When graphic designer Jennifer Morla, 52, became creative director of Design Within Reach in 2005, the San Francisco–based purveyor of modern furniture classics was in trouble. In 2004, the 5-year-old company had gone public and experienced its best fiscal year to date, with net sales increasing by nearly half. But by the end of 2005, DWR was heading into the red, a rumored victim of overexpansion. What’s more, its visual identity had become indistinct: Its catalogs—the bread and butter of a company that sells online—were being tossed away along with those from Crate & Barrel and Coldwater Creek.
In response, Morla—who was recently named chief creative officer—overhauled DWR’s ads, direct mail pieces, and website. This month, she’ll play a role in the launch of Tools for Living, DWR’s first cash-and-carry shops, located in New York and Santa Monica, California (see p. 36 of this issue for a preview of the new collection).
You’ve been a part of the Bay Area design scene for years, and with your own graphics studio, Morla Design, you worked for quintessentially American companies—Levi’s, The New York Times, Nordstrom’s. Is a homegrown spirit what drew you to DWR?
When [the company’s founder] Rob Forbes asked me to become creative director, part of what enticed me was the idea that DWR could become like Herman Miller in the 1950s. I was interested in working within a creative nest that wasn’t exclusive to one medium; I’d have the opportunity to design the language of DWR’s retail environments, to create a dynamic web experience, and to redefine the concept of catalog from “disposable retail mail” to a vehicle infused with authorship and history. I felt there was a need to create a resource that would be kept throughout the year as a source of inspiration as well as a selling tool.
How did you accomplish those goals?
When I came on, I looked at who we were talking to. The web isn’t what it was in those days, online shopping isn’t what it was in those days, and the awareness of modern design has really changed. So we’ve started to involve our audience in a dialogue. In April, our catalog asked, “What is Green?” Our big fall book is titled “What is Modern?” and we’re showcasing the ambiguity of that description with a cover photo of a Murano chandelier. This object was originally developed in the 17th century to augment flickering candlelight, using a process that was quite innovative for its time. We’re realizing that when something was made is sometimes not as relevant as how and why it was made.
The new catalogs are laid out with full-bleed photos, large areas of white space, supergraphics, and silhouetted pieces—a Marcel Wanders chandelier alongside Castiglioni’s Taraxacum, for example—juxtaposed to contextualize what modern means.
Speaking of modern, DWR has described the Tools for Living shops as “modern general stores.” What does that mean?
There’s an underlying simplicity to the collection—it includes, for instance, a rope doorstop that was originally used on docks to keep boats from hitting one another. We wanted to see if there was another use for such objects, and we looked to improve what’s considered mass-market design right now. Take the charcoal purifying water pitcher. Of course you could buy a Brita. But we wanted to offer options. The collection will include about 800 products to start, and we’re planning to expand to as many as 2,000.
And the name?
It’s not about hammers. (Although we do have hammers in the collection!) It describes a sensibility that’s very natural and unpretentious.
DWR had a specific niche with its Eames lounges and Saarinen chairs. By expanding the product line into small-scale items, are you treading on turf already staked out by retailers like MoMA?
Not really. I think all we’ve done is stretch our own demographic. Design Within Reach originally referred to making furniture easily available, but our entry point was pretty high. With Tools for Living we’re allowing smart design to be more affordable, too, and therefore accessible in all ways to everyone.
Jill Singer is the managing editor of I.D.
Portrait by Alex Fradkin