Demystifying the San Francisco Design Center
Updated: Feb 11
(Originally published in the Napa Valley Register)
Have you ever browsed through home decor magazines and wondered where to find such beautiful furnishings? You know you haven’t seen them in local retail stores or in those pesky catalogs that clutter your mailbox.
House Beautiful, Elle Décor, Veranda and the like are filled with pages of polished rooms, unarguably customized and unique. Granted, once in a while you’ll find a doozy, but mostly, they look pulled together, balanced and designed with detailed intent. They also look expensive but read on — you may be surprised.
Chances are, these furnishings came from design centers, clusters of showrooms where interior designers shop for, or with, their clients. Many major cities devote neighborhoods solely to this industry. The one in San Francisco is located in the SOMA (south of Market Street) district and comprises two four-story buildings, the Galleria and Showplace. But a few surrounding blocks are also filled with showrooms. This entire area is called “Showplace Square.”
I don’t know exactly how many showrooms are in Showplace Square, but its directory handbook is an inch thick and represents at least 2,000 national or international manufacturers. As I mentioned, these manufacturers are not found in most retail stores or catalogs. So, how do their goods make their way into design centers?
For six days in April and October, about 80,000 members of the trade industry (showroom managers, buyers and interior designers) are invited to roam 180 buildings covering 11.5 million square feet to see tens of thousands of new products. These semi-yearly jaunts, affectionately known as “going to Market,” give trade professionals the opportunity to open accounts, order furnishings and preview upcoming trends.
Three or four months later, design centers are filled with fresh furniture, fabrics, rugs, light fixtures, tile, accessories, art and novelties. Some showrooms carry a bit of everything. Others carry just one product like rugs or light fixtures. Some are even more streamlined and carry only iron works or leather goods or antiques. Each showroom has an established style or two such as traditional, modern, Asian, casual or formal.
A seasoned designer knows which showrooms to hit based on the design he or she is creating and is not intimidated by the innumerable options once inside them. Sloan Miyasato, for instance, is a showroom that carries a full product line including more than a half-million fabrics.
The relationship between design centers and the trade is mutually respectful and valuable, and can lead to years of trusted partnerships. Design centers only sell to the trade. There are a number of reasons for this policy. Showrooms are set up to do business with professionals who already know what they’re looking for, who are equipped to take on certain liabilities and can navigate through the purchasing system. Showrooms are minimally staffed and not set up to work with, decide for, or educate the public but rather to spend time implementing their designer’s purchase orders. This is also why, in part, design centers are not generally open to the public.
For all the reasons mentioned and more, design centers extend a discount to the trade. Discounts vary depending on the showroom and the product. Designers subsequently vary in the way they apply these discounts. Some may pass them along to their clients and charge a design fee instead. Some may mark up their discounted price and not charge a design fee. Most do a combination of both but let me say a word about markups to put things into perspective.
Like design centers, furniture retail stores buy goods at a wholesale price. Retailers then mark up their goods a typical 200 to 350 percent. Designers, on the other hand, typically mark up by much less, even as little as 20 percent in some cases. Many factors determine a designer’s markup but you can see where there is room for them to be competitive with retail stores. And, because of their access to design centers, designers are able to offer a wider variety of product, customization and expert hands-on attention that can lead to magazine-quality results.
Showplace Square triggers a few sentimental emotions for me. When I decided to go to design school years ago, I was a computer programmer working in San Francisco’s financial district. Since I chose a school that was also in San Francisco, I had the convenient opportunity to wander about the Design Center at every free moment. I discovered which showrooms carried which manufacturers, learned different nuances within each showroom and which had the best customer service.
My explorations exposed me to creative possibilities I otherwise would not have known. My feet have since covered miles and miles of showroom floors, and the results for my clients have always been enhanced by the experience.
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