i+D - May/June 2021 - 41
i+D: Family businesses can add extra dimensions of
stress because of the difficulty of being completely frank
with loved ones. How did you handle that?
JD: There was an article in the Harvard Business Review in
the 1970s that I read. The thesis was: In a family business, the
older generation wants the younger generation to be better than
i+D: (laughing) That says it all. Do you have any advice
for someone going into business with family?
JD: Do something else first-I practiced law-so you don't
always feel, and others don't feel, you got there without
i+D: With the pandemic shutdowns and the surge of traffic
on design and product websites, what's the relevance of
brick-and-mortar showrooms and the Design Center?
JD: The internet does its best work providing information. But
brick-and-mortar establishments make the transactional part
of a sale, or a contract, that much better. People are usually
intimidated by buying something by themselves, but furniture
salespersons on a retail floor create a feeling of confidence in
the customer. At the upper end of the business, because it's a big
investment, the designer becomes the salesperson, establishing
that confidence. The customer is buying the designer's experience
and talent. In order to do that, to understand how a product is
made, how it sits, how it feels, a true professional must use a
i+D: A social component is essential for any industry. But
do you think that's more so for design?
JD: It's like what the first George Bush said about looking for
" a kinder, gentler country. " It's how I feel about the design
industry: We're kinder and gentler. It's so personal. A lot of people
don't focus on furnishing their homes or offices that much, but
when they do, they realize they're spending half or two-thirds of
their days there. The designer creates a personal environment that
enhances people's experiences, an important function that isn't
i+D: I've heard that selling is really easy. Just find out
what customers want, and give it to them. Is it more
complicated than that?
JD: Much more. When you want to hire a designer, you're not
browsing, not kicking tires, you're asking someone to understand
you and how you want to live. The designer's function is to
ferret out what the customer likes-but also to show options. It
all goes back to confidence that they can spend money and rely
on a designer.
i+D: Staging events to promote business: Was that always
a part of the trade?
JD: The home furnishings business basically took off after
World War II. With the troops coming home, a good economy,
everybody could sell everything they could make. There was
a shortage. Rail cars were going all across the country from
furniture companies through the 1960s and after. People didn't
understand advertising or marketing or designers because
they didn't have to. But that changed. When I took over here,
I realized that if we didn't have good marketing, we could be
renting to dentists.
i+D - May/June 2021
i+D: What do you look for in a resume?
JD: A degree is important. For someone without a college
degree, I'd have to really delve into who they are. A degree gives
a person confidence. But someone who walks in here and wants
to be comptroller and has a degree in art history ... well.
i+D: What do you expect from colleagues?
JD: Kindness and respect. Even soliciting here for tenants,
I try very hard to get nice people so our building has a familial
atmosphere. I don't want to deal with people who are disrespectful
of others. This is a marketplace, not a real estate project.
i+D: First job when you were a kid?
JD: I went to work for my father and grandfather when I was on
spring break. I'll tell you a story: It was a Friday about 1 p.m.,
and the manager called me in and said they didn't have anything
for me to do so I could go home. I went to my grandfather, and
he told me, " No, stay until 5. " Later he told me that if you're
related to management, you get in before the others arrive and
leave after they do.
i+D: Do you travel a lot? And if so, how do you keep sane?
JD: I don't stay sane if I stay at home.
i+D: What are you reading these days?
JD: Three books at once: a history of the British East India
Company; Caste by Isabel Wilkerson; and the third is the latest
spy thriller I could find.
i+D: Paper or screen?
JD: Mainly paper. But when I travel, it's screen. I don't want to
lug the books.
i+D: When you look up from your desk, what do you see?
JD: Beautiful art on the walls-some by my grandmother, some
by my aunt, and a trompe l'œil painting given to my father by
my mother on his 50th birthday. It has all kinds of things related
to him, including his pocket watch, but without hands, because
he never knew what time it was. And one trompe l'œil painting
my wife gave me on my 50th. The center of the painting is
a child's chair that my mother, who died young, had made a
needlepoint seat for. I also see a candlestick-one of a pair
that my great-grandmother brought from Europe and we use
to celebrate holidays.
i+D: What elevates you?
JD: When I see people who are successful, despite problems
in their lives. Or when I see people who have disadvantaged
backgrounds succeeding. Seeing progress.
is the editor of the Shelter Island Reporter
and a novelist, nonfiction author, and
journalist. His work has appeared in GQ,
The Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times.
Image: Amanda Mocci
i+D - May/June 2021
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