Washington Design Center clients look for new digs

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Real Estate

Just as online travel websites rendered travel agencies obsolete, perhaps the online accessibility of luxury home items will bring an end to the venerable Washington Design Center.

Last year, an Oklahoma-based group purchased the building that houses the Design Center for $50 million. It plans to transform the building into a Bible museum.

Nearly 30 independently owned showrooms have hired a broker to find a new location that would accept them all and create a revamped design center. A date for the relocation has not been set.

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The pending move also raises the question of whether the emergence of the retail design district on 14th Street really signifies a cultural shift in the city's design hub.

Long the one-stop shop for trade professionals in the design industry, the D.C. Design Center has provided designers with seven floors of luxury showrooms for nearly 30 years. Designers would bring their clients face-to-face with the finest fabrics, furniture and accessories that were not available at department stores but were featured on the pages of Architectural Digest and Elle Decor.

The huge selection of fine rugs, fabrics and furniture allowed designers to offer seemingly endless possibilities, all under one roof.

It is a concept being copied by big-box retailers such as Room and Board and Crate and Barrel, which offer custom window treatments, bedding and pillows, as well as bookshelves, sofas and case goods.

But what they call custom is merely made to order, said Ann Lambeth, principal of J. Lambeth & Co., the largest independent showroom on the East Coast. Lambeth offers luxury furniture, textiles, lighting, cast stone and custom metal works to architectural and design trade professionals.

"They may be able to add length but not depth. They may offer 40 fabrics. But we have thousands," Lambeth said. "We have lines where the consumer can not only pick a color, they can design a color specific for them. They can find something that is uniquely theirs."

Still, some designers say the gigantic showroom model is outdated, that these days Generation X and Y clients, those born between 1965 and 1981, surf the Web, watch design shows and peruse Pinterest for design ideas.

"Online purchasing, being such an easy option for people, may be impacting the Design Center," said Northern Virginia interior designer Lauren Leiss. "It's so easy to find good stuff now. You just turn on a computer and go to a website. I love that."

But, she added the Internet does not replace being able to go in and sit on a chair or touch a piece of cloth.

"I think there will always be a place for that." She said.

Lambeth said home design retailers and those open to trade only can coexist.

"Just like in the fashion industry, J. Crew is not for everyone," she said. "It's for a lot of people, but not everyone. And of course, we offer value, too. We couldn't survive if we only sold Chanel."

She said showrooms are not relics of the past and dismissed the talk of the demise of the Design Center.

"Rumors are rampant," Lambeth said. "We are committed to moving as a group. We may lose two or three who might not make the move for a number of reasons. But the Design Center is not closing. We are just moving."

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