a jeweler,” says Seges. “We have a few ancillary uses that are not strictly the things you might think about for interior design but are companionable.”

You, the casual shopper, are welcome in all of the showrooms (this was not always the case), but the primary customers are, by far, design professionals.

“We’re not a retail mall where somebody is coming in the door to buy a T-shirt,” says Seges. “If you or I walked in and wanted to buy a new dining room table, about 50% of the showrooms will sell directly to clients rather than to designers. But anybody can come to the Design Center to get inspired, to get ideas, to see what’s out there.”

Interior designer Susan Marinello, of Susan Marinello Interiors, says someone from her firm comes here weekly, sometimes daily.

“Designers usually know what they’re looking for, and when we walk in the Design Center, we’re on a mission to go find it, but what’s so magical is that it throws you a twist that you may not have seen — something new and special,” she says. “There’s always a takeaway of inspiration that you walk out with that you didn’t walk in with.”

OF COURSE, MASSES of casual shoppers live wonderful lives with mass-produced, DIY home furnishings — sometimes without even changing out of our jammies, trusting our computer screens’ color saturation and a handful of anonymous reviews to help us pick out a pretty couch online, even if it is sight (and touch, and fit, and sit) unseen. But for those who desire a more personal, personalized, custom designed home … well, there is a reason we’re casual shoppers and interior designers are professionals.

“Designers got skills,” Seges says, laughing. “They know. There’s an enormous amount of technical expertise that goes into design. Designers can look at a sofa and understand how it might work in a house and what it might be appropriate for because they’ve got deep experience. It’s not just about buying a sofa; it’s about buying the right one. And buying one that will last, and understanding the manufacturer and the details and the fabrics that go on it so they can get what the client wants and needs from an aesthetic and a durability standpoint.”

Plus, how would you even start to narrow down those millions of fabric options?

“An experienced designer knows most of the fabric lines” in the SDC, says Hunter, of Trammell-Gagné, where classic and contemporary comforts of home are handcrafted, customizable and sold only to design professionals. “They know which fabric lines to go to for specific colors, which fabric designer. They have their own color palette that they work with through the years, and designers know which ones they want, or they have specific weaving styles that they do, or patterns that they use. They have their own signature.”

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At the SDC, where you actually can sit on actual sofas, designers and their clients can watch those signature selections come together in person — in the cool, chandeliered Design Studio, which designers can book to stage products and possibilities, or even in another showroom.

In the electrically colorful and eclectically stocked Andonian Rugs showroom, says showroom manager Eric Popowski, “Designers will bring in a bag full of fabrics, tile, a piece of wood flooring; they’ll bring everything that’s a known element in the space — paint color, too — and throw them on the rug and see: ‘Do they work? Do we need a different rug, or do we need a change in paint color?’ It’s a common occurrence for a designer to come in here with a bag full of things and ask what we have that will work.”

Upstairs at J. Garner Home, a recently refreshed classic-meets-trendy showroom, “We can do a total home” — from an “edgy and youthful” black cabinet from super-selling line Four Hands to a plush five-figure sofa from Eleanor Rigby — says president Jan Garner Schaefer, who has been here 25 years. “Everything on the floor is available today. The designers can come in with their clients and take it right off the floor.”

AS A REGIONAL design center (the nearest one is in San Francisco), the SDC and its influence reach in all directions like “Everything Everywhere All at Once” multiverse-jumpers but with less broken furniture — over the decades, throughout the design community, throughout the Georgetown community, and into our homes and design ethos.

Each piece of the design community threads into the others in an elegant weave of interconnection backed by one single, solid, 50-year-old institution:

• Designers request products from SDC showrooms that speak to our Northwest corner of the design world (Seges’ categorization: “a warmer modernism, with more natural wood and stone, and more openness to the outside”).

• Showrooms respond — and also stretch the edges of our cozy corner by bringing the world to us. All that fabric is sourced all over the globe, for example, and Andonian Rugs come from “pretty much everywhere they make a rug,” Popowski says. “We go buy what we think will sell, based on what our clients have been asking for, and then, occasionally, we’ll take a flier at things that are a little different.”

Adds interior designer Marinello: “The Design Center is setting trends because we’re blessed with showroom owners who are out in the world internationally, and they’re picking out the best of the best in Europe, all over the world. Tom Hunter was just in Paris, and he brought us all these things he fell in love with there. We have access to everything that the world has access to.”

• Even the requests of the casual shopper reverberate: As our interest in design — and the value of a well-designed home — has rocketed (thanks, claustrophobic lockdown), manufacturers have rallied with better, better-looking and more affordable options.

“This is a place that disseminates new design ideas and new design products back to the design community,” Seges says. “Good design affects communities, as well; it’s called interior design, but it’s a piece of a bigger design puzzle that creates a community.”

• In its own community, the SDC (and other, similar Benaroya buildings) contributes to the distinct architectural character of Georgetown, Seges says, while sparking and supporting other neighborhood showrooms and suppliers.

“As an organization, a company, they represent the community in a really beautiful way,” says Marinello — while also representing design itself. “A 50th anniversary is a big deal. That is what design is — that is what we do — it’s all about adapting, growing, changing, responding.”

And enduring through it all. “A person who walked in on opening day in 1973, while they’d see a different, refreshed building, would not see something that looked totally foreign to them,” Seges says. “It’s a recognizable service that still serves the design community as it did 50 years ago. As long as we have homes, the SDC will be here.”