Episode 10

Design Brands’ Child: Meet West Elm Work

When Williams-Sonoma saw the potential in crossing from living spaces into work spaces, they partnered their West Elm modern home furnishings with Steelcase to create the fastest growing new brand, West Elm Work. Learn about the design, new business strategy, and growth curve with Paulo Kos, West Elm Work VP Design, and Cheryl Carpenter, West Elm Work VP Business.

Subscribe on:

Featured on the Show
And something that Cheryl alluded to earlier that I think is unique about us is that we are connected to our customers on the residential side in so many different ways, whether it's social media or through our Web site and in-store. So, we have a lot of touch points where we're getting feedback directly from our clients. And that's a really valuable thing to kind of help inform what we do and how we do it. Paulo Kos, West Elm Work VP Design


CCB (One Workplace): [00:00:00] Welcome to the One Workplace ONEder podcast where we get to talk to all sorts of interesting people about all sorts of interesting topics around the world of design. And today we're talking with our honored guests from West Elm. And we've got Paulo and Cheryl with us, so I'd love you both to introduce yourselves.

Cheryl Carpenter (West Elm Work): [00:00:22] I'm Cheryl Carpenter. I'm V.P. of the Work business for West Elm.

Paulo Kos (West Elm Work): [00:00:26] And I'm Paulo Kos. I'm the vice president of design for the West Elm Work line.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:00:30] So I'm going to say Paulo, I actually read more about you than I read about Cheryl. And it's kind of interesting, too, if you would share a little bit about your background.

Paulo Kos (West Elm Work): [00:00:41] Sure. Yeah. So my background is really in on the residential side of furniture design. So I started with West Elm around the time that was, um, launched. And I kind of grew up within the ranks of West Elm focusing on furniture and lighting. And then I kind of left and came back to focus on their kind of expansion into the contract world. Especially with the Work line.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:01:12] So I think it's kind of interesting that out of all of the the new Steelcase partnerships, West Elm has probably the most recognized brand name in residential. And arguably it would be West Elm and and Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams. And so talk to us a little bit about what the prospect of entering the contract world looked like coming from residential design background.

Paulo Kos (West Elm Work): [00:01:43] Well, I think one of the things that sets us apart from the other partnerships is that we are co-developing products specifically for this line with Steelcase. So our expertise is on the residential side. And you know, we know how to make beautiful and inviting homes and we want to bring that into the workspace. And so we're partnering with the experts at Steelcase, the engineers and the marketing team, to kind of co-work on product that they are going to build and, you know, make to commercial specifications. So it's really West Elm designed, Steelcase made.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:02:25] Cheryl, you have a background with Steelcase, which is interesting. So is vice president at West Elm. What does it look like working with that company as compared to working with Steelcase?

Cheryl Carpenter (West Elm Work): [00:02:39] Yeah, it's been interesting. Paulo and I are a good pair because on the residential side he kind of comes from the retail world. My entire career, including Steelcase, has been with the contract office furniture world. So we're, I think, a good team and partnering with Steelcase and our partners like One Workplace, we are bringing that residential sensibility to the marketplace, which everybody wants, but we're doing it in the right way. And so we're we understand what our customers need in terms of quality, in terms of environmental certifications, in terms of reliability. All of those things, warranty, all of those things are brought to life by our partner Steelcase as co-developing these products. So it's kind of the best of both worlds. You get the West Elm residential design, but you get it paired with the performance of Steelcase, and our dealer partners like One Workplace.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:03:33] So the idea of the Marketplace on Maiden Lane, which is so exciting for us here in the Bay Area, was bringing the great new requirement of the residential, comfortable, soft seating, collaborative space that's being so requested by our customers, particularly tech customers. But it also has to do with the fact that we can work anywhere. So when you think about the designs that your that you're putting forward for the work side. What are those qualities that you think about when you're thinking about meeting those needs of the customer today?

Paulo Kos (West Elm Work): [00:04:24] Well, I think, like you said, I think the key is creating inviting spaces that people want to be in. You know, nobody is chained to their desk anymore. With technology, we're working from every possible corner of the world, you know, whether it's a cab, or an airplane, or anywhere. So it's really about creating products that will kind of bring the softness and the warmth of the home and the relaxed approach that you feel when you're working from home and bring that to the commercial office space. I think, you know, one of the examples of the products that we've just done or we're about to launch is it's called Boardwalk. And so my team of designers worked on this kind of modular system that marries the concept of a Japanese seating system called Sisu, which is a chair that sits on the tatami mats. And we kind of paired that with a kind of the California cool platform, mid-century platform seating. And we kind of pair those two concepts together to kind of create this modular system that kind of creates a soft environment that can kind of go in to any space and create these kind of breakout spaces.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:05:51] That's absolutely beautiful. And I know most of the designers that walk in gravitate towards it. I think because of that marriage of a different aesthetic combined with the residential market and I say different, I think that Asian slash midcentury modern, it's just so clean, but it also has that softness of the cushions the way that you've placed them.

Cheryl Carpenter (West Elm Work): [00:06:15] Yeah, I think it's another example, too, of us trying to move quickly. We're a retail company. We're a global design company, and we're in the retail world, right?. We move really, really quickly. But we also know that we have to bring those designs to light in the right way for commercial spaces. Boardwalk is a great example of staying ahead of the trends and leading the trends and moving quickly so that we have fresh choices out there for our customers.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:06:42] So I thought it was really interesting reading about your design process and how you have your in-house designers and then you also have that trend team. Can you talk a little bit more about the trend team?

Paulo Kos (West Elm Work): [00:06:54] Well, on the on the residential side, we do have an in-house concept and trend team that are constantly traveling and constantly just looking for new ideas and new, you know, new things out in the world. And so they kind of go out into the world and bring back and distill it into seasonal kind of concept presentations that the design teams, the product design teams then kind of feed off of and kind of it's the kind of fountain of inspiration that we kind of draw from seasonally to develop new product.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:07:32] So how does color play into your design process?

Paulo Kos (West Elm Work): [00:07:36] Color is a big part of West Elm. I think if you go to any West Elm store where we have kind of a core color palette, I would say, and then there's a seasonal layer that constantly changes, constantly evolves the color palette. And so we've kind of taken that same residential palette and we're bringing it into the commercial environment, mostly through our partnership with Designtex, which has been a great partnership. We've actually been working with Designtex longer than we've been working with Steelcase, which is kind of funny. So when we actually did partner with Steelcase, it was the perfect marriage.But Susan Lyons and her team have been so much fun to work with and to kind of translate the patterns in the color palettes of the home environment into these, you know, contract grade fabrics.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:08:32] So what about... what do you think would be most surprising to our listening audience to know about West Elm. Is there something that is so unusual that we don't know about you yet?

Paulo Kos (West Elm Work): [00:08:50] Anything we want to air?

Cheryl Carpenter (West Elm Work): [00:08:56] I think one of the things is we're the fastest growing brand within Williams-Sonoma. So we were only born in 2002. And, you know, it's a fast growing brand. It speaks to our closeness and our connection with our customers. So we have an intimate knowledge of our customer base of what they want, what they need, not just where they live. But I think it crosses into where they work. And we leverage that knowledge with our partnership with Steelcase. And we pair that with the insights and the expertise that Steelcase has in so many ways. And obviously our dealer partners as well. Like one workplace, I mean, we we bring it all together to deliver this value proposition to our customers. And I think it's really starting to resonate. And it's different than what other people do in the residential space. This is West Elm design, but it's made by Steelcase. And that's a huge value proposition. And I also think that it's different because we cross the entire floor plate for our customers. It's not just ancillary products, it's workstations and storage and private office and all of the things that you can do across the floor plate.

Paulo Kos (West Elm Work): [00:09:56] And I think the the other part of that is that all of our dealers do have access to the retail product as well. So while you can furnish the commercial space with all of the contract great product, you can fill out the entire space with everything else, from rugs to lighting to accent tables and decorative accessories. So it really is the whole package.

Cheryl Carpenter (West Elm Work): [00:10:18] And probably the other thing would be that the two businesses are parallel. So Paulo is working right alongside the retail designers in terms of he and his team designing these these products for the Steelcase partnership, but they're very different in terms of how we have to deliver them to our customers.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:10:38] Right. So you just raised two issues that I wanted to address. And one of them, I mean, to start with is, is your your company culture. So people are very, very interested in looking at the people that the the businesses that they choose to align with and the cultures that they feel most comfortable or most drawn to. And so what's the kind of buzz on the West Elm culture as an entity of its own?

Paulo Kos (West Elm Work): [00:11:12] I think it's a great space to work For me, I started so long ago when there were probably less than 20 people in the whole company and now we've got over 400 in the New York office alone. I think the company prides itself on what we call the three C's, which are community, choice, and consciousness. Thank you. I always forget one. It's always a different one. But, you know, just making sure that we're designing and always thinking about those three things, we want to make sure that our customers have the the choices. You know, we're constantly creating eclectic product that can be.. the company ethos is that we we help you express your personal style instead of creating a prescriptive style. So that's something that obviously we want to bring into the commercial environment, but then also being conscious of the planet and the people we're working with, making sure that we're partnering with great companies that treat their workers properly, and then just community: making sure that all the places that we are present in, that we're interacting with our community. We're not just kind of plunking a store somewhere. And, you know, we're we're an active member of those communities. So I think all of those three things really kind of helped build the company culture.

Cheryl Carpenter (West Elm Work):[00:12:36] I would add to that, too, Paulo's been at West Elm long enough that he told me a story about when they were brand new... And he just said "oh, no" -- it's good. It's all good! He said he he was there long enough that somebody raised their hand and said, "Hey, we got an order."

Paulo Kos (West Elm Work): [00:12:55] Yeah. It was the first day. Yeah. I started the day the first catalog went out. And so I here I am at this company. Nobody's ever heard of West Elm before because the catalogs literally just went out. Nobody's, you know, and somebody stood up—one of the, whatever, 18 people—and said, "we sold something!"

Cheryl Carpenter (West Elm Work): [00:13:13] So now we're you know, we're over a billion and a half brand for Williams-Sonoma. So it's it's pretty exciting.

Paulo Kos (West Elm Work): [00:13:20] Yeah. It's a cool place to be.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:13:22] It certainly sounds like it. So the other the other issue that you raised in a kind of implicit way is the use of technology and the impact that that has on some of the solutions that you might bring to market. And so we're always curious to know, what are the main business issues that drive your product development and the choices that you make?

Cheryl Carpenter (West Elm Work): [00:13:49] Well, I think the the things that drive our product development on the West Elm work side is really to offer choice. So we want to be incremental in terms of our our choices in the workspace. We want to be slightly unique and different. And I think for us, it's giving our customers choice, but also giving them confidence that the things that they're choosing from are going to be an amazing solution for them both from an insight perspective, a quality perspective, whatever it may be. So I think that drives a lot of what we do on the on the commercial side, on the West Elm Work side. And I think on the retail side, I think it's also about choice. I mean, that's one of our three C's, right. And it's it's also trying to stay ahead of the trends in the marketplace and trying to lead those trends.

Paulo Kos (West Elm Work): [00:14:40] Yeah. And I think something that Cheryl alluded to earlier that I think is unique about us is that we are connected to our customers on the residential side in so many different ways, whether it's social media or through our Web site and or in-store. So we have a lot of touch points where we're getting feedback directly from our clients. And so that's a really valuable thing to kind of help inform what we do and how we do it.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:15:09] Yeah, that is—it's a curious gift that you have all that kind of retail information and that that individual choice information that you've been collecting. And you guys are.. now you're like young adults at an 18 year old company.

Paulo Kos (West Elm Work): [00:15:26] Yeah, I think we're ending our teen years.

Cheryl Carpenter (West Elm Work): [00:15:28] Did you say young adults? That's very generous of you. Well, the other thing that's really great is pairing with Steelcase as our partner. You know, they're the top, you know, commercial office furniture company in the world's. It's like, you know, we are leveraging that expertise and those insights and that knowledge and the research and the engineering and the just across the board, there's so much expertise on their side that helps us do our jobs really well together as a collaboration. I mean, and it feels like that to me is kind of the winning combination. And it seems to resonate really nicely with obviously our customer base, but also with architects and designers like they totally get that when they hear the story, which is really great.

Paulo Kos (West Elm Work): [00:16:21] Yeah, I think, you know, when we first set out on this this office furniture journey, we could have said, oh, well, we're product developers, we make product, we'll do it ourselves. But we I think it was very smart that leadership, our leadership said we know what we know and we know what we don't know. So we'd rather partner with an expert in the field to do it right instead of trying to figure it out on our own. And I think that's what we've done with Steelcase.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:16:50] You've had enough time in the market to develop relationships and you've got the retail customers and you've got your your commercial customers now. Do you have any particularly wonderful installation stories or customer relationship stories that you'd like to share with us?

Cheryl Carpenter (West Elm Work): [00:17:05] We have a number... It's interesting, people always say, "well, what's your typical customer profile?" And there isn't one. I mean, honestly, I mean, we have very, very large loyal customers like Verizon, for example. We have, you know, smaller companies that are a little bit, you know, just past the startup phase. We have all different type of customers because what I think they see is, you know, they're inspired from a design perspective on the retail side and they hear about this West Elm Work business, which is for commercial. And they're really intrigued by that because it is inspiring when you walk into one of our stores and you're just like, wow, you know? And I think it crosses over. It crosses over customer size. That's usually how we segment it--you know, the business world, you segment them by size or by type. And it really crosses across all types of customers. That's what we've seen. So it's really exciting for us because it's it's limitless in terms of the possibilities for us.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:18:07] So you're Steelcase partnership is closer than some of the other marketplace partners, and there's such a link between you. The language feels... your vernacular feels so much more comfortable to all of us in the Steelcase world because you are you're speaking the same language. What do you think... does that bring any challenges in working with any of the different customer types that you might be moving towards?

Cheryl Carpenter (West Elm Work): [00:18:37] I don't think so. I think, again, this trend towards... it's not even a trend. It's here to stay, I think. This whole mood and in movement towards residential has been you know, we've been one of the leaders in that whole area. What I think people find when we have the conversation about the value of this partnership is that they're like, "Oh, OK. You know, like, I get it now. I get it. It's what I see in the retail store visually, like some of the same type of designs, that aesthetic. But you're bringing it to us in a way that I can be 100 percent confident that this thing's going to be engineered correctly. It's going to last. It's going to, you know, be super reliable." And so I think that peppering that the retail residential language with the commercial side is actually a really positive thing because everyone wants to have confidence in what they're putting in their space. Everybody spends a lot of time and money on that. And and knowing that they have the confidence that it is going to hold up, it's going to carry the Steelcase limited lifetime warranty. All of that is part of this value proposition. And I think that's important to anybody.

Paulo Kos (West Elm Work): [00:19:49] I also think, when we started, that we probably weren't speaking the same language. You know, I think coming from the residential side, it is a very different. I mean, it is a different language that we use, different words even. But I think the Steelcase team has been so incredibly collaborative. Whether it's the marketing team or the engineers. And, you know, we've learned so much through working with them. They've been such great partners. And to your point, it is a very different relationship than the other partnerships, because we are really, you know, we're working hand-in-hand with every new introduction and we're constantly learning, which is what I find to be the most interesting part of the whole thing.

Cheryl Carpenter (West Elm Work): [00:20:33] And I think the other part of that is with the architect and design community. You know, when they're designing into commercial spaces, they need to know all of these things that we've just been talking about. They.. we need to speak that language because they are in charge of the big project. They need to make sure it is great for the customer and the customer is delighted at the end of the day. So I think that has really helped us. Things like, you know, lead times and things like that. So all of those things come into this relationship and it's been positive from that standpoint.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:21:06] Well, it's also kind of... it's reciprocal because you've been able to to have an influence on the understanding and the language that Steelcase uses as well, which you kind of alluded to. And that is very, very positive. So when people come to work for West Elm, I mean, who do you look for when you want new people working with you? We think about attraction and retention as a major workplace issue, how does that play out at West Elm?

Paulo Kos (West Elm Work): [00:21:37] I think we're constantly looking for people who want to go on this adventure with us and who don't think that they have all the answers. They're constantly looking for new ways to work. And, you know, they're curious people who want to learn more. And that's kind of how we operate. We know we don't know everything and we're constantly trying to learn more and trying to find new things to bring to market.

Cheryl Carpenter (West Elm Work): [00:22:01] And as I mentioned, with the "we got an order" example that Paulo was involved with, I mean, it's entrepreneurial to a certain extent as well. I mean, I think that's an important part of our culture because we are a relatively new brand within Williams-Sonoma and it's kind of got that spirit to it, I think.

Paulo Kos (West Elm Work): [00:22:19] Yeah, we definitely need people who are going to own the process and who are going to, you know, move forward. I think we're still relatively small on the contract side. My team is a team of two designers, two very talented designers, but there's really only two of them. And I think that that small size allows us to be nimble, but also allows them to really own the process and have a sense of ownership with the product...

Cheryl Carpenter (West Elm Work): [00:22:46] Or create the process.

Paulo Kos (West Elm Work): [00:22:48] Yeah, a lot of times we're building the plane as we fly it, as they say.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:22:55] Good for you. We love that. So what percentage of the West Elm business is commercial as compared to residential?

Cheryl Carpenter (West Elm Work): [00:23:02] It's a small percentage right now, but that's our job to make sure that that starts to grow. It's been a big part of our growth strategy as a as a brand, and I think that we're gonna see that. I mean, we're relatively new in terms of being out there with Steelcase. It's been about a year since we announced our partnership and we've been feverishly developing products. Co-developing products with Steelcase. So we're seeing it grow and we're seeing amazing traction. And we expect that to continue to grow to be even a bigger part of our overall results in our overall brand.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:23:35] Well, we're really, really excited that you have been able to spend time with us, but also to have contributed to the Marketplace on Maiden Lane because as you I'm sure have witnessed it's been a fairly monumental success in communicating kind of the the new way of thinking from the Steelcase side, but also the enormous breadth that's being offered to all of our customers. And we're really happy that.

Cheryl Carpenter (West Elm Work): [00:24:01] Yeah, we're we're thrilled. I mean, like, thank you. We're just like grateful to Steelcase and to One Workplace. We walked in here. We were just like, oh, my gosh, it's gorgeous. So this the whole setup on here on Maiden Lane is amazing. So we really appreciate that because we're all in this together. But we were like very, very grateful for the investment and for the excitement around this this pop up.

Paulo Kos (West Elm Work): [00:24:26] Yeah, it's really great to see how much Steelcase is standing behind the product and the and the partnership. So that's really wonderful.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:24:34] Good. Any last words that you'd like to share with with our listening audience?

Cheryl Carpenter (West Elm Work): [00:24:40] I hope that you hear our, you know, we love working together. We have a great team. We have a great collaboration with Steelcase. We love all our amazing dealers. One Workplace has been a partner for quite a while. And we're very excited about that. We have a passion for this business. We feel like we're on the right path with this and that we're delivering these solutions. And we're doing it in the right way. And we can't wait to show everybody, not just what's available now, but what's coming soon, because there's a lot of things yet to come.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:25:15] Fantastic. Thank you so much.

Cheryl Carpenter (West Elm Work): [00:25:17] Thank you.

Paulo Kos (West Elm Work): [00:25:20] Bye bye.