“First of all, everything we do emanates from my interior design practice,” Peter Dunham tells me. The “we” he’s referring to is his team at Hollywood at Home, the furniture, textiles, and decor purveyor he opened in 2007 after years of working as an interior designer.
Now he heads Hollywood at Home and his eponymous design firm concurrently, a position that allows him a more nuanced view of the industry and the savvy to adapt his business accordingly.
A prime example: This spring, Dunham launched a collection of outdoor furniture, responding to the massive growth in that category and associated performance fabric lines. At the same time, the company offered these pieces for quick (and comparatively inexpensive) shipping, adapting to today’s Amazon Prime–primed audiences.
“In my interior design projects, we were not finding outdoor furniture that we really liked,” Dunham says. “The big box stuff is fine until you look at it closely. In the luxury market, though, there wasn’t much.” As a result, Dunham found himself constantly creating custom pieces. Of course, those don’t come cheap. “In America, teak production is almost prohibitively expensive,” Dunham says. “And while my interior design clients can afford to buy eight-foot custom sofas, the people who come into the store want a much lower price point.”
So he went directly to the source. Indonesia, to be precise, where much of the world’s teak originates. Dunham purchased a bulk of materials and is overseeing production there. The result is what he refers to as an “upper-middle price point” collection, with chairs falling in the $1,000 to $3,000 range. The line features both new profiles and adaptations of some of Hollywood at Home’s most popular indoor styles (like the cheekily named How to Marry a Millionaire chair).
“It’s a little better than the big box furniture and a little more stylish because it doesn’t have to appeal to such a wide audience,” Dunham says. “Those companies have to have something that I’m going to like, that my granny is going to like, that my auntie is going to like – I don’t need to.” Instead, he’s widening his audience gradually: “We went from couture to prêt-à-porter,” he quips.
Outdoor versions of the How to Marry a Millionaire chair.
Still, Dunham recognizes that the explosion of popularity in outdoor and performance furniture presents an opportunity that didn’t exist a few years ago. “I think people are spending so much on their houses now that they want the outside to look as good as the inside,” he says. “It needs to look better than something you’d have at a campsite. You don’t want National Park furniture. National parks are beautiful, by the way – I just went to the most incredible one in Montana, so I’m not attacking them, but you know, you don’t want that attached bench and table at your home.”
The biggest chasm between Dunham’s work in interior design and retail is, of course, the time frame. “Our business plan so far has been a lot of artisanal, to the trade, made-to-order,” he says. “In that world, a 12-to-16 week lead time is normal. A 12-to-16 week lead time to younger baby boomers – or whatever the generation after that is – feels like the length of their first marriage. ”
With a price point that could position the furniture competitively with some larger retailers, Dunham knew he needed to compete. “It’s a real challenge for small companies,” he says. His solution? To stock “fewer SKUs, but really successful ones, and invest in the inventory.”
It’s a strategy that Dunham has been employing with his textiles for years. “I remember once hearing someone on a sales call saying, ‘Well, we don’t have 12 yards of the fig leaf but we have nine and we’ll have eight more coming in the next production,'” Dunham recalls. “And I just thought, I don’t want to have to do that. So we started making more of the most successful SKUs, and sales went up enormously.”
The Laurel rocking chair.
For the new line, all items are boxed and ready to ship, with guaranteed delivery in two weeks. Free shipping is available on certain models, but even a sofa ships at relatively reasonable $150. Clients in the Los Angeles area can pick up their purchases the same day. “People want to know that they can have it now and if they don’t like it they can return it,” Dunham says. “That’s easy if you’re a huge company, but it’s much harder for us. But that’s the direction we have to go.”
Still, Dunham is clear that he’ll never be competing with truly mass-market manufacturers – and he’s okay with that. “There’s this problem of how cheap you can go,” he muses, recalling one horror story of a shipment of furniture from a certain big box retailer in which half the furniture arrived damaged (and a replacement shipment delivered two more damaged pieces). “A mass producer has to be inexpensive, but my goal with Hollywood at Home would be to hit what I call the Pinterest customer, either a designer or someone working with a designer, for whom the prices are attractive enough that they feel they can spend. It’s the person who wants to spend more than the big box for style, but not as much as, say, Rose Tarlow. To me, that’s the obvious future.”
It’s a future, of course, that’s ever-changing. Asked what Dunham thinks will be the next big change in the design industry, he says, “I think we’re only at the beginning of what I’ll call the Industrial Revolution of the internet. So it will be very interesting to see how much more people buy online, or whether they retreat from that. I think there are a lot of people who want a more unique, artisanal product, so it might bounce back to that. Scarily, I think we’ll still see a desire for more speed, more choices.”
In the end, all this uncertainty confirms the importance of being adaptable. “I think the role of the interior designer will have to be a much stronger set of skills going forward,” Dunham says. “To be a successful interior designer you have to be involved more than just in the pretty at the end. That’s what people are willing to pay for. It’s certainly an interesting time, but designers are all about coping with new things, changing tastes, changing skill sets. What is it they say? The real certitude in life is change.”