West Elm has come back. Both in that they are back in the city, opening their first new store in the District since closing an underperforming Metro Center location in 2009, but also in terms of really reinvigorating the design and style of the homewares chain.
The Williams-Sonoma Inc subsidiary debuted in 2002 to considerable excitement. They were positioned as a bridge” brand for those who wanted something more upscale than IKEA, but not as expensive or “mature” as their sister store Pottery Barn. Everything came in the then-essential espresso wood finishes and blocky shapes which would go on to define so many apartments across the country.
However, at some point a few years ago – around the time they opened the Tysons Corner retail location – it seemed like the brand had lost a bit of its way. Designs had leaned hard to the faux-ethnic and zebra-print and too many core pieces from shuttered Williams-Sonoma brand Hold Everything were awkwardly folded in to the West Elm range.
Walking in to the Georgetown store, however, feels totally fresh – perhaps because this is the company’s first experiment with a pop-up location and that gave them an opportunity to shake things up a bit. Opening on July 14, 2011, the store is set to operate in the current space for six months. West Elm would like a permanent home in the Georgetown neighborhood if things go well, but for now they are turning the limitations of the pop-up concept in to strengths.
At only 3,300 square feet, the space at 3333 M St is about a third the size of an average West Elm retail location. This forced the team to be creative and focused about what to showcase and how to style it. The range on display is all early fall merchandise – items which just went live on the website this week and are not yet on the floor at other stores. Every surface in the space seems to be elegantly layered with colorful accessories.
Sprinkled throughout the space are special finds, limited only to this pop-up shop and not available elsewhere. A beautiful limited-edition shelving unit is sourced from India, as are a small assortment of eye-catching glass mosaic panels handmade by traditional artisans. The focus on handmade global modern continues throughout: There are papier-mâché animal busts from Haiti, textiles block printed by hand, ikat bedding, and blankets and upholstery made of upcycled sari fabric scraps. Taken together, it is the complete “gypset” look – but available at a reasonable price, right on M St, with $39 same-day delivery.
To celebrate the grand opening, on Saturday, July 16, the store is teaming up with Pleasant Pops who will be offering free pops to shoppers all day long. From 10 am to noon, many of the pop sticks will be etched with prizes ranging from discounts to $1,000 West Elm gift cards.
Shoppers who stop in on Saturday will also be able to catch prominent Brooklyn-based street artist Aakah Nihalani who will be finishing a piece in the store. This commission marks his first-ever installation in Washington, and the linear, neon orange and pink work informed much of the pop-up store’s logo and design. If Nihalani’s name sounds familar, it might be from a recent story in the New York Times about his installation in the 2011 Kips Bay Show House in New York – or from an older, really lovely T Magazine feature on the artist. Working in tape on the walls of the pop-up store makes for an impermanent piece – an essential element of Nihalani’s whimsical oeuvre – but one which is likely to delight those who get to see it in this public space.