A desert oasis for designers
Chris Gigley -- Casual Living, 5/1/2013 2:00:00 AM
Nearly 30 years ago, bill Heacox saw something on the horizon in Phoenix no one else did - the growing need for an exclusive outdoor living resource for the design trade. Now, he's on speed dial for any local designer with a big outdoor space project.
Based in the Arizona Design Center in north Scottsdale, Ariz., Inside Out Showrooms, Inc., is a 6,000-sq.-ft resource that gives designers access to 45 different outdoor furniture, accessories and fabric lines and four full-time employees who are willing to spend hours with them and their clients.
"I think our patience makes us unique," Heacox said. "We're an odd little design community. Most of the retailers try to capture the design business as much as they can, but I think we have more tools for designers to work with here. Plus, it's unusual for a retailer to spend so much time with one customer. We can do that."
The Inside Out showroom has a spacious work area where designers, clients and showroom staff can browse through thousands of fabric samples and sketch out ideas. Heacox said he carries fabric swatches large enough to drape over chairs and cushions to give clients a better feel for the look.
"We also have tear sheets from each individual group so clients know what the retail price is," he said. "It's all to make designers and their clients feel comfortable when they walk in the door."
That combination of product and designer-focused service has earned Inside Out a loyal customer base, which has been crucial to its survival in such a Jekyll-and-Hyde marketplace. The Phoenix real estate scene can be charitably characterized as boom or bust, with the designer business following right along with it.
"I've seen it so many times," Heacox said. "It's gloom-and doom and all the sudden here we go again."
According to Bloomberg Business week, Phoenix home builders churned out 4,000 new homes a month in 2005. Then, from 2006 to 2011, construction came to a virtual standstill as home values fell by 55%. Now, the market is bouncing back in a big way. Housing prices in metro Phoenix last year increased 22.9%, the biggest jump in the country.
Heacox set up the design business to handle such extreme ups and downs as soon as he arrived as showroom manager in 1984.
"Before this, I'd managed a multi-line showroom and had screwed up my back from moving furniture," Heacox said. "One day, I was thinking, ‘Wouldn't it be great to have outdoor furniture? It's so much lighter.' A year later, I got the call [from Inside Out] out of the blue."
At the time, Inside Out offered lines from just two manufacturers, Veneman and Tropitone, which it continues to sell to this day. But Heacox quickly sought more.
"My background was with larger showrooms, and it was driving me nuts to be so small," said Heacox, who bought Inside Out in 1998. "I had a design background and was in tune with the design community at that time. We added lines as we saw the product was needed."
Heacox started ca rrying cast aluminum furniture, which stood up well to the desert winds. He brought in OW Lee because the look of the line appealed to local designers and offered moderate price points relative to other lines in the showroom. Now, it counts Gloster, Brown Jordan and Lane Venture among its best manufacturers.
"If we like something and think it has merit, we're more than happy to try it out," Heacox said. "We've made mistakes before, but I'm glad I didn't have any examples to fall back on. It's not like I've ever been to retailers to see how they do it. I don't care how they do it. I need to be different."
That's how it's always been. Although the weather is ideal for outdoor living for eight months of the year, Heacox said back in the 1980s there were few, if any, other showrooms catering to the design trade because few designers thought working on outdoor spaces was worth their time.
"In outdoor furniture, we're still the last of the budget," Heacox said. "When a designer comes in to work on a house, they're working on the interior. If they have any money left over, then they work on outdoor. I had to convince them to look beyond the living room window. There was money outside, they just forgot it."
Even though he's made huge inroads with designers, Heacox remains mindful of the symbiotic relationship his business has with interior design. Inside Out has moved five times as it has grown, and each new location has been in a design center full of indoor furniture showrooms. Heacox said he couldn't stay in business as a free-standing location.
He has a plum spot now in the Arizona Design Center, where the business has been based for eight years. Inside Out is just off to the right of the main lobby, making it one of the first showrooms designers see when they enter. Once they go inside, they usually stay for a while.
"We protect designers with the products we have," he said. "We don't go below a certain quality level so we make sure designers have the best materials to work with."
Heacox even does his own manufacturing, a decision he made when he couldn't find a look his clients asked for. The Inside Out line features the sharp, angular lines of the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired architecture that is popular among desert-dwelling locals. Wright's winter home and studio, Taliesin West, is just eight miles north.
The desert, in fact, dictates the prominence of neutral colors on display in the showroom.
"We have such a small minority of high-end homes that are grass and big trees, and that's mostly downtown," Heacox said. "The further you get away from the city, the more desert-like the landscape, and people who live out there want to enjoy it. They want outdoor furniture to accent the environment, not overtake it."
Heacox does include splashes of color among his vignette displays of furniture. He recently sourced a bright red chair from a vendor in Mexico, for instance, that he currently displays near the showroom entrance.
"You have to have something that will be a comment thing," he said. "I think it's important we always have something that's whimsical. It opens up the dialogue."
Heacox has done a fine job of starting a dialogue with the design community in general, to the point where he's noticed more designers putting outdoor spaces front and center in their projects.
"We're seeing the same designers and clients back for the second and third time, so we know what we're doing works," he said.
Heacox always knew it would, even when no one else could see it.
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