By Cinde W. Ingram -- Casual Living, 8/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
Whenever Peter Homestead travels, he observes trends in new high-end home developments and he may sketch a few ideas.
Keeping regional differences in mind, he knows those homes reflect styles and colors homeowners will want to carry through their home furnishings both inside and out.
"We've found when they change homes most people oftentimes will just leave whatever outdoor furniture they have with the older home and when they move to the new home, use that as an opportunity to redo the backyard and get all new furniture," Homestead said.
To stay abreast of the changing marketplace, Homestead visits retail dealers with sales reps to determine what is and isn't selling or what may be missing from the line. He pores through design and shelter magazines from around the world while considering which interior furniture and accessory designs also would work outdoors. In addition, he keeps up with developments of new materials that are weather and UV resistant.
"Obviously today, there are many more opportunities to incorporate other materials into the total designs," Homestead said. "With mixed media, chairs may have an aluminum frame but they have teak arms and a woven bucket of synthetic wicker or cast aluminum details and antiqued finishing. There's a lot more available as far as integrating into the design to give it a sense of richness today than there was 15 years ago when I started with Tropitone."
Lakeside, a woven dining collection, won Tropitone the Design Excellence Award in the cast combination category last year.
Years before Homestead became Tropitone's director of design, he earned a degree in fine arts from the University of California in sculpture. He worked in architecture for about five years before transitioning into industrial product development. In the mid-'70s, he joined Knoll International in Pennsylvania as an apprentice to learn more about designing office furniture.
Homestead worked with the Brown Jordan design staff in California for two years before opening his own industrial design practice. In 1990, he got a call from Tropitone and joined them in February 1991.
When asked about influences in his design career, Homestead described Sam Maloof as a friend of the family and a craftsman whose unique style with wood furniture became well known in the arts and crafts community.
"When I was a student, I saw his approach to design, which was a simple approach with very organic forms," Homestead said. "Through my time at Knoll, I met a number of architects and their work impressed me. I've admired and appreciated the work of a lot of architects and of Scandinavian designers, such as Alvar Alto and others who set the tone. They have a simplicity and, unlike some of the more severe modern designs, there's a humanness to them."
While he recognizes his personal preference for contemporary styles has limited appeal in the U.S. market, Homestead feels some satisfaction when his designs for Tropitone continue to sell well, such as the Montreaux line in sling or cushion. "And last year we introduced Lakeside, which is available with a variety of seating services," he said. "That's doing very well for us and it happened to win an award (Design Excellence) for us last year. The Somerset line has been out for a number of years and overall is doing very well. Some of these are regional. They might do very well say in Phoenix, but may not be doing so well in Maryland or New Jersey.
"So when I design, I'm really not designing so much for myself as for the marketplace," Homestead said.
He finds now his design ideas are more likely to occur while driving or on long flights than in his office, when time for creative thought is limited. "Once I come through the door into the office I get bombarded with faxes, e-mails and meetings," he said. "At home on the weekend, if I have some time I'll pull out a sketchpad and sketch. Sometimes I take a little more of a sculptural approach, I actually won't have anything defined or I might just have an idea and I'll get our prototype started. Or I start by bending metals myself into some shapes and get to something that I like.
"It's an interesting time we're living in," Homestead said. "I can certainly feel for the specialty retailers as they see the larger mass merchants bringing out better goods or better-looking goods. It's a challenging time in all industries actually."
In addition to supplying retailers, Tropitone services the hotel/resort market. Because projects overlap, Homestead finds little time to celebrate completion of a demanding project. "If we were just doing retail, there's kind of that finality of the Chicago market but because we're also involved in contract, long before the Chicago market comes we're already off retail and we're developing for the contract market," Homestead said.
Tropitone prefers to bring in subassembly and components so goods can be finished in the United States. "These parts and components have to come in at such a degree of accuracy that they drop into our tooling fixtures here in Irvine and also in our tooling fixtures in Florida so it requires everything to be more precise," he said. "We've added that degree of complexity in the development of it. What we gain at the back end is the ability to have the last look at the product and its quality before it ships out and the ability for the consumer to select from our 16 finishes and from our 200 fabrics. Special orders are still a very important aspect of our sales plan for the specialty stores."
If his well of creativity ever runs dry, Homestead doesn't try to force anything. "I just know eventually something will come," he said. "We have another designer on staff, Victoria Dawson, and we split up the projects between us. And we also use a number of outside designers just because the volume of new projects that are required, two people just can't do it all. So I'm usually on the phone with them a few times a week."
Today's consumer benefits from a wider array of product styles and looks than ever before, and at pricing unavailable years ago with U.S.-made products because of the amount of labor involved. Also, the mix of materials is broader than ever.
"Obviously, there are a lot of companies out there now involved in casual furniture, both as manufacturers, as well as marketers of imports so it's harder these days to distinguish your products from all the other products out there," Homestead said. "So we're all looking for ways to give our products that extra sizzle or to introduce technological advances."
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