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At Home Design Center: From hardware to high-end gallery

Staff at Greenwich, Conn.-based At Home Design Center knows exactly what it means to change with the times. The single store retailer has evolved from a hardware store to a high-end, designer-oriented gallery providing clients with nothing short of fashionable furniture and accessories combined with white glove, personalized service.

At Home Design Center is located in the wealthy area of Greenwich, Conn.Owner Stuart Lilian hails from a family with five generations in the furniture industry — his great-grandfather founded A.L. Myers, a 100-year-old furniture store in the Northeast that recently closed. Lilian's wife, Devora, has years of experience as an interior designer. The two, combined with sales staff member Frances DiMarte and co-owner Rafael Wischkin, Devora's brother, have the experience and knowledge that has catapulted them to success in the casual industry.

In 1984, Stuart Lilian and Wischkin opened a hardware store in Darien, Conn., that carried some patio furniture, mainly from Telescope Casual. Soon after, a Home Depot opened nearby, so the Lilians expanded its patio furniture selection to compete with the mass merchant. A second location soon followed in Westport.

"We realized as soon as Home Depot came in, we needed to do something," Devora said. "We started pushing fireplace and patio. We were actually happy that happened. It pushed us to be more aggressive."

Its Greenwich location opened 11 years ago and has proved to be a great business move. Under the name Home, Hearth & Patio, the Lilians dropped hardware merchandise and expanded its fireplace and casual furniture products. Because of the new store's success, the Lilians made the decision to close the other locations. But the changes didn't stop there.

Only four years ago, the store underwent a name change to reflect its high-end, designer-friendly atmosphere — At Home Design Center. Today, it's still a decision the Lilians aren't positive was a good one. "It's costly and the people won't let us get away from it," Devora said.

"They wonder if we've changed owners or our merchandise," DiMarte said.

Regardless of the name, the retailer found its niche catering to wealthy executives and their families in the suburbs of New York City, and even the occasional celebrity.

Left: The No. 1 vendor at the Lilians' store is Brown Jordan, pictured at left in a fashionable, soothing color palette of citrus green and white.

Right: Furniture from Laneventure was added one year ago at the design center and has been well received.

According to data from Casual Living's Powerhouse Specialist listing (page 51), At Home Design Center brought in an estimated $3–$3.9 million in sales last year. "We had a phenomenal year," Devora said. "We're a small business but we do high volume for the size of the company."

The store has an enormous amount of special order business that goes hand-in-hand with its free on-site design consultations. Devora makes home visits to create design layouts of a client's outdoor space and then helps choose all the elements to furnish the area — from furniture and accessories to window treatments and fabrics.

"We provide hands-on personal relationship with clients," Devora said.

The 10,000-sq.-ft. showroom is craftfully laid out between three floors. Everything is merchandised in thoughtful vignettes, more of a gallery-style layout than typical furniture stores.

"We really capture the high-end," Devora said. "We're making more of a fashion statement with the furniture, and you better be fashionable at the high-end, or forget it."

The store's main furniture vendor is Brown Jordan, but the floor also features products from Laneventure, Barlow Tyrie, Lloyd/Flanders, Kingsley-Bate, Woodard Landgrave, Ancient Mosaic Studios, KNF Design and Domus Designs.

Rounding out the products are umbrellas from Basta Sole, FIM, Treasure Garden and Santa Barbara; hammocks from The HammockSource; fireplaces and accessories from RH Peterson, Town and Country and Diamond W; rugs from Colonial Mills, and tableware from Precidio.

The showroom also is a Centurion Gallery for Hunter Douglas, manufacturer of window treatments and coverings, and carries a huge selection of high-end designer fabrics, from Scalamandre and Ralph Lauren to Old World Weavers.

Top sellers at the store include parabolic mesh collections from Brown Jordan such as the Wave and Coastal lines, sectionals, alternative tabletop and cantilever umbrellas.

One category you won't find in the showroom is outdoor lighting. Devora said many of their clients' homes — which she refers to as "compounds," due to their large size — already are hardwired inside and out for lighting.

The days of competing with Home Depot may be over for the Lilians, but new competition is always around the corner. Today, Stuart said, it's in the form of mail order catalogs, the Internet and close-by New York showrooms.

"It seems manufacturers have oversaturated the market," Devora said.

In order to stay one step ahead, the Lilians are sure to keep brainstorming, generating ideas to go above and beyond their duties. One such idea that has come to fruition is the Winter Service Program, allowing customers to store their outdoor furniture at the Lilians' warehouse during the off-season. For a fee, employees pick up the client's furniture, store it for the winter, then clean and polish it, re-deliver and set it back up at the client's home. Additionally, lifetime service, phone calls to previous customers, white-glove delivery and community involvement also make sure personal contact remains intact between the store and its clients.

"Those things will always bring in a new customer," Devora said.

In addition to casual furniture, At Home Design Center also carries a large assortment of hearth products and accessories, seen above in a wall display. The retailer pays careful attention to detail when merchandising, adding splashes of color with toss pillows, a fresh bouquet of flowers and alternative tabletop, like the mosaic design from KNF Designs seen at left.

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