Unfinished Business

Carnegie Fabrics’ new showroom at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago features broken walls and broken conventions.

by Erika Templeton

At NeoCon 2014, guests passing through the 11th floor were surprised by a bold series of CNC-carved MDF panels spelling out “Carnegie” in large-scale peephole lettering. As they peered in closer to the brand new Carnegie Fabrics showroom, what they found was a world of deconstructed beauty unlike anything else at the Mart.

Gone were the clean lines in polished white and steel; instead, attendees milled about a meandering floor plan punctuated by rough edges and haphazardly knocked out walls. This was, of course, all by design. Bored with the Mart’s increasingly stale reverence of refinement, Carnegie, alongside designer Tom Marquardt, had revealed a wholly unexpected indictment of conventional showroom wisdom.

It was a massive leap forward from the 500-square-foot space Carnegie had occupied for two decades prior.

“I think the time was right for us to make a bigger impression at NeoCon, and when we saw this space and the windows and the daylight, we thought it was kind of the right moment,” said Cliff Goldman, president of Carnegie Fabrics. “It’s just a gut thing.”

While there was certainly potential for the concept to become cumbersome, Marquardt, principal and founder of marquardt+, showed a careful hand in the execution, and his design instinct brought logic and order to the showroom’s unique character. The winding passageways weave a deliberate footpath through the space, guiding visitors through a carefully curated tour of Carnegie’s products and—more importantly—their underlying process.

“That was kind of an underlying strategy of the whole showroom: not to expose everything all at once but to create a pathway of experience,” said Marquardt. “As people move around they see new things. There’s always something new in there for them to discover.”

In 2012, Carnegie took over a second floor of the building where they keep a showroom in Manhattan’s Flatiron district, and created the CREATIVE studio. With this new space, Carnegie has put designers at the forefront of their success.

“As we’ve built this studio, and we’ve talked about the business of design, we feel that the power of design and designers help the sale,” said Heather Bush, executive VP creative, Carnegie. “We’re not just designers; we’re also salespeople. It’s a huge asset to sell the design mind, the design capability.”

When the team brought interior designers into the NYC studio for meetings and tours, it was often a turning point in their relationships—“an ‘a-ha!’ moment,” according to Goldman, as clients realized the work of the product designers was similar to their own. “We always say if we could just bring everyone here, it’d be fabulous. When people visit, it’s not that they have a huge revelation in terms of product. The products are great, but what they’re so surprised at is the openness and personalities of the people. There is no canned studio tour here. It’s totally an interaction, and that work process itself becomes the brand.”

Bringing their entire roster of current and potential clients to New York was not a scalable solution, so when Carnegie secured the new space in the Merchandise Mart last October, they had only one question in mind: how to bottle up the design studio experience and bring it to Chicago, to present at NeoCon en masse.

“We’ve created this kind of studio persona, which I feel is really the heart of Carnegie,” said Bush. “We’re a little bit more relaxed, a little bit more casual—these are some of the things we wanted to capture and show.”

Once Carnegie had its vision set, working with Marquardt to achieve it was an obvious choice. In fact, some of the images in their original creative brief were of his past work.

It also didn’t hurt that Marquardt has decades of experience designing showrooms at the Mart for clients including Maya Romanoff, Atlas Carpet, and Okamura. But more importantly, he is a master of getting to the root of his clients’ “essence”—a term he picked up from working with brand strategist Romana Mirza for years. “She taught me that the kind of work that goes on for a brand’s development prior to anything physically coming out of it—that’s the brand essence.”

As a designer of branded environments, Marquardt believes it is his duty to help his clients identify and strengthen their own essence—to find their voice, rather than trying to apply his own.

“When you look at his portfolio of work, and what totally impressed me, is that I’ve looked at all the different companies he’s done showrooms for, and in every single instance he’s nailed it,” said Bush. “There’s not really a cookie cutter kind of design formula they’re imposing. “

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