House of Accessible Design

A new vision for the Design Within Reach retail experience focuses on room solutions, encouraging discovery and exploration

By Jenny S. Rebholz

Since 1998, the company has been giving consumers access to innovative works from iconic designers. For the past seven years, DWR leadership has been working with New York-based, multidisciplinary design firm DFA to bring a new cohesive vision and direction to the retail experience. Together, they have been transforming locations across the country from Stamford, Conn., and New York’s SoHo to Portland, Ore., and Atlanta.

“DWR offers literally thousands of items, from well-known classics of authentic modern furniture, to collections from design brands new to the U.S. market, the work of emerging designers mentored by DWR, and the creations of our internal product development team—a potentially overwhelming variety, but also an excitingly unique blend,” describes Alain Capretz, director of Studio design for Design Within Reach. “Our Studio design concept has evolved over the last seven years as a strategy to make this vast amount of product digestible and relevant to the retail customer looking for room solutions.”

The new design direction organizes merchandise into “houses.” A house consists of a collection of three or four rooms—such as a living room, dining room, bedroom and possibly a study or guestroom—that offer a cohesive aesthetic.

“Each group of rooms, informed by a different design sensibility, draws its own visitors responding to materials, color palettes, forms and details that reflect their tastes,” Capretz describes. “Some are quite dramatic, even grand, while others are more intimate or more cheerfully playful. It’s the variety across rooms and houses that makes the Studio visit so rich.”

The collection of houses creates an intuitive wayfinding strategy. The combinations make logical sense and encourage customer exploration. Customers easily can pair items together on their own or with staff assistance. In many cases, houses are organized in parallel lines to make it easier for customers to compare and shop between houses. The matrix of houses and standardized rooms surround a core zone where staff and customers can explore and discuss specific products and individual needs and preferences.

“Over time, we’ve found this approach has given our customers the confidence to see beyond individual items, considering full room solutions that are unique expressions of their individual style,” Capretz says.

The number of houses and composition of the rooms is customized to best suit the size and location of the store. For an 8,000-sq.-ft. to 12,000-sq.-ft. store, that could mean six houses. Dropped ceilings and occasional walls painted white complemented by cerused oak flooring delineate the rooms, while semi-transparent scrims throughout the store provide spatial breaks that create texture, color and rhythm. Poured concrete with a honed but imperfect finish is typically used for flooring in the circulation areas and outdoor furniture displays.

“When dealing with a vast collection of furniture, giving the architecture too much attention would be distracting,” says Laith Sayigh, principal of DFA. “The architecture offers a neutral background with the furniture providing a distinct point of view.”

This architectural philosophy is not just applied to the interior. The exterior façade of each store is also simply stated and branded, driving attention to the product that awaits inside.

The new Portland Studio is located in the Pearl District, the oldest surviving warehouse district in the city. At 24,000 sq. ft., it is currently the largest DWR Studio. The façade features rows of the warehouse’s original square sash windows. A simple gray and white paint scheme enhances the elevation that is branded with a large “wordmark” spelling of Design Within Reach in halo-lit letters and a bright red DWR logo cabinet sign over the entrance door. “The historical context of this old commercial structure provides the perfect juxtaposition for the clean contemporary house settings that serve as the backdrop for the vast collection of modern furniture,” Capretz notes.

While many of the DWR locations are adaptive reuse projects, like Portland, the Atlanta project is the company’s first truly ground-up design and construction project. The approximately 13,000-sq.-ft. Atlanta Studio serves as DWR’s flagship in the Southeast. A double-height glass curtain wall on the front and rear façades, along with a palette of zinc, steel and painted metal panels, elicits a high-end and contemporary feel that is once again branded with the wordmark lettering and entry door signage.

Both Portland and Atlanta have a central, double-height hub that greets and engages customers. This moment of engagement is enhanced by two focal points that are distinct elements of the new design concept. A collection of hundreds of pendant fixtures is arranged in an incredible cloud of light that creates a “wow” moment at the entry. The first one was hung in Stamford and each Studio since has a cloud with its own narrative. “In Portland, we had the opportunity to give a nod to the Gold Rush with Tom Dixon fixtures,” Sayigh adds. “They have beautiful veins of gold running through them, so the collection insinuates a river of gold.”

And don’t think that goes unnoticed. “Soon after we open a new Studio, Instagram explodes with photos of the Light Cloud,” Capretz says. “This is a testament to the power of this unique feature to delight and transport our visitors.”

The other featured element in each new store is a 30-ft. Swatch Wall. “Design Within Reach offers thousands of Maharam fabric and Edelman leather options, yet previously there was no evidence of that for the customer,” Sayigh explains. “The Swatch Wall offers 300 rectangular upholstered swatch blocks that can be pulled off the wall. This detail is now a colorful beacon for the store and communicates the sense of limitless possibilities. People weren’t aware of this and now it is an iconic element in the stores.”

For DWR, “accessible” means that product can be seen and touched or, as the staff likes to say, “taken for a test drive.” The Light Cloud and Swatch Wall are new ways of communicating that accessibility.

“Our primary programming objective is accessibility: we want our customers to feel free to explore and ‘kick the tires,’” Capretz says. “DWR isn’t a gallery or museum, it’s an immersive environment in which customers can ‘experience’ the furniture. Pull down any chair from a wall display and try it out at different tables. Hop onto a display platform to test the ‘sit’ of a featured lounge chair, let our Studio staff move furniture from one end of the Studio to another to see how you like a different combination. Everything is allowed, and encouraged by a friendly staff focused on the client’s desires.”

While the primary display strategy for DWR is to merchandise in context, so customers can relate to the rooms of a home, there are some isolated product displays. A piece of furniture may be highlighted for its visual appeal on a clean white platform or a beautiful plane of glowing frosted acrylic. Barriers are not created between the customer and the merchandise and signage is kept to a minimum.

“We avoid over-merchandising for the sake of showing alternative options,” Capretz explains. “When we do show alternatives, they’re set slightly apart from the room, to serve as further suggestions. A dining room display, for example, will feature our best suggestion for appropriate chairs surrounding the table—but along the back of the dining room we place a “chair wall” fixture, of two backlit shelves holding up the 12 other chairs that could also work well with the table.”

To truly achieve a residential ambience in the houses, the lighting strategy required careful consideration. DWR and DFA called upon Kathy Pryzgoda, principal of Light Studio L.A. “Based on Kathy’s experience in high-end residential lighting design, as well as stage and television lighting, she guided us in achieving a balance of natural and artificial lighting that evokes the residential interior while preserving a sense of heightened reality, an important aspect of ‘retail theater,’” Capretz says.

Depending on the project site, ample glass façades are incorporated whenever possible. The lighting strategy then integrates a combination of diffused skylights, LED panels for large display areas and LED spots in lighting tracks to help define the houses. When access to natural light is limited, DWR has used an innovative backlit membrane to cover large ceilings in order to create a diffused daylight effect.

“The design is about being present, but not overwhelmed; well-designed, but not overstated,” Sayigh says. “It is a clear hierarchy of space done purposefully. We needed to provide a clear, smart, well-thought-out backdrop to exquisite furniture.”

The new and improved DWR experience encourages discovery and exploration, and provides an environment where customers can find a design solution for an entire room, work with a staff member to customize a solution or easily navigate the store on their own. The retail experience can be different every time a customer visits. As Capretz says: “The experience of the Studio is what the client makes of it.”


project file

Design Within Reach Studio Concept,
Portland, Ore.

Design Within Reach


Fieldwork Design


Gausman & Moore (MEP engineer), Mackenzie (structural engineer), The Friday Group (specifications consultant)

GA Richards (swatch wall, chair displays, custom metal accessories), Stingray Studios (scrims, backlit graphic walls), Beatrice Upholstery (Maharam lounge)

LIGHTING designer
LightstudioLA, DFA (Light Cloud design)

Flos, Edge, Bartco, Antares, Nordic Global Pro, Design Within Reach, Loeb Electric

Relative Space (vendor), Bauwerk Parquet (manufacturer)

Triangle Signage

Fieldwork Design (custom wooden louvers)

Design Within Reach

GA Richards, Tri-North

Stingray Studios (scrims, backlit graphic walls), Maharam (Maharam lounge cushion covers)

Fieldwork Design (custom wooden louvers)

Benjamin Moore

Information in the project file is provided by the retailer and/or design firm.

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