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Design Research

A primer on the pioneering lifestyle store that introduced good design to the people

by Tisha Leung in Design on 27 September 2010

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Before Crate & Barrel and Design Within Reach, there was Design Research, the retail concept widely credited with reinventing furniture shopping by pioneering a lifestyle approach that changed the look of bedrooms and stores from coast to coast.

The brainchild of architect Ben Thompson, he founded a new way of decorating and living when he opened his first Design Research store in 1953 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a story chronicled in the new book "Design Research: The Store That Brought Modern Living to American Homes." Through photos, press clippings and other ephemera, the Pentagram-designed primer outlines his philosophy and the impact of breaking away from mass-produced furniture sold through dominant mega-department stores. His widow Jane Thompson, founder of I.D. magazine, architect and urban planner, weighs in too, documenting how her husband not only introduced "lifestyle" under one retail shopping roof, but popularized the idea that good design should be accessible to everyone in postwar America.

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Design Research became an influential modernist mini-chain that mixed design objects from Charles and Ray Eames, Alvar Aalto, Arne Jacobsen with French rustic pottery, no-name Bolivian sweaters and $1 Mexican drinking glasses. For fashion in the late 50s, just when women sought equality in society, Design Research became the first representative for Marimekko's loose, colorful and graphic shifts. Fashion had gone from tight waists, pointy bosoms and round hips to the tent-like chemise. American women embraced the untraditional, "high casual" style that gave them permission to move freely in comfort.

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For Ben, modernism didn't mean minimalism, oversimplification or monochrome. He believed that people should be encouraged to imagine for themselves what their homes could be inside. All they needed was a forum of the best available national and international goods to pick from. He built a retail store that was a department store without the departments, hence creating "lifestyle."

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Design Research went on to have stores in New York and San Francisco, among other cities, through the late '60s, inspiring budding retailer entrepreneurs like Gordon Segal, co-founder of Crate & Barrel, and Rob Forbes, founder of Design Within Reach. Segal was directly influenced by DR in 1965 when he realized a store's environment, visual display and music were integral to how it made a customer feel. As a teenager in 1968, Forbes fell under the spell of modern design, when he saw a friend's home outfitted with DR goods.

Pick up "Design Research" directly from the publisher, Amazon.

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