Catherine D. Anspon has a sit-down on a Dr. Pitt sofa — with the home-furnishings duo who are transforming the idea of made in America. The occasion: the opening of their new Houston Highland Village flagship store.
On founding MG+BW.
Mitchell Gold: I think one of the first inspirations for much of what we do is that people are moving back to neighborhoods that are close to cities. (Bob realized this some time ago.) And we create the furniture for it. Of course, for me, it resonated because I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and my parents had really beautiful Milo Baughman and George Kovacs lighting. Bob has a real affinity for it, too.
Bob Williams: Some of the old cottage-style houses and all those neighborhoods … That was our initial inspiration.
BW: I grew up about an hour and a half north of Houston. When I moved out there, it was called Spring, and now it’s The Woodlands. When I was in junior high, we actually moved to Conroe. I went to school at Southwestern in Georgetown and North Texas State.
MG: We were going to have on the window of the new store: “Guess who’s coming back home?” I grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, the capital of the state.
MG: I was a history major in college, and then I went to work at Bloomingdale’s. In a store like Bloomingdale’s, when you’re in merchandising, you are involved with designers, and you have to understand the business. That was, to me, one of the great luxuries of life — learning how to run a business — and I learned from the best of the best: Marvin Traub, Lester Gribetz and Carl Levine were premier merchants of the last half of the last century. But the other thing that’s kind of magical about our business is that Bob and I have an incredible synergy about what we like and design. We’ve been traveling together all over the world for close to 25 years now. It’s exciting, but we look at something together, and we both like very similar things.
BW: I actually studied graphic design. That’s why I moved to New York — to go to design school — and I worked for Seventeen magazine and a small ad agency. Then Mitchell and I decided to start a furniture company.
Designers throughout history you’re tracking.
BW: Different periods have been a big influence. Right now, the late ‘60s and early ‘70s … Furniture designers like Milo Baughman and Paul McCobb have been fun and interesting to study. And then just the infusion of different societies and cultures, whether it’s Danish-modern and mixing it and creating something that really becomes truly America. It’s really being observant of people around us. We’re getting a little dressier. People are wearing more vibrant and robust colors and materials that are a bit richer … We’re doing Tibetan-wool things, dressing up fabric on a table with nailhead jewelry.
On color and the Dow Jones.
BW: One of the things we’ve noticed is that when people start to feel good about the economy, they in general want brighter, happier colors. So we’re trying to take a little more of a chance on those to give things more pop and interest.
About the power of stripes.
MG: We were in Paris a year ago, and Lanvin had a whole new relaunch, and they did these beautiful stripes. When we were looking at it, we realized that people like to wear stripes — it makes for this great classic look. Then we started thinking, ‘How can we really start doing that on furniture?’ That, I think, is the brilliant detail that Bob and his team do: The stripe is just the right proportion. It’s not too skinny; it’s not too wide to make it look like a cabana stripe, which is a little too casual. It’s just the right thing.
On David Hicks and FIT.
BW: The patterns on the Wyatt chairs are inspired by David Hicks. It’s very interesting to look back and to get inspiration. This past weekend, I saw somebody who graduated from Fashion Institute of Technology. She said, “Oh yes, we have your books and we study you guys.” And it’s like, oh gosh, we’re influencing people now!
Peek into Spring 2014.
BW: Well, it will have silver in it, because it will be our silver anniversary. We may have a lot of metallic in general as well. We have a collection that’s bright, almost gold. Then we also have a bright four-poster bed that’s more of a bronze-y [color]. It all complements the upholstery. It will be sort of a glamorous theme.
MG+BW at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
MG: We have the Dr. Pitt, which is a large sectional, in the private quarters, and then we have a swivel rocker chair and ottoman there as well.
White House tales.
MG: I met the President [Obama] a couple of years ago. It was a small group, and he and I got to talking. I finally said, ”You know, our furniture is in your residence.” And he said, “I heard that a guy was going to be here that did some of the furniture. Which pieces did you do?” I told him, and he said, “That’s the chair I sit in! And the girls love the sectional.” It was really very sweet. I met Mrs. Obama, who is very close with Tipper Gore; it was Tipper who had suggested us to do some of the furniture.
On furnishing The Good Wife …
MG: We do a lot of things on TV shows and movies. Our publicist was working with the set designer … They were getting all these tweets and requests on Facebook, asking, “Where can I buy Will’s chair? Where can I get this? Where can I get that?” We’d never done a licensed collection before, because our effort is really to do our own designs with our own name on it. But this really worked out for us, and we like the show; we like the way the sets are on the show. We knew Christine Baranski from eight or 10 years ago. She has a ton of our furniture. It turned out that all of the stars liked our stuff as well, so it was a great marriage, and we sold a a lot of it. What’s also interesting for us is that last spring, we knew the storyline for fall. We were sworn to secrecy. And we still are.
Your third volume (and lobster mashed potatoes).
MG: Our book is coming out next February. The book’s not a mission statement, but it’s a statement about who we are that we also put in all of our stores [in the form of a wall plaque with the company philosophy]. We find that consumers love reading it because it speaks to our personalities. That’s why we named the company with our names: People want to know whom they’re buying from. So, the book is going to be called Who We Are … We love to eat, so there will be a section with favorite recipes — we have a company chef, and he created a recipe for lobster mashed potatoes that’s pretty incredible. We also talk about entertaining.
On the meaning of “American made.”
MG: All of the upholstery, which is about 70 percent of the business at any given store, is made in America in our factory. We have a lot of long-time employees. Our vice president of retail stores, who I think is 35 or 36, has been with us for over 10 years. (He’s a senior vice president.) Our senior vice president of procurement in costing and manufacturing is 38 and has also been with us for over 10 years. We have a lot of young people who have been with us for a very long time. We enjoy having these folks around, and we nurture them and really help them in their career. It makes it more fun and more pleasant.
MG+BW is known for almost instant gratification. How do you make that happen?
MG: Anything you see in the store, we will deliver in about 10 days. Now, if you want a sectional in a different fabric, that would take about six weeks. It’s very fast. But part of our business model is that we believe in instant gratification. People will take six months to look for a piece of furniture — or, for that matter, their car — but once they decide, they want it right away.
Very first piece of furniture.
MG: That was the Lucy chair. It was named for Lucille Ball. We name all of our furniture — we were pretty much the first furniture manufacturer to name furniture. We wanted to give it some personality. Our first pieces were named after female comedians, so we had the Lucy chair, the Rhoda chair. We never name anything after anybody that we know. For example, if we had named it after my mother, and it didn’t sell well and we had to discontinue it, she would be very upset.