How two friends named John reinvented the design business

One of the design industry’s most important partnerships began in 1991, in San Carlos, California, at the offices of a shoe brand called Sam & Libby Shoes. there, John Edelman toiled in a company founded by his older brother Sam (“Libby” was Sam’s wife). One day another John walked –John McPhee. The two were the new guys in the office and almost immediately struck up a friendship.

“John was so sweet, he came in and said, ‘Let’s have dinner!'” Edelman recalls waiting. Denis Skali in the last episode of The Home Business Podcast. “I don’t think we understood what it meant that day.”

To the two Johns, personally, it meant a lot—to the design industry in general, perhaps even more. The pair would go on to work on another Edelman family business, Edelman Leather, and grow it enough to sell it to Knoll for $67 million in 2007. After that, another challenge beckoned: Get then-retailer Design Within Reach, known at the time for cheap knockoffs, and turn its fortunes around.

When the partners went to meet with the company’s employees, it became clear how daunting the task was. “They looked at us with such disbelief. It was the worst address I have ever had to do with a group of people who worked for us. They did not know what to believe; we had to bring them all back. It wasn’t pretty,” Edelman says. The pair tried to cancel production in the event of strikes, restart relationships with vendors and cut many leases. It was a bumpy ride, at first.

“None of us had ever been to Salone. We had no idea what we were getting into. “We had a brand new chief merchandiser, and she heard that John and I were going to Salone without her, and she said, ‘No way!'” says McPhee. “Thank God we listened to him. We had 40 meetings in five days with all our top European vendors. And we didn’t go there just to say, “Hey, we’re John and John.” We were like, ‘We need you to start shipping to us again, and no, we’re not giving you a letter of credit; no, we will not give you cash; you have to give us a 60-day grace period, but we’re good guys, trust us!”

In the end, it worked—magnificently—and eventually DWR was sold to Herman Miller for $154 million in 2014. The two Johns stayed on to help with the transition, but eventually moved on to other adventures. Now Edelman is reviving the cult-favorite design brand Heller (ironically, one of the first challenges he faced at Design Within Reach was a copyright lawsuit filed by Heller’s founder Alan Heller). Meanwhile, McPhee is now CEO of Chilewich, where he is looking to expand the brand well beyond its origins as a mat manufacturer.

Although both Johns have their own ventures now, the two are still involved in each other’s businesses (McPhee’s son was Edelman’s first hire at Heller) and continue to share knowledge of a rapidly changing industry. In this podcast episode, they reveal the thinking behind some of their biggest moves, explain why economic downturns are opportunities to grow smart, and highlight why—in a time of consolidation—betting on great design is always a good business.

“I like shopping, I like mergers, but I think people should care about design. We are not creating widgets. We are doing things that require passion, vision and quality,” says Edelman. “I hope people take that into account first. With this, you can always be successful. You might make a short-term blip, but with great design you’ll be successful forever.”

Listen to the show below. If you like what you hear, subscribe to Apple Podcasts or Spotify. This episode was sponsored by Crypton.

Homepage image: Peter Hapak

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