7 Questions for John Edelman, President and CEO of Design Within Reach and the 2014 CTC&G Innovator

John Edelman

This year's Innovator Award goes to Ridgefield resident John Edelman, president and CEO of Design Within Reach.

CTC&G: How has your history shaped who you are today?
John Edelman: I am a product of my experiences. My parents and family influenced me heavily. Growing up, I was exposed to a relatively flamboyant group of worldly collectors. I was surrounded by great design in my parents’ house: Castiglione lights from Flos, their Chesterfield sofa, Charles & Ray Eames LCW chairs and Tiffany lamps. In summers, we stayed in Amagansett in the Hamptons, and my parents were friends with the Gwathmeys. I’d ride my bike over to Charles Gwathmey’s house that he designed for his mom, Rosalie. It was a cool house that made an impression on me. That flood of visuals prepared me for today.

Edelman and his familyWhat are three key things that you wanted to change when you joined Design Within Reach?
1. Stop any “inspired by” designs—only offer pure authentic modern design; 2. Bring back the catalog, which speaks to our theme of educating the consumer. 3. Change the client experience into a luxury experience. Greet them at the door, hand them a water… It’s a never-ending goal to improve the client experience.

What’s the difference between contemporary and modern?
Contemporary is more trendy and temporary, whereas modern is forever. I think it can be from any year. People get modern confused with midcentury modern. Whatever we put out at DWR is modern. To me, modern means that it has no superfluous design and performs in a clean way. It’s basic and forever. Modern merges as well with a product from 1850 as with a product from 2014. A Jens Risom piece can go in any environment. It’s the contemporary pieces that fall—they don’t stand the test of time.

Part of your vision has also been to introduce new designers.
We’ve introduced a lot of new designers… from Jeffrey Bernett to Chris Hardy to Norm Architects to Egg Collective. It’s working out great in terms of our sales and for their notoriety. When Chris had just returned from Asia, he showed me his portfolio and we got him on board. Now, there are about one million catalogs telling his story. We can help create a career for people, but we say no to thousands of others. It’s very hard to create authentic modern. We have limited square footage, and you have to fight your way in.

You’ve known and worked with DWR COO John McPhee at both Sam & Libby and Edelman Leather. What’s the magic behind your relationship?
John McPhee and I balance each other out—it’s a right brain, left brain thing. He examines every detail. We always come to the same result but from two different places. It’s the best relationship I’ve had besides my wife! It’s based on mutual respect. It’s important to have someone to bounce ideas off of without any fear. I like employees to have ideas and to fight for them. “Yes” people are valueless.

At your house, do you have any chairs or sofas that aren’t covered in leather?
We have a few things not covered in leather. I appreciate great materials (we launched an extensive textile collection, Maharam, at DWR), but I love leather. When upholstery gets old, you reupholster it. When leather gets old, it develops a patina. It’s forever.

What advice can you give young people interested in pursuing a career in design?
Same advice I’d give a young person going into anything: Find your passion. If you love something, pursue it with all you have. Passion trumps any other advice.

A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Connecticut Cottages & Gardens with the headline: A Natural Evolution