Is Imitation Really the Sincerest Form of Flattery?

One of my favorite stores in the world, Spazio Sette in Rome, Collette in Paris, and The Conran Shop in London included, is Martin in St. Helena, here in my own backyard. Every trip of mine to Napa is not complete without a stop to the original Taylor’s Refresher for a white pistachio milkshake and a stroll through Martin.

Martin in downtown St. Helena

Martin in downtown St. Helena

Martin is a home decor store that sells furniture, lighting, objects d’art, accessories, jewlerly and books.  The genius of the store is the exquisite way it is merchandised, how everything is displayed together in a perfect harmony of shapes, sizes and textures.  It’s like an Anthropology store that’s focused on furniture and decor-stocked with only the best stuff.  The fact that the physical store is a renovated hundred year-old building with 18′ high ceilings, exposed brick on three sides and imported French oak herringbone floors doesn’t hurt either.  Oh, and did I mentioned the dramatic spot lighting and the amazing over-scaled, ceiling mounted, steel chain and reclaimed wood display shelves they have?  Their style is what I call ancient modern or country chic or vintage modern or Napa chic-something that mixes vintage styles and natural materials with modern elements and sleek lines.  Whatever it is, I love the eclectic look that they create…

The last time I was in the store was around Valentine’s Day, and as usual I struck up a conversation with the manager.  As we discussed the sad state of the economy, she lamented how hard it was for a store like theirs, which literally scours the world (think Parisian flea markets and London’s Portobello Market) for the best stuff to bring back and sell.  While they have plenty of well-heeled local customers and tourists to pay their “premium” prices, it’s hard to move enough luxury, one-of-a-kind items to make a ton of money.  My guess is that the margins are good but the turnover is low.  Luckily for Martin, their store seems like more of a showroom and supplemental income than their primary business, which is Erin Martin’s interior design business.  She’s amazing and well-published so I am sure she does really well.  Really, how many people can afford something like Tord Boontje’s Blossum Chandelier at $15K+ (the one that used to hang in Martin was the first and only one I’ve seen in person after seeing it in a magazine article on Gwenyth Paltrow’s Hampton’s home)?

Blossum Chandelier

Blossum Chandelier

Furthermore, the store manager mentioned that their products were frequently being knocked off by other retailers and manufacturers.  Wow, that suprised me.  How mad would I be if brought back a one-of-kind treasure from the back alleys of Paris halfway around the world only to find it in a mass retailer’s catalogue a few months later???  As sad as that is, it also makes sense.  Having a lot of friends in the apparel business I know that is what they do to; several times a year if not monthly or weekly, they go “competitive” or “inspiration” shopping to see what the other designers are doing in order to “draw inspiration” for their own designs.  As for Martin, why not knock-off a top designer and save on product development costs-she does all the back alley searching for you so that you can save the time and expense of doing it yourself, assuming you even have the eye for it.  As a designer, I think this is terrible-but I get where it comes from.

So on my last visit to Martin, what were the two items that I loved the most?  One was a gorgeous chrome and wood, industrial looking, full scale, marine-inspired lamp with shade that had a telescopic base that could be raised or lowered by turning a gear mechanism.  The second was a line of reproductions of old steamer trunks-think Louis Vuitton trunk but instead of the monogram fabric these had leather or stainless steel surfaces along with the wood slat and metal hardware detailing.  In this line there were trunks as well as chests of drawers made to look like trunks.  I mean this stuff was cool – so original, so pricey, and so Martin, or so I thought…

Then one day I came home and as I as thumbed through mail and the new the Restoration Hardware catalog what did I see:

Restoration Hardware's Royal Marine Tripod Lamp

Restoration Hardware's Royal Marine Tripod Lamp

Restoration Hardware's Mayfair Steamer Trunk Line

Restoration Hardware's Mayfair Steamer Trunk Line

It took about a second for me to recognize these products and remember where I recalled seeing them before.  I was flabbergasted-no way would I believe that Restoration Hardware had knocked off Martin’s stuff so quickly and precisely if I hadn’t seen with my own eyes!  I guess you can make a lot of trips to Martin to take a good look of the their stuff when you are based only 30 minutes away in Corte Madera (the headquarters of Restoration Hardware).  Truth be told, the Resto stuff looks amazing and is much more budget friendly than Martin’s.  Their steamer trunk line is made in UK just like Martin’s line (I wonder if they got ahold of their manufacturer too?!).  To the average person, and pretty much everyone else including me, they will appreciate having more affordable access to these great designs. Get Martin design for Restoration prices.  I get it – yay.  But there’s a side of me that’s also really sad for Martin and stores like then-local joints trying to deliver the best products and services the old fashioned way, only to have the deep pocketed big box big boys knock them off.  As a designer, that should be sad and scary to everyone.

Martin’s website http://www.martinshowroom.com/index.html

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About Cantilever Design

Designs for Modern Luxury is a blog by Karman Ng, principal of Cantilever Design, an award-winning interior design firm located in the San Francisco Bay Area. Always reading, researching and reveling in “the best of design” for himself and his clients, Karman began his blog as a way to share his thoughts and finds-from furniture to fashion to food. Karman hopes his blog fosters dialogue and sharing of design-related products, news, tips, ideas and secrets so that everyone can enjoy a little bit more modern luxury in their lives. For more information about Cantilever Design, visit http:///www.cantilever-design.com or follow Karman at http://twitter.com/karmanng.
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