This story originally appeared on page 50 of the Spring 2015 issue.
Story by Jaime Lin Weinstein
Can a chain home furnishings retailer cultivate an artistic authenticity akin to an independent shop? Absolutely, according to Vanessa Holden, senior vice president and creative director of West Elm. The former editor-in-chief of Martha Stewart Living has been working to diversify the Brooklyn-based brand’s merchandise offerings since she joined the Williams-Sonoma subsidiary in 2011. Now, she’s pioneering the “West Elm LOCAL” initiative, through which stores are carrying items made by designers from their own state. Take a stroll through your nearby West Elm, and among the chenille tweed sectionals and mid-century table lamps you might find leather tote bags handmade in Texas, ceramic planters created in California or organic soaps from Tennessee.
Eidé Magazine: Tell me how the idea for West Elm LOCAL came about.
Vanessa Holden: Brooklyn has been accurately branded as a breeding ground of artists, designers and makers, but what’s exciting is that movement is actually happening in cities all across the country … West Elm LOCAL grew out of a desire to build a creative network in all the communities where we do business and use our platform as a brand to elevate makers and designers, help tell their stories and grow their businesses.
EM: Why is it important for you to showcase local makers in your stores?
VH: Top line, our goal is for our West Elm stores to make a positive impact on the communities where we do business. We do this through creating jobs and serving our customers, but we can also do this through becoming a connector and a creative hub in the community. We want your West Elm to feel like your West Elm. We design the interiors to be reflective of the location, and the assortment is catered to the customer. West Elm LOCAL is a big part of that.
EM: You also created a competition for a small business grant based on public voting — tell me about the contest and how it works.
VH: As West Elm LOCAL grew, we looked for additional ways to support the artists and makers we work with. We launched the West Elm LOCAL Small Business Grant as another way to help artists scale and grow their business, and as a way for our customers to get involved and hear the stories of the makers. The prize was $25,000 and ongoing business support from West Elm. We had an open submission process, we narrowed it down to some of our favorites from across the country, and we let our customers vote on the winner. They chose Little Seed Farm, a family-run goat farm based outside of Nashville that makes organic soaps and skincare. These guys have an amazing business model, a real commitment to sustainable farming, and their products are amazing. We’re so proud of them. We’ll be relaunching the Small Business Grant early next year in a much bigger way!
EM: What makes the West Elm LOCAL initiative different from other artist/designer collectives?
VH: We’re building long-term relationships with our artists and makers and helping many of them take their businesses to the next level through marketing and partnership. One of our favorite growth stories is out of Atlanta. Brian Preston from Lamon Luther started his relationship with our Atlantic Station store — he did a little pop-up, which was incredibly successful, then we brought him into our LOCAL assortment and his pieces sold really well. And just last year we added his coffee tables to our “Best of LOCAL” assortment online, selling nationally. This was a game changer for Brian’s business. It allowed him to hire more employees, to invest in his business. We’re committed to Brian long-term, helping him grow and scale in a way that’s right for him and his employees.
EM: What’s next for West Elm and West Elm LOCAL?
VH: So much excitement! We’re obviously opening a bunch of new stores this year and by the end of the year we will have West Elm LOCAL in every one of our stores. And, we’re putting together a super exciting second round of our Small Business Grant, which I can’t tell you too much about now but I promise you it’s going to be amazing!