East Market: Hub of a New Design District?

With the Marketplace Design Center and Design Within Reach as neighbors, the building blocks of a "Design Row" are falling into place at East Market.

Architect's rendering of the new Design Within Reach showroom at Market East

Architect’s cutaway rendering of the new Design Within Reach showroom at East Market | Image from D Form A (DFA)

An interior designer I recently had the pleasure to meet hails from Italy but has resided in the United States for well over a decade now. Nonetheless, one aspect of American urban commerce mystifies him: the tendency for similar businesses to cluster in identifiable districts in our large cities.

Apparently, there’s no Garment District in Milan, no Jewelers’ Row in Rome. That’s actually a shame if true, for districts like these offer distinct advantages for both merchants and shoppers alike. For shoppers, these clusters provided an easy means of comparison shopping long before the Internet came along. Merchants were assured more of the people passing their stores were interested in what they had to sell. And the businesses could more easily gain knowledge and trade insights with one another while keeping up the competition.

Both Jewelers’ Row in Center City and Fabric Row on South Fourth Street have survived for more than a century because of these advantages. Now it looks like a new trade hub is about to join them.

Say hello to the Design District, with the new East Market development as its heart. Two tenants will provide the heartbeat: Design Within Reach, which will return to Philadelphia with an 18,000-square-foot showroom, and the Marketplace Design Center, the inspiration bazaar for professional interior designers that is leaving the banks of the Schuylkill to be closer to the action at the center of town.

Actually, says Dan Killinger, managing director for development of East Market developer National Real Estate Development, what’s happening with East Market is simply building on what’s already there.

“Everything that’s been happening over the last 15 years east of Broad and south of Market, with the furniture and design stores, the media and creative types who live in the area, and the design firms and creative agencies around 13th and Sansom, what we want to do is build on that and expand the neighborhood.”

Here Killinger is referring to shops like Cella Luxuria, Luxe Home and West Elm, and firms like At Media that specialize in promoting architects, designers, builders and developers. Even the soon-to-open Target on Chestnut Street could be said to fit into this mix, as the discount department store chain has built its reputation among middle-class customers on its combination of low prices and high design quotient.

The insertion of the Marketplace and DWR into this area, then, is at once something new and the affirmation of activity already taking place.

Gregory Augustine, an interior designer-turned-designer supplier, is one Marketplace member who’s excited at the prospect. The businesses that make up the Marketplace were discussing the possibility of moving to East Market when he began talks with the owner of The Baer Collection, a showroom that has been in business for more than 30 years, about acquiring the business and becoming part of the Marketplace. By the time the deal was completed in November of last year, the Marketplace showrooms had committed to moving to the building being rehabbed at 34 South 11th Street.

“The advantage I saw to this move was the ability to create a design center in Center City, which was lacking,” Augustine said. “I’ve been a big fan of the neighborhood we’re moving to, Midtown Village. I’m also excited about the development that’s going on around 11th and Market, all the new condo developments, and selling product to these new homeowners.”

Or rather, to the interior designers the homeowners engage to give their homes personality. While The Baer Collection, like all the other Marketplace showrooms, is open to the public, it sells only to the design trade.

Design Within Reach, on the other hand, does sell directly to the public. President John McPhee said that as his firm considered a return to Philadelphia, the knowledge that its new showroom would be located next to similar businesses helped seal the deal.

“We love the project, and we like that the to-the-trade showrooms will be locating in close proximity to us,” he said. DWR’s new, larger Philadelphia showroom will be located in the new mixed-use building rising just to the north of 34 South 11th.

“This is one of the first markets that we exited that we’re reopening in,” said McPhee. “A lot of the clients who shop our New York showrooms live in the Philadelphia market, and we had lots of calls from people [here] saying, ‘When are you coming back?’ As the news has gotten out, we’ve had a very enthusiastic response.”

Personal collections also helped McPhee make his decision. “We’ve known Dan Killinger for a long time,” he said. “He worked for Tony Goldman, who was our old landlord. He recreated Soho in New York City.” He also laid the foundation for what eventually became known as Midtown Village here.

“We had looked at other spaces, but it was as if this space was meant to be. We know Dan will bring the right complementary tenants. He knows retail marketing.”

For his part, Augustine is also depending on that savvy to help his showroom grow. “I do believe that locating above MOM’s Organic Market and with the added foot traffic, we will have more exposure to everybody.

“It will be an exciting outcome to keep escalating the design presence and energy that is developing at this point. It will be ineteresting to see all the talent coming to the table and rising to the top through this new venture.”

Indeed, Killinger said that negotiations are under way to add several more related tenants—”office tenants who want to bring their design firms [to East Market] as well as other retail tenants who want to be around this energy.” While he was not at liberty to name them yet, he said that he hoped to be able to announce their names in the next month or so.