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Review of Italian design trends and spotlight on the unusual synergy among manufacturers, retailers and designers in the Toronto trading area.

Designers in Italy strive for something different from their immediate environment, hence the emphasis on contemporary in home furnishings.

In Canada, we like stylings from the traditional, particularly because of our multicultural society.


"Italy lived up to my expectations, so vibrant and beautiful. Perhaps Italians tend to take much of what impresses visitors for granted since they live with it every day. I feel designers there strive for something different from their immediate environment, hence the emphasis on contemporary in home furnishings. In Canada, we like stylings from the traditional, from times past, particularly because of our multicultural society. Many of my clients from other parts of the world who’ve come here and made Canada their home, like to take some element from their heritage as a focal point, then build a North American ambience around their own cultural influences.

The speaker, Madeleine Lavereau Gellatly, Interiors by Madeleine, was the Year 2000 winner of the coveted annual Alitalia/Canada’s Furniture Mart prize, two tickets to the Milan Furniture Fair. "Maybe it was ESP," she smiled, "but I just knew I was going to be lucky!" The award was part of the Mart’s popular Designers’ Day celebration last fall.

Madeleine is a regular visitor to the International Centre. Her busy practice will mark its twentieth anniversary this year. Projects include both residential and commercial assignments. "The Mart makes it so much easier to shop for my clients since everything is all under one roof. The people are good and knowledgeable and the selection is comprehensive." She deals, amongst others, with Pam Nixon, Durham Furniture; Anna Notarianni, Korson; Millie Lax, Leeazanne and Diane Robertson at Vogel.

Some of Madeleine’s favorite retailers are Diana Funk and Marie Tyrcz, Elte Carpets and Furnishings; Wally Shaw and Bruce Godden at Shaw-Pezzo ("high end exquisite furnishings and accessories"); Joan Eiley at Designers’ Walk ("high California arty pieces of all sorts"); Palma Brava, ("the Mississauga location, for rattan, metal"); Caroline Churchill at Sesco Lighting ("a huge selection, variety, quality").

Bruce Godden, Shaw-Pezzo, said, "The way any business works these days is with constant worldwide communication. I need to provide Madeleine with the best in products and service, and the people who supply me must perform similarly. We do a lot of custom work and we have developed very good working relationships all round." Shaw-Pezzo was founded 18 years ago. The size of their showroom has grown with the success of the company, and they now occupy 27,000 square feet within their own building. Although the North American economy is "certainly in a period of adjustment, we’re very happy with business even with our recent expansion. Our clients tend to have disposable income at any time and they are still purchasing. Madeleine always calls first if she plans to bring clients with her. We help to get their imagination going!" Shaw- Pezzo’s suppliers come from all over the world, "Italy, the Eastern Rim, Egypt". Of course, they shop at High Point.

At Elte Carpets and Furnishings, sales executive Marie Tyrcz is herself a registered interior designer and a member of ARIDO. "We work hand in hand with Madeleine. It’s my job to help her and other designers to minimize the length of time they need to spend in the store, and also help to keep their budgets in line. I provide them with product knowledge. Sometimes Madeleine takes rugs from us to her clients’ homes. We have so many choices our showroom can be confusing for them. Definitely we are in partnership with our customers and with our suppliers!"

Don’t look now, but wouldn’t you say the future is here? Or almost, at least! For decades, industry analysts have urged retailers, manufacturers, designers and suppliers to find ways to work together as partners for their common good. More recently, many perceptive savants have added the all-important consumer to the equation.

We’ve talked in past stories about Canada’s Furniture Mart at Toronto’s International Centre as exemplar of forward thinking. This gathering of 60-plus manufacturers’ permanent showrooms encourages positive interaction between all these entities. The International Centre plays host every year to two and one-half million consumers who flow through its Halls, visiting the more than 100 important trade and consumer shows housed within the huge facility. One of the Centre’s unique cornerstones in Canada, indeed North America, is Canada’s Furniture Mart.

The showrooms are ready for business during both the January and June Toronto International Home Furnishings Markets, and the two big Canadian Gift and Tableware Shows. They also open their doors when home furnishings related consumer shows are staged, in this case to permit consumer "browsing". Even more exciting, 90 percent of the room setting showrooms are available to designers and the general public at least once each week, and some really bright and assertive furniture makers open up twice or more. Showrooms are staffed by intelligent, well trained coordinators whose task it is to present their manufacturers’ product lines and assist busy designers to fulfill their clients’ requirements. They also have the challenge of answering the consumers’ many product information questions and sometimes helping them with colour choices and furniture placement. Coordinators, equipped with comprehensive lists, then encourage interested consumers to visit retailers that carry their line, those retailers closest to the consumers’ home base.

This interaction saves time for everyone and has many benefits. The manufacturer enhances brand awareness and knowledge of the features and benefits of product lines. The retailer benefits in two ways. If the customer comes to them first and wants to see more of a specific product than she/he currently features on their floor or in inventory, they have somewhere to send the consumer to see the complete line. Should the customer visit the Mart first and fall in love with a sofa, an accessory, an etagere, retailers are confident that coordinators will send the customer to their store to complete the sale. Definitely win/win on all sides.

The designer can shop to her/his hearts’ content and can bring clients with them both as an enjoyable experience and to see the range of possibilities first hand. And everything comes full circle here because the manufacturer hears clients’ preferences and reactions on the spot, excellent input to apply to market research and next season’s strategies.
Designers can be the industry’s eyes and ears on the world, particularly those who travel extensively. "I’ve never been anywhere I didn’t find inspiration," Madeleine told us. Once a travel executive, Madeleine "had ventured to the Far East, to Australia and much of the Old World – but never before to Italy."

Born in Toronto, Madeleine is a Canadian blend of English, Irish and French ethnicity. She was "always interested in design as a hobby" and, after graduating from Humber College’s design school, she made the transition to her own business. "The job of a designer is to work closely with the architect, to create the space and then to recreate something one (either yourself or the client) has seen before and liked. Just about the same time I became a designer, David and I were married. He especially liked the idea that I would be self-employed and able to practice from our home.

"I was confident of success but, at the same time, very naive about sourcing, for example. It was the early ‘80s but even though we were in the midst of a mini-recession, miraculously I was busy immediately and consistently. My friends helped me get going. They used my services, then recommended me to others."

What Madeleine experienced in Italy will influence her thinking for "a long time to come". They rented a car and drove "at great danger to life and limb! People don’t keep in lanes and there seem to be very few restrictions. Lots of motor scooters to add to the confusion." But she saw wonderful things. "Beautiful wrought iron work and an ancient castle mantelpiece from the 14th century in Milan, plus an evening at La Scala, one of the highlights! More apartment buildings in that city than private homes, many 18th century. Many of the old factories are being turned into lofts, just like Toronto. In stores and public spaces, casegoods tend to be contemporary while most upholstery was not. Lots of retro. Styling appeared to be either very contemporary or very ‘antique’.

"From Milan we drove to Venice and, on the way, Verona, a beautiful medieval city with narrow, cobblestone streets. We stayed at villages outside the major cities to be closer to the culture of the people, once at Villa Luppis, owned by the same aristocratic family since the 12th century.

"In Venice there were many beautiful bridges, each one different in architecture. We visited Murano to see the glass blowing; there were exquisite pieces. At a fishing village on Bunano Island (also a source of wonderful lace) each house (they were all joined together) was painted a different colour, lime green, bright blue, purple, orange and yellow, and the window boxes overflowed with flowers against the bright colors."

Her observations reflect some of the new trends we were all discussing after the last High Point Market – continuing retro, elaborate upholstery, eclectic use of antiques, some minimalist contemporary, lots of intricate metalwork and plenty of colour.

Back at home, the good things achieved at the International Centre are the brainchildren of Gail Bernstein, CEO of the International Centre. "The Mart’s trade showrooms have become even more important to manufacturers, retailers and consumers. The showrooms are neutral territory where the consumer can get advice with no pressure, deepen their knowledge, then go back to their retail store and buy."

Pam Nixon, Durham Furniture, said, "No store can have sufficient floor space to show everything. Our showrooms are extensions of their floors. We back up the retailers and give the consumer an opportunity to ‘touch and feel’. A customer is not going to spend $10,000 for a bedroom suite they see only in a photograph. When they leave my showroom they know a great deal about the product, they can tell the difference between veneer and solid wood, they are aware of construction details. This system keeps everyone on his or her toes and we all need that. It’s partnership in action!"

At Leeazanne, President Millie Lax, told us she believes, "The International Centre is a hidden treasure that is not utilized to its fullest extent, and we thank Madeleine for her kind words and for realizing the advantages the Mart offers to her and her clients. Here at the Mart the designer or retailer can access everything from the biggest pieces of furniture to accessories, to lighting, to walls. One stop shopping!"

In our global village, without doubt, interaction is key. If the industry is to prosper, retailers and manufacturers should welcome the input and contribution of both designers and consumers. Concepts should be shared. More and more people are climbing on the proverbial bandwagon. It’s a known fact that what goes around, comes around and with profit for all.

But how about that Alitalia flight? "Oh, it was great," enthused Madeleine. "Especially the service and the food. The meals were particularly good on the way back since the flight originated in Milan – the Italian cuisine!"

Furniture World is the oldest, continuously published trade publication in the United States. It is published for the benefit of furniture retail executives. Print circulation of 20,000 is directed primarily to furniture retailers in the US and Canada.  In 1970, the magazine established and endowed the Bernice Bienenstock Furniture Library (www.furniturelibrary.com) in High Point, NC, now a public foundation containing more than 5,000 books on furniture and design dating from 1620. For more information contact editor@furninfo.com.