Chain stores have democratised design. Kim Knight reports from the dirt-cheap frontline of home fashion.

This winter, the only way to avoid dreamcatchers and textured dinnerware will be to live under a rock. (Literally. That sparkly, geode aesthetic is so last Northern Hemisphere summer).

Home design is about to fall down a retro rabbit hole.

Jade Turner, The Warehouse: "It's like a 70s vibe, but with a modern twist. Fabrics like velvet have come back in a big way - retro tones like mustard, emerald green, burgundy."

Kate Hopwood, Kmart: "We're loving the moodier colour palette. It's a lot more about textures, velvets, very luxurious and, not that you'd know it, but it's a nod to the 70s."


Remember when "design" was for the rich and richer? When an Eames dining chair was $1000-plus and the latest trends were attainable only by the elite? Neither do we.

The new arbiter of taste is the mass market. Change your look at a chain store for less than $100 and then do it all again in summer, when (Canvas has it on good authority) a tribal aesthetic will give way to tropical accents and pastel, pastel, pastel.

Design has been democratised. But if everybody is doing the same blush-pink thing, is it still design?

In his 2011 book, New Zealand by Design, Michael Smythe wrote "design is intrinsic to all human beings" and that if there was a Kiwi aesthetic, he would call it "the design of delight. Neither opulent nor sterile ... it doesn't take itself too seriously. It offers 'no bullshit' honesty with a twinkle in its eye."

But in the country that brought you Crown Lynn swans and David Trubridge body rafts, there has been a shift. At any given shopping mall, on any given day, small armies of women in matching leisurewear and shiny hair are pushing trolleys full of painted concrete planters and gold-edged inspirational art prints that advise their owners to "Do what makes your soul happy". You can still buy an Eames dining chair made under licence by Vitra for $1000-plus - but you can also get a replica on sale at Warehouse Stationery for under $50 (assembly required).

In 2009, Kmart's design department had one staffer, and The Warehouse had none. Today, Kmart employs 46 designers and The Warehouse design team (which is just over a year old) comprises 13 people. Their jobs represent a fundamental shift in the way chain stores are doing business, and their work now dictates the look of many, many New Zealand interiors.

Bringing the outdoors in with our new season prints 🌿🍂🍃🍁 #TheWarehouseStyle #TheWarehouseNZ

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But they are followers, not leaders. Just as fashion went "fast", so has design. The mass market is no longer a hodgepodge, pick 'n' mix selection. Today's shopper is matching duvet covers to throw pillows and candleholders. Today's shopper is buying the whole kit and burnished metal caboodle for less than $100 a room.

"What we realised, was if we make products look good together, it helps our customer put their looks together," says Kate Hopwood, Melbourne-based head of Kmart's general merchandise design team.

"So we started to design 'in collection' so it would make it much easier. When a customer wants a beautiful item in their home, they don't just have to stop at one. They can buy lots more and be surrounded by lots of beautiful things."

At Kmart, the change began about five years ago. Hopwood says it meant "harnessing global trends" and subscribing to forecasting agencies like Trend Bible and WGSN (Worth Global Style Network).

"We read blogs, magazines, watch music videos, look at nature, go to exhibitions and trade fairs, we travel around the world, looking at different cultures, and what's happening in cafes and all sorts. We never turn off.

"We work out what's going to be the hottest thing and we work on it so far in advance, that we have to be sure that it's the right thing for our customers, because that allows us to make lots of them, and that makes the price so affordable."

A couple of years ago, Hopwood's team noticed terrariums in high-end fashion magazines and boutique hair salons. They duly introduced a garden in a glass vase to Kmart.

"We were too early. It really wasn't the right time. Now it's the perfect time. The customer loves it, because they're seeing them more often."

Sundays are for snuggling! New season winter warmers... coming soon ❄️

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In 2017, everyone is a customer and everyone has an opinion on home style. What drives our desire for white painted walls one year, and rainbow stripes the next? Experts point to reality television renovation shows like The Block and shared visual platforms like Instagram and Facebook.

"In the days of film cameras, you had to be quite precious with your photographs," says Hopwood. "They were posed, you might have gone outside because the light was better. Now everyone is snapping away and putting them on social media, and we're getting more of an insight into people's lives. They want to project that view of 'I'm doing well, I'm happy, I've got a lovely home'. So there is more emphasis on design and it is definitely more accessible and more affordable."

And there is no shame in scoring a bargain.

"It's almost like a cult," says Hopwood. "People go 'look at this - it was only this much' ... if it looks good and it was a low price, it's like a double win. A double pat on the back. You've achieved greatness by being savvy."

Last month, Australian media reported on the phenomena of the "Kmart mums" and Facebook fan groups with more than 100,000 members who revel in postings of "pantry porn" and cheap towels. The chain, which operates 19 stores in New Zealand and is owned by the same company that operates Liquorland, Bunnings, Coles and Target reported a 16.3 per cent earnings lift in its latest half-year results.

Greatness - or greed?

Lynne Browning is an Auckland-based interior designer and home stager. "Do you know what one of the biggest growth industries in New Zealand is? It's storage. Lock-ups. People have so much stuff now."

Interest in interiors is nothing new, she says.

"In the 700s there were people who had with good spatial design. Some people's caves worked better than other people's caves!"

What has changed is accessibility to product.

Stylishly simple everyday dining #TheWarehouseStyle

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"When I was teaching interior design this was an argument I used to have because good design was inaccessible to people on low budgets. You had to compromise and make do and make it yourself.

"And then, when I guess the mostly Chinese suppliers started copying Fornasetti and Eames and all those people, everybody was in such an uproar. I felt, very clearly, that I sat on the fence, because I thought why shouldn't people on a low budget be able to have beautifully designed things? Why should they be restricted to buying crappy stuff and having to hunt around?

"And I still do feel that, but I think there is an argument to be had. What is design? Because it's just available everywhere. And I haven't really got an answer, except that it's true that we're seeing the democratisation of items that were once for the elite."

Kent Hemingway (once at the pointy end of critique for the high-end reproductions he sold at his Homage stores) says mass market retailers "have just got sharper".

His take: "Like a good stylist, using a few cheaper clothing items with designer gear gives you a unique and interesting look - just use them wisely!

"It's just like H&M and Top Shop and Zara. It's fast-fashion. And I don't think the Trelise Coopers and the Karen Walkers are too worried. You've always got a market of people who want good design, and then there are people who want fast-fashion. As you get older and more sophisticated, you buy less, but you buy well."

Google "Eames chair" for an insight into that debate. It's a complicated story bound up in international copyright law, but the short version begins in 1950, when the world's first mass-produced moulded chair, designed by husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames, goes on sale. Years later, its production is controlled by a single licence-holder, Vitra, and prices escalate. Far more recently, mass market retailers begin selling dirt-cheap replicas. Cue outrage but, also, commentary about the horror many predict the now-deceased Eames would have felt about their once affordable product becoming the domain of the very wealthy.

The Warehouse introduced an Eames replica chair three years ago. Jenny Epke, general manager of merchandise, says it was a turning point.

"It was a real breakthrough piece for us. It really helped make that step change in how customers perceived us - that we were bringing in on-trend products, at very affordable prices."

Traditionally, the company relied on buyers with a good eye and customer knowledge to choose its product offerings. The in-house design team, introduced last year, now works on a "from scratch" approach to many of the items that create seasonal "stories", like this year's Habitat, Emerald City and Sorrento collections. Epke says the basics are still offered, but a curated approach to seasonal collections has been welcome by customers.

"I was a little sceptical to start with, but it's definitely been a really good exercise.

"Sometimes, when there's too much noise on the shelves, with too much choice, people become a bit overwhelmed. Customers say it's helpful to take some of that burden away from them."

Last year, it looked like a profitable strategy. In January 2016, The Warehouse Group (which includes Warehouse Stationery, Noel Leeming and Torpedo7) posted a $57.2m profit, up one-third on the previous year on the back of stronger clothing and homeware sales. This January however, fortunes changed, and it reported a first-half profit plunge of 76 per cent.

Does the world need more metallic finish du jour and a new duvet cover with every Pantone Colour of the Year announcement? ("Greenery" in 2017, in case you missed it). Is mass production, with its reputation for worker exploitation and resource depletion, good for the planet?

The Warehouse works with about 1200 international factories, and Kmart lists about 850 on its website. Both companies have developed ethical sourcing codes.

Hopwood, speaking for Kmart, said "we are proud of our processes and we work extremely hard to ensure we are doing the right thing ... we work really, really hard to ensure we are as ethical and sustainable as possible".

Epke, for The Warehouse, noted customer demand had led to policies on wood product sourcing, the use of palm oil and microbeads, and said the company's factory audit and accreditation programme was "robust" and "continuous". In the 2015 financial year, accreditation applications from 146 new factories were declined, and 12 "active" factories were discontinued for standards failure.

"Our buyers can't physically place an order until our quality assurance team have pressed the button to say an audit has happened."

But Epke agrees the issue of mass production is "a tricky question for anybody to answer at the moment".

"What we pride ourselves on is the quality of the product. It's not built to last two minutes, it's built to last for a long time, an acceptable duration for that particular item. Just because you buy something in an affordable price bracket doesn't mean to say it's now got a very short lifespan."

More crucially, she points to average New Zealand earnings: $1,129.72 a week according to Statistics NZ.

"The reality is, very few of our customers will buy everything. The most common thing for customers to do is buy a couple of cushions, or a candleholder. You know, it's accents to a room."

Lead designer Jade Turner says television shows like The Block "have encouraged people to become designers themselves. People are very vocal about saying 'I went to The Warehouse, look how cute I styled my room'."

Epke: "I also love the way they customise things."

Turner: "Same! I love a good Warehouse hack. I love it, because I'm like 'oh, I should have thought of that myself ...'"

He describes his team as "fast-followers".

"It is mass market. We try, as quick as we can, to get the latest trends to our customers at affordable prices ... it's about how do we take that and make it 'New Zealand'."

Key customers include new home-buyers, but also "we live in a world currently where owning a home is almost impossible for some people, so updating where you do live, or you rent - it's a nice way to put your own personality and stamp on to something."

It was inevitable, says Turner, that the mass market responded to a demand for affordable design.

"Design is becoming so on tap. Everyone had to step up their game. Because of social media and DIY shows, everyone is like 'I can do this and what I need is an affordable option'. And what everyone in the market has done, is go 'I can accommodate you with that'."


In 1950, the world's first mass-produced moulded chair, designed by Charles and Ray Eames, hit the market. Today, Eames furniture is at the centre of debate about "fast design".

Matisse: Eames DSW chair, wooden legs, $1150

Nood: Nood DSW dining chair, plastic $179

Target Furniture: Eames replica white dining chair, $89 (on sale until 1 May for $59)

Warehouse stationery: Living & Co Replica Eames chair, white, $39