A report from Berlin.

by Nina Thorstensen

How Digital is Reshaping the Design Market: Between the New Curated Marketplaces and the Local Stores

Berlin has never been short of entrepreneurial spirit and creativity. The German capital has become known for both a tech-savvy community of star- ups and a burgeoning art scene. When it comes to the field of design, Berlin might not have the same support structure – important galleries, festivals and fairs – as New York or London; yet when it comes to new curated marketplaces, it is carving a niche in its own right. Local start-up companies like Pamono, MONOQI and Urbanara distinguish themselves as online destinations for handpicked design. The aim is to curate a selection of exclusive, unique and limited edition products, bring them together in one marketplace and make them available globally.

Online marketplaces are like department stores- they strive to offer a variety of items that buyers are encouraged to explore, choose and combine while concept stores pride themselves in offering products that fit into a certain aesthetic and philosophy of the owners, thus adding their personal touch. Purchasing high-end fashion online is nothing new today, but the field of design has been relatively slow to respond to the growing currents of e- commerce. More people are willing to buy furniture and design pieces online and this should be made easier, faster and safer. E-commerce companies are looking to provide solutions to the needs of today’s consumers by optimizing the global trade structures. The curated marketplaces for design are still relatively young, which makes for a timely analysis on where we are now and where we are going. What kind of change has e-commerce brought to the design market and what is to be expected in the future? What impact does the broad global accessibility of design have on local businesses and dealers? We take a closer look at both online and offline environments in Berlin, and talk to the people looking to make a difference to the way design is presented and sold today.

Innovation in the distribution and sale of design has come from new players rather than established companies. Pamono was founded in 2013 with the idea to combine an online shop, offering collectable furniture and objects, with magazine-style content, offering stories and reports that cover the entire spectrum of the design world. The company’s office is based in Charlottenburg, an area that used to be the epicentre of modern life in Berlin with its theatres, cabarets, dance halls and shops. Today it is characterised by a mix of beautifully renovated grand old buildings, sitting side by side with modern steel, concrete and glass structures. At L’ArcoBaleno they have been rethinking ways of presenting design online, beginning from the idea that every piece has a story, which serves as a point of discovery and inspiration for a global audience. “To a certain extent we started as a unique plane,” says Oliver Weyergraf, the CEO and co-founder of Pamono. “My interest was to think through the market segment, and I am interested in this market as a potential consumer. This is a market that was not touched yet, and I have realized how fragmented it is. Today we are all used to searching through Google and we are part of this community where you can find things online. When you start to think about the cities like London, Paris and Berlin, you have local shops there, but in most cases they sell to the local community. With our model we are the additional virtual window for these local shops to reach a global audience. We are being a business partner for the local stores and are helping to create a global fit for brands and designers.”

The exponential growth of digital has created an environment that twenty years ago didn’t exist, and even today we are still finding our way around it. The rapid growth of e-commerce has given rise to a new wave of thinking about physical shops and to the growing trend of the so-called concept stores, which leverage new methods to exhibit products. Curated selection is a term that seems to spread from the concept stores and into the world of e- commerce with today’s online marketplaces being more curated and controlled then the first generation marketplaces, such as Ebay or Amazon.

Curation can evaluate and ascribe value to specific products and experiences. Curated selection can particularly benefit the field of design where buyers don’t want to be limited to only one type of furniture but wish to combine different styles. “The curational aspect is very important for us and for our buyers. It is a fascinating but not easy to access world,” according to Oliver, “I think that the curational aspect starts with quality, with combining eras and mixing old and new. The outcome is that you have a quite individual set up in your home, which I think is great. Our job is to help facilitate individualisation. There is not only one way to curate, there are hundreds of ways. The beauty of doing these things online is that you as a consumer can follow the curation you like the most. You can pick and choose – it is a very transparent, open and democratic way. We don’t want to be dogmatic, we want to give all sorts of combinations, and give guidance and support on how to find your way in the intransparent world of design.”

“Our job is to help facilitate individualisation. There is not only one way to curate, there are hundreds of ways.”

With an average price point of thousand euros, the Pamono online shop caters to the entire spectrum of the design market, from affordable pieces by upcoming designers to the museum-quality items for the collectors. While big furniture brands and manufacturers have embraced e-commerce, a more unique, hand-made and bespoke pieces have previously been available only through galleries, designers or dealers. This is not the case anymore and as the latest market report shows, we live in the environment where online luxury sales are growing twice as fast as the luxury market. With the design market changing and evolving so fast, how does its future look like? “I am following the multichannel concept, where there is no online and offline but a combination of things, cites Oliver, “It will be more and more merging and becoming one, giving more variation and options to the audience. There are certain moments where maybe you want to see these things in reality. For instance, when you work with young designers it is good to visit the gallery or a dealer.“

At Pamono they see important and necessary part of their services in offering practical and hands on solutions to their selling partners when it comes to shipping and transport. “We are still important to the local store because we can help with all the logistic, duties and taxes that normal gallery would not deal with, explains Oliver. He goes on, ”They are quite happy that we take care of that part, especially when it is cross border. They know where to find new pieces and we help to find new audience.“

“Most of the concept stores nowadays don’t have a proper concept, or a very clear one.”

Today’s consumers are more attuned to the items they are buying; there is a strong demand for better quality products, and brands that can effectively communicate their origin and history. In other words, we want to know what we are buying. Over in Kreuzberg, on the other side of Berlin, we talked to the founders of two local independent stores who are dedicated to offering a small but careful selection of items. Once home to countless artists and students, Kreuzberg has been famous for its alternative scene and counterculture. Today, it is one of the most up-and-coming areas in Berlin, experiencing rapid gentrification. Catherine Pfisterer and her husband launched the Bazair Noir store in November 2014. The idea to open their own store came as they were decorating their new apartment. “We were looking for very specific items that we couldn’t really find anywhere in Berlin’s stores,” says Catherine. The couple are locals to Kreuzberg’s Bergmannkiez and were looking to locate their store within the area. The opportunity came when they found an empty garage for sale, and hired Hidden Fortress, a Berlin based design studio, to create a flexible interior. They used black finishes to unify the space and covered all the surfaces in the same tone, creating a strong identity for the store.

Bazar Noir is a first design-led concept store in this area and looking around its artful displays makes one realize that a store like this has long been overdue. Contrasting pieces are brought together; contemporary design objects next to vintage pieces. “Some customers like to buy online for practical reasons; others know exactly what they are after,” according to Catherine, “The latter category likes to see, feel and touch what they are about to purchase. These people go to physical shops. I am optimistic that there will always be people who still want to come in the store and talk to someone. In my eyes, it is a nicer and more interesting way of purchasing an item. That’s one of the reasons we chose not to sell online.” The store offers a selection of handcrafted furniture, objects, books and art. “Our selection reveals that we pay attention to details and work with craftsmen to offer pieces which are hand-made instead of mass produced.” Catherine sees concept stores moving forward and adding value not by being more exclusive but more inclusive and extensive in their reach of audience. “I want to embrace the flexibility that the concept store has to offer. We want our displays to be an ever-changing exhibition and such approach allows us to experiment with various areas. We have recently started working with photographers without calling ourselves a gallery, we nevertheless let photo lovers enter our space.”

Few streets behind is Local Store, a small concept store founded by Simon Freund and Philipp Sumpf, as a self-initiated project in October 2014. For Simon, who is running his own label Simon&Me, it was a way of introducing like-minded brands that share his vision. Local Store offers a selection of menswear, interior, stationary, and personal care products, which follow the concept of high execution and local production. “Most of the concept stores nowadays don’t have a proper concept, or a very clear one. Our store has a very defined concept, by its name Local, which means that all products are locally produced in the country of the brand’s origin. This concept is good for the store because we can make decisions very clearly, and it makes our selection small but defined. We are putting focus on a different side of the business, for us it is always the product that we want to sell and stock, not the brand,“ says Simon.

The vision with the Local Store was to step away from seasonal trends. The point in stocking brands that focus on small production and high quality is in Simon’s eyes valuable as he would like to see his customers not buying into the over consumption but rather investing in one quality product. “If you buy something from a brand you also buy a story and our story is worth more then the story of the big chain. I like to promote the idea that you only buy one shirt of high quality and wear it every weekend for the rest of your life.”

By staying local, stores like Bazair Noir and Local Store can keep better focus on their vision and experiment with new ways of exhibiting products. Curated marketplaces are already borrowing marketing strategies from concept stores by seeking new ways of communicating and differentiating their products. At Pamono they have been focusing on the discovery aspect when it comes to rethinking the idea of a global marketplace. Users are able to not only continually discover new items but also discover stories and articles about different designers, galleries or regions. Strength of this concept is in creating a site that can function in multiple ways and be both a marketplace and a knowledge tool, which allows them to communicate better and build trust with the customers. Online environments can easily feel overwhelming, impersonal and detached but this can be countered with quality background information that communicates the products, and gives them a sense of place and origin. We are now at a fascinating juncture, moving from purely offline to a combination of online and offline. With new curated marketplaces achieving more experiential and personalized online environments, and making a wider spectrum of the design market visible and accessible, it will be interesting to see ways in which online and offline retail will keep influencing each other. With concepts stores becoming more of a rule then an exception, this is an opportunity for new retail concepts to explore different strategies and invest in a stronger identity.

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