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Design & Designer: Nancy Fire

Furniture World Magazine



Product designer and trend expert Nancy Fire talks with Furniture World Magazine about consumer, color and style trends that will impact furniture retailing in 2018.


Furniture World recently spoke with entrepreneur, designer, speaker, blogger, Nancy Fire about her work and what she sees trending in retail and design.

Nancy and her husband Neil Breslau founded Design Works International, a lifestyle brand studio located in New York City. She is its Creative Director. They also launched CreativeCorporate™, to guide product development for clients. Nancy says the company is the perfect combination of art and business. Besides being an in-demand speaker in the design industry, her lively blog, color, chaos, and creativity, allows readers to glimpse some of the inspirations for Nancy’s designs, gained through her extensive travels. Nancy is also design director of HGTV HOME, a branch of HGTV, and creative and design director of Kelly Ripa Home.

Getting Started

Furniture World asked Nancy about how she came to originate Design Works International.
"I started my creative education at SUNY OSWEGO earning a BFA in Design. As much as I loved fine art, I needed to find a paying job in a creative field. I had done a lot of photography, ceramics, print making – I love art and design – but I didn’t know if I could make a living as an artist. After graduation, this was 1983, I worked in photography for a subsidiary of the ad agency BBDO. Almost four years later, I realized that the job really wasn’t for me. I just did not feel creative enough.

"It happened that I met a guy downtown who was opening a fashion business, a design studio. During the course of about six years, we took the company from three people to 60. It was a great opportunity for me to enjoy my creative side.

"There came a time for me to create a path for myself – to start a business. With my husband, who was on Wall Street at the time, we created Design Works International."

Creative Ventures

Fast-forward 30 years. "Although we started out as more of a fashion studio working in the garment center, we’ve become more of an interior studio working for many home-related companies. My forte is understanding macro trends, what’s actually happening in the world. Since both of my parents had been in retail, I learned to recognize trends and the importance of getting in and out of products at the right time. I’m a design expert for many companies, ranging from GAF, a roofing company, to burton + BURTON, and, of course, I am the design director for HGTV and HGTV HOME, which reaches a broad demographic.
"Design Works International is a creative think tank that employs more than 20 in-house designers. We also have another company, Design2Print, that prints digitally on fabric. We work with famous runway fashion designers, and on the Marie Antoinette exhibit that is in the permanent collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We are truly diversified. My 83-year-old mother still asks me what we do – honestly it just changes daily."

Plotting Trends

"We live in a fast-changing world. This change is not only being caused by millennials; older generations are also looking at the world differently, and are buying differently. It is important for marketers and producers to understand what’s the right path and the wrong path. Our expertise in art and design, and knowledge of the industry helps companies make sound marketing choices.

"My assistants and I create color stories, trend ideas, trend boards, and style guides to help clients gain perspective on the market today. We don’t just analyze trends, and create a general trend book for the season that gets sold to many companies. We are different. We’re very specific. We target our clients for who they are.

"For example, as the design director for HGTV, I might come up with five major trends each year that filter through HGTV HOME. We then create videos around those trends, as well as special color cards. On the furniture side, we work with HGTV HOME Design Studios at Bassett to guide creation of furniture that will be right for HGTV HOME. HGTV HOME design studios are exclusive to Bassett and are in all their stores and galleries. It’s a custom program where consumers work with designers to tailor their interiors to their needs. The design center is really this creative bank of interior design at a more commercial style and sensibility."

Addressing Consumer Wants

We asked Nancy to explain her targeted process.

"In our business, the marketing perspective is important; the design perspective is important; and, especially now, the philosophy of how life should be lived is important because design has become personalized. Everyone is a designer, thank you HGTV!

"HGTV has allowed today’s consumers to understand that they can be the arbiters of style.
"People are spending more money on their homes than on their fashion because they’re proud of their homes; they’re proud to have friends and family over. It’s about being social, having dinner parties, gathering and creating experiences.

"Home furnishing retailers who don’t address this and other macro trends, are truly going to have a hard time.

"Customers also want to know what they are buying, and why. They want to hear a story about the kind of cushion they’re sitting on. Is it an eco-cushion? Is it stuffed with down? They are conscious and conscientious consumers, with a world-wide perspective. This is another element that retailers ignore at their own peril.

"My design work is also guided by a lot of street style, what people are wearing and why they’re wearing it. Wherever I am, whatever city or country I’m in, I live in stores, looking for the hip retailers. I speak to shop owners to find out what’s selling and why."

Changing Ideas

"Furniture buyers have changed and so must furniture retailing. We have to abide by new rules and understand that our customers’ life choices are important.

"The furnishings world has gotten more casual. That doesn’t mean that people are going out and only buying thrift-store pieces. Millennials want to be able to mix and match pieces that are new and old.
"The retailers that are doing it the right way are busy. Retailers, like Bon Marché in Paris, have a great way of mixing and matching. In both their fashion and home stores, they will bring in reclaimed items and mix them with new items. It’s like high and low. It’s a different way of thinking. People aren’t buying everything from one store, they’re picking and choosing. The best retailers are collaborating, creating looks and selections their customers find interesting.

"I think Anthropologie is a perfect example. Their home line in London is incredibly crazy and beautiful – well thought out. Unfortunately, I see more of that kind of creativity happening overseas."

Staying Au Courant

We asked Nancy how retailers can stay current with the latest trends if they are not able to travel to all the shows or explore major European cities and stores.

"While there are a lot of design assets on the Internet, furniture retailers really need to have someone who has the time and talent to take that information and bring back what is appropriate for them. Without that, retailers are going to miss important links.

"It is worth looking at website sites like Refinery 29, Pop Sugar, Apartment Therapy, hgtv.com and Design Milk. There is an endless supply of free information out there, and help from companies that can guide retailers in the right direction.

"Years ago, everything was price-driven. Today, however, design is at the forefront of retail. Retailers need to demand from their manufacturers something that is different. They need to ask, is different. They need to ask, ‘How are you going to show that you really believe in your product?’ As a retailer, I would want manufacturers to tell me what I should have and why I should have it.

"There is a disconnect between the ability of manufacturers to relate to what retailers need and are demanding. The good news is that I see a lot of retailers changing their corporate sensibility. They are bringing in smart people to make sure that they are on the same page with their suppliers by improving communication."

Long-Term Outlook

Furniture World asked Nancy about retail opportunities over the next five to 10 years.
"Retail is getting smarter with real estate by planning better and picking locations that are best for their product. There’s an opportunity for many retailers to re-evaluate, to put the right stores in the right places.
"People want experiences; they are aspirational. There’s an opportunity for more furniture retailers to make their stores into destinations. Just look at what Jordan’s does. There are so many opportunities for telling a story, for targeting and reinvention.

"There is also the adaptation of technologies, such as virtual reality. Going forward, stores won’t need to have as much retail space because most of what they will be selling will be online. Clever use of retail space will allow a smaller portion of product to be shown in-store. Consumers will get a welcoming in-store experience by taking up the invitation from retailers to meet and greet, to find out about the retailer, and to be introduced to the brand, all of which complements the digital sales experience.

"Although online will be a bigger part of retail in the future, I do believe that people will still want to go into a brick-and-mortar to touch and feel. I think it’s the retailer who sets the mood for the consumer going forward.

"On one hand, we see many stores that do not personalize the experience for their customers. Then there are stores like Anthropologie who do a much better job because they have a specific target market. I truly believe that one of the best opportunities for retailers to free-think how they’re going to become a destination is to focus on personalization."

Creating The Story

We questioned if the retail starting point would be to define what the customer experience is, rather than why they are in business.

"Absolutely. So many retailers are lost in a mindset of trying to be all things to all people, or are trying to focus on a specific target demographic without considering how the world is thinking today. These stores won’t be able to generate enough interest to become shopping destinations. What’s needed is something interesting, something new, something that provides a learning opportunity to make customers feel better about themselves. Without that, retail can appear unreliable or promotional. People are curious: they want their curiosity to lead them to a place that’s pleasing, a place where they will want to buy.

"Creating that place means that retailers need to present a lifestyle story. One retailer that always does a good job in this regard is Target. They’ve been able to capture the essence of affordable products at a particular moment in time. They provide inspiration for those on a budget who know what they like, but do not want to shop at a store they can’t afford, where they might feel uncomfortable. The same message is attractive to savvy shoppers who want a good price."

TRENDS: Coziness

Furniture World asked Nancy for information on trends.

"People want their homes to be cozy. The trend of hygge (hoo-guh) captures this idea. It’s a Danish term, whose English equivalent is coziness. If you look at hygge, where the trend is coming from, it is about nesting; it is about being cozy; it’s about loving your home environment.

"It is a designer sensibility that’s definitely filtering down through the mainstream. I am noticing a lot of furniture is becoming softer, a little bit more rounded. It’s a cozy style that people are looking for in their homes at all price points. That also means we are seeing many more cozy fabrics with a lot more texture."

TRENDS: Texture

"It’s really nice to see texture coming back in creative ways. At the recent High Point Market in October, there were a lot of wood accents mixed with other substrates. For instance, wood with textured wood; wood with ceramic; and, wood with different types of fabric in interplay. We saw people mixing substrates – it’s not matchy-matchy anymore. There is colored wood, painted wood, a lot of texture, and a lot of detailing to make furniture look a little bit more one-of-a-kind, without looking at all do-it-yourself.

"These designs have an artisan feel at a commercial level. More creativity is creeping into furniture design today. There is more upholstered detailing and innovation in fabric constructions."


"In terms of color for 2018, Pantone picked Ultra Violet, which I love. Sherwin Williams has named Oceanside, which is a beautiful teal that we saw all over Paris, both in retail stores and painted on walls. We are also seeing some warm colors: terra cottas and reds are coming back.

"So, the takeaway is, people are accepting color at retail. People are accepting texture at retail. People are accepting the mixing of substrates at retail. People are accepting the mixing of metal finishes throughout the home. We’re even seeing people mixing metals within one area, like in the kitchen. The rules have changed a bit."

TRENDS: Inside Out

"The indoors is going out and the outdoors are coming in. It’s a definite trend in what people are buying today. That’s why melamine’s doing so well. The patterns on the melamine have become fun and innovative – they look almost like ceramics. It’s hard to tell the difference.
"We are seeing products being used both indoors and out: indoor and outdoor fabric; ottomans and pillows. People are looking to expand their living spaces. Their houses might be smaller, their apartments might be tinier, but they love outdoor spaces. This expansion makes their homes seem bigger. I’m a fan of indoor/outdoor, and also of the high-end eco-look that doesn’t say ‘peace, love, and granola.’ Sustainable is a trend as well, as long as it has the right design quality. Sustainable, eco-fabrics, re-purposed, recycled or reclaimed wood – all are great as long as there’s a real marketing story, and a truthful one, too."

Implementing TRENDS

"Here is my philosophy: if a retailer removes two beige items from the floor, it allows the addition of two more colorful items. Customers will gravitate to products that are different, more colorful, and, interesting. One big reason why retail traffic is down is that everything looks the same. Therefore, consumers are looking for products and ideas in places they normally wouldn’t. It’s not personal – it’s not that they don’t like brick-and-mortar retailers anymore. They still want to visit stores, but if mom ‘n’ pop looks dated, guess what? They won’t be going back to their tried-and-true if it is letting them down.

"There are furniture shoppers, many younger people, who don’t have a clue about good design. They know they want it, but they don’t know where to go to get design advice. There is nobody they feel they can trust. This group presents another opportunity for furniture retailers, because once you break through, get that story across to them, they will become customers for life.

"Years ago, my grandparents and great-grandparents on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, were their customers’ tried-and-true retailer. Their customers believed in the promise of their brand. Today, people don’t believe in brands as much, so it is a harder job for retailers to convince people why they should be a destination. A lot of that is marketing.

"Broadcast marketing platforms like HGTV are great ways to market products, but if these are unaffordable platforms for some retailers, they can advertise through digital marketing with Instagram or Facebook. With some creative marketing, a new hip look, and all of a sudden, a company that looked old can be new again."


We wanted to know Nancy’s thoughts about the importance of function.

"Function is important, and it’s all about duality. What does your product do that someone else’s doesn’t? Do you have an ottoman that opens up as storage? Customers don’t want to buy too much, but they want to buy what’s right for them – and it’s often not a price-driven decision. So, show that storage ottoman in five different vignettes, with four different stories that highlight its versatility. People will get the idea that there is an opportunity to buy the ottoman today, live with it, and know that it will adapt and change for future needs.

"The retailer who shows a confusing sea of beige or black leather will only frustrate customers. Retailers should have vignettes that tell a story, and that story can be versatile. For instance: a shopper who likes both retro and vintage can buy a piece from here and from there. That customer is no longer looking to buy a serious five-piece set that can’t be mixed and matched. What retailers can do is mix and match those sets so shoppers know that they don’t have to buy five matching pieces. They can buy three from here and two from there in a way that looks great. Or buy three main pieces and choose from 15 accent pieces. The point is, five different shoppers can come in and buy the same concept, but each of their rooms will be customized because they won’t buy the same exact pieces.

"When I was younger, technology was the future – it was like the Jetsons. The smart home is here, but people don’t want it in their face. We are seeing a trend for interior design to meet with technology in a way that it is available, but camouflaged."

Building Retail Traffic

We asked Nancy to expand on the idea of transformative home furnishings design leadership.

“In New York, when I walk down Columbus Avenue, or I’m in the Village, and I see so many retailers closed, my heart sinks. We have to wake up. Stores that didn’t change 10 years ago are suffering because now, in order to survive, they have to make big changes in a short amount of time. How do you turn a big ship quickly?

"If I owned a furniture store or company, I would engage with my sales associates because they represent my brand. There are a lot of old-timers around, who are knowledgeable about their products but not sure how to bridge the gap when it comes to selling to a new generation.
"That doesn’t mean most stores need to change 180 degrees, but they do need to do something to help new customers come to them, show them an opportunity – and for most retailers that opportunity is thinking about lifestyle.

"Retailers have to decide what that lifestyle is, and who is coming to them to find it.

"That lifestyle is often a blend: maybe beach with a touch of urban; or urban with a touch of vintage to create a realistic lifestyle. Most people don’t live in a Victorian house or dress in Victorian clothing! The world is changing and retail lifestyle presentations need to change as well. Success will come by helping customers make the right choices and make customers the arbiters of style.

"People who interact with customers must understand, be able to dramatize, and be a part of the lifestyle they are selling. It is not just throwing pieces down on the floor anymore; it’s about decorating to the hilt and creating lifestyles based on an understanding of who would live in that room.

"Finally, home furnishings retailers should pay attention to what’s happening in the food industry. Fashion, home, and wellness are all connected. Wellness is strongly connected with food, which is connected with being social – gathering around a table. Larger social gatherings require bigger tables or flexible ways to increase available seating. Here is an opportunity for retailers to create interesting stories by using the intersection of fashion, furnishings, and food."

Russell Bienenstock is Editor-in-Chief of Furniture World Magazine, founded 1870. Comments can be directed to him at editor@furninfo.com.

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