Back Stage Pass

by Kimberley Wray
August 2015

High Point. A small, rather sleepy city located smack dab in the middle of North Carolina, with a population of little more than 100,000. Nice enough, but more often than not just another exit on the highway as one travels to the two sister cities -- Greensboro and Winston-Salem -- that make up the Piedmont Triad. For almost 12 months of every year, that is. Then, for one week in April and another in October, in a ritual that would baffle most outsiders, the city's population nearly doubles with an influx of some 80,000 business travelers hailing from more than 100 different countries around the globe.

For these two weeks, the local Southern drawl is all but eclipsed by a cacophony of tongues speaking Swedish, Spanish, Swahili, Mandarin, French, Italian, Russian and every dialect in between. Yet there is one language common among all the visitors: furniture.

This biannual, international confluence has been taking place for more than a century at the High Point Market, known to many as the world's capital for home furnishings. The Market is the largest home furnishings trade show on the globe -- encompassing 180 buildings, 11.5 million square feet of show space and more than 2,000 exhibitors, along with tens of thousands of new product introductions every six months. (Yes, you read that right. As the saying goes, if you can't find it in High Point, it probably doesn't exist.)

Think of it as fashion week for the home furnishings industry, where the only difference from the runways of New York, Paris and Milan is most of the models on the catwalk here have four legs -- chairs, tables, sofas, beds and chests. Securing a front-row seat requires more than A-list celebrity status too, unless, of course, the star's name is attached to a licensed product collection. As a trade-only show with strict guidelines for admission, shopping the High Point Market is a unique adventure few outside of the industry will ever experience first-hand.

A Duke University study reports the Market has an impact on the state's economy of an estimated $5.39 billion annually, and supports more than 37,000 jobs. Closer to home, in the Wrightsville Beach and Wilmington areas, High Point is a draw for the thriving design community and talented entrepreneurs who regularly make the twice-yearly pilgrimage to scout trends and purchase the products they believe best suit the coast's relaxed lifestyle.


No Day at the Beach

One of these interior designers, Maggie Aardema, the creative force behind Wilmington-based Design Associates, does a lot more than shop the High Point Market for her residential and commercial clients. Indeed, she is known in High Point as a showroom designer of the highest order, responsible for the look and feel of Stanley Furniture, one of the industry's leading and most well-known brands. While most come to High Point to be inspired, Aardema is among those responsible for creating the inspiration.

Imagine for a moment a movie set, encompassing some 25,000 square feet on two levels connected by a sweeping staircase. The set changes almost entirely every six months, from architectural details to flooring, to wall coverings and paint colors acting as the backdrop for the stars of the show -- the hundreds of new products Stanley introduces each Market.

Anyone who has ever undertaken a small-scale, DIY renovation of a kitchen or bath, or has waited impatiently for a contractor to show, can only begin to imagine the level of controlled chaos Aardema marshals. Her do-or-die schedule includes intimate involvement with every aspect of the showroom's build-out, from shooting the catalog and national advertising photography to ordering and arranging the fresh flowers that welcome shoppers to Stanley's showroom on the Market's opening day. It's a mammoth project akin to building and furnishing an entire mansion (at 25,000 square feet the Stanley showroom can hardly be called a "home") every six months. Aardema simply loves it.

"Twice a year High Point turns into the pulse of what is happening in the world of furniture. It's really exciting to be on the cutting edge of displaying the products for the retailers and designers who will eventually present them to consumers," Aardema says.

Her design process for a new season begins with black-and-white sketches -- line drawings really -- of each and every new product introduced to buyers.?

"I get finish panels as well," Aardema describes, "and from there I work with AutoCAD to create a floorplan of how the new products should be displayed. Then, I start looking at colors, including wallpaper, fabrics and area rugs, to bring the new collections to life."

As part of this process, she also chooses styles for upholstery, decorative accessories, lighting and art.

Of course, in the complex world of showroom design, Aardema is also simultaneously orchestrating photography shoots of the season just concluded, intimately involved with up to six shoots a day both on location and in the showroom, while collaborating with furniture designers, carpenters and painters for the next.

When the new season's opening day finally arrives, she returns to market once more in her role as a residential interior designer, scouting and shopping the new introductions in other showrooms and often partaking in the myriad of educational seminars on color trends and more offered to market attendees. While all this might sound thoroughly exhausting, Aardema has been thriving on her schedule for decades.

"Interior design is a fascinating, continuously changing craft, and it's rewarding to have the opportunity to enhance the way people live and work," she says. "When the showroom is finished, I love to become my residential designer self again and shop with my clients, because it keeps me current with what's happening in people's homes. When you're doing showroom design, it's all about making the furniture look comfortable; when you're doing residential design, it's only a success if the people look comfortable in it."



Designing Women

Ensuring the latter are Lisa Bohbrink, manager of The Studio at Design Associates -- a showroom that enables clients to stop in and experience the quality and comfort of the furniture on display -- and Tina Williamson, of the eponymously named T. Williamson Interiors, who shares The Studio with the Design Associates team. Inside The Studio, clients can purchase products off the floor or place orders following consultation with the interior design team.

Williamson practically cut her teeth at the High Point Market, visiting for the first time in 1976 as a staff designer with Wilmington-based retailer Sutton Council.

"Back then, the owner, Billy Sutton, would take six or seven of us to the High Point Market each season to work with the high-end, bench-made furniture companies like Henredon and Hickory Chair, Karastan rugs, and so on. -- It was an intimate gathering with the sales people and an incredible learning experience because it was all hands-on. It was exciting and fun, with wonderful meals and interesting people, but at 27 or 28, I couldn't process how important it really was. I realize now that we were all women, which was fairly unusual at the Market back then, and Billy was smart to get our input about what we thought would work on the floor. He knew that when someone came in to shop, we would really be familiar with the product."

Williamson has been a working interior designer since the mid-1970s and is generally happiest knocking around a job site with? plumbers, electricians, architects, and the homeowner, she says.

"I love architecture and I'm good at assessing scale, form, line, texture, proportion and color," she says. "I'm also good with math and keeping track of the details that come along with those things. I think few people really understand the third dimension. When they walk through a space they believe they are seeing two dimensions, but they don't grasp the cubic space that is needed for furniture and human traffic, for the function of each individual room to be successful and comfortable. I myself cannot always explain why I want something to be the way that it is, except that after all these years, my eye notices so many details that it just comes naturally. I know instinctively when something is out of scale or the color is not quite right."

At Market, Williamson continually updates her library of resources as trends and demands change.

"The hot coastal look is not a theme," she says. "Coastal living is always casual, with lighter finishes on wood furniture, and pops of color in the interior space. Lately I see the influence of rattan, Chippendale and Asian coming back into the furnishings that people want to use at the beach again. There's something classic, but not overdone about it."



Fifth and Castle

Meg Caswell describes her favorite coastal design look as vintage Palm Beach chic.

"I like color, mature patterns, and for my home to look like it was put together over time, not like it all showed up at once on one delivery truck," says the designer, who recently moved to Wilmington from Chicago to open Fifth and Castle, a design studio and decor shop in a historic firehouse. Here, customers can order a la carte designs from a menu of services at the design bar, while shopping the colorful offering of accessories, perusing wallpaper and fabric books, or consulting with Caswell or the designers that work with her.

"I'm bringing a design center to people who might not want to hire a full-time designer," Caswell explains. "I really believe that good design should be affordable and accessible to everyone."

It's a design firm and home d?cor concept that worked well for Caswell in the chic environs of Lincoln Park, Chicago, where she catapulted to celebrity status thanks to a win on HGTV's season six "Design Star" reality series. She went on to host her own TV show, "Meg's Great Rooms," for two years, first in Chicago, and then traveling the country, before the intense schedule of television production led her to seek a more balanced and relaxed lifestyle close to her husband's family in Wilmington and the High Point Market.

While Chicago is famed for its Merchandise Mart, Caswell says the High Point Market offers more of everything in one place.

"The first time I went I was totally overwhelmed by all of the options," she says. "Now, some nine years later, I make a game plan listing all of the vendors I want to see, because you can very easily get pulled off course at Market. You see a pretty pillow in a window, and before you know it, you've been in a showroom for an hour and haven't made it to the place you wanted to go. There are so many buildings and areas to explore that I map everything out before the day starts. Along the way, we'll still find new vendors that we've never even heard of, because some of them are so new, or so small, that they don't even appear in the general advertising and marketing we see about the show."



Feathering Nests

For Monika Williams, proprietress of Nest Fine Gifts and Interiors, a retail store selling furniture, accessories and gifts with a specialty in interior design, a day at the High Point Market is akin to a military operation.

"In addition to running the store, I have four children, so I am always trying to maximize my time in High Point," she says. "I usually try to be there the very first minute the doors open and then I'm there until people are kicking me out of the showrooms at night. The key to having a successful Market trip, in my opinion, is to have it all planned out and organized before you get there. You can't just start walking around because it's so spread out."

Since she's been buying for Nest for five years, Williams knows what will sell, so her Market visits are less about trend-spotting as making contact with manufacturers' representatives for the lines that Nest features.

"I enjoy the relationships that develop out of attending," Williams says. "I certainly have access to ordering from them online, but I'm a little old-fashioned that way. I like to go and see the people and talk to them about what's new and, at the same time, explore new companies that I think would be a good fit for us. I love the energy at Market, with all the entities coming together in one place. All the international flair is there, more so than, say, Atlanta, and you really do feel like you're at the center of what's happening in the home furnishings world."


De-Luxe Design

The story is similar for Julie Bray, manager of Luxe Home Interiors, a locally owned furniture and design shop specializing in custom upholstery with a fun, approachable and boutique-y feel.

"My first Market in the fall of 2006 was so amazing, so eye-opening and so confusing," she admits with a laugh. "We carried many of the big brand names like Stanley, Lexington, Hooker and Norwalk, but by going to Market I realized that there was so much more out there; you could literally find something for everyone."

These days, Bray's favorite time at Market is walking the famed InterHall at the International Home Furnishings Center, a juried offering of up-and-coming fashion lines.

"We're always looking for new vendors with a fresh approach that nobody else has," she notes.

Beyond this, Bray adds, "I'm always in awe of all the different showrooms at Market, but there are some that always stand out, like Currey & Company, Arteriors and Global Views, which always have fabulous colors and the most fantastic arrangements of florals with fruits and vegetables, along with great lighting. There's also C.R. Laine, which features the gorgeous Tobi Fairley Collection and is always inspirational."

Among the highlights at the most recent spring 2015 show that caught Bray's eye were the Pastiche upholstery collection from Norwalk, which she describes as very muted and feminine, almost like watercolors, and the introduction of the Thomas O'Brien Collection at Century Furniture.

"It was stunning, and very much my style, a mid-century feeling mixed with traditional," she says. Since new collections like these will not show up on retail floors across the country until later this year, Bray offers this tip: "Many of our vendors are on Instagram. So, if I want to preview what's going to be hot before I get to Market, I look at their Instagram accounts. It's a great way for consumers who want to follow along to see what's going on, too."



The World is Our Oyster

When it comes to reaching the world at large, it may surprise some to know that one Wilmington-based business -- Meridien -- helps bring the world's home for home furnishings to the world. Located south of the Port of Wilmington and established 25 years ago by Robert Keith, a specialist in international transportation, Meridien is a leading sales and logistics company specializing in American home furnishings products.

"We tell our customers and everyone we deal with how important the Market is, and encourage them to come so they can see the trends from the American side," Keith explains. "Milan is very important to many of our customers, as are the Chinese Markets in Shanghai, but we know that the American Market is basically one year to one and one-half years ahead of the Chinese. So, if you want to be on top of the leading trends, you've got to shop the High Point Market."

Serving retailers, designers, design boutiques and wealthy individuals around the globe, the company performs a few different functions during its time at the High Point Market. For one, Meridien's team serves as manufacturers' sales representatives for a number of American brands -- managing all of their sales and marketing activities outside the US and Canada. That means, at any given market, Meridien is responsible for managing the international activities of between 20 and 25 different home furnishings companies.

To accomplish this logistical feat, staff members based in satellite offices as far-flung as Moscow, Dubai, Hong Kong, Peru, Monterey, Mexico and Poland, fly in with clients, and then move quickly around the Market to help those clients shop, and deliver their purchases to their final destinations. Along with buying, Meridien provides its international customers with a range of related services, including interior design, project management, logistics and financial services.

"We have a team of designers that help our clients from the design side through space planning and visual merchandising support, helping them plan their store spaces, displays and maintenance of the displays," Keith describes. In fact, Meridien's team recently worked with Maggie Aardema at Stanley Furniture to bring a retail project to fruition.

"The store was in Moscow, and the shipping company that was handling the order was Meridien," Aardema says. "I remember thinking, 'Now isn't this fun?' Here we are in Wilmington and High Point, and between us, we're helping a store in Moscow become a reality."




Industry insider Kimberley Wray writes about the people, companies and trade shows integral to the home furnishings business. Almost 20 years ago, she relocated to High Point, NC, from Manhattan. She served as the High Point Market Authority's vice president of marketing during the most critical juncture in the Market's history, and was the first executive to be named to the position. Wray lives and works near the heart of the action, a few blocks from the High Point Market and the world's home for home furnishings.

 


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