‘Furniture is a fashion business’

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Bernhardt has outlived multiple world wars and economic turmoil, and even produced its own currency during the Great Depression—and is still going strong today. Founded by John Mathias Bernhardt in 1889 in Lenoir, North Carolina, the company started out as a commercial bedroom furniture maker and has since grown into a high-end design company. Alex Bernhardt Jr., the founder’s great-grandson, never expected he’d join the family business until a crossroads in his real estate career led him to finally jump on board in the mid-1990s. Like all the Bernhardts who led the company before him, he started out working every production job in the factory. “It was incredibly valuable for me to understand how those guys in the plant felt about life, about jobs and the creation of furniture—and how to actually put the stuff together,” he tells host Dennis Scully on the latest episode of The Business of Home Podcast. “Certainly, as I’ve gotten more involved in the furniture design, that experience of being hands-on, making things in the factory, has always stayed with me.”

Since 2009, Bernhardt Jr. has served as president and CEO, leading the company away from its roots in the commercial market by embracing interior designers. “[Originally], we really didn’t welcome everybody to our showroom,” he says. Opening its doors to more of the industry required the brand to add more capacity for product development, increase its customization capabilities and enhance departments that handle customer service and shipping. “[Interior designers] allow us to push the design so much more than if we were just selling to department stores and retailers,” he says. “The interior design world is the ultimate aspirational stakeholder we work with.”

Elsewhere in the episode, Bernhardt Jr. discusses what it’s like to collaborate with RH, why he’s not stressed by dupes, and why furniture is, above all, a fashion industry.

Crucial insight: Since Bernhardt Jr. took over the helm of the company, he has shifted the focus to creating an identifiable look for the company’s designs instead of taking a generalist approach. “Watching a number of retailers, both in furniture and ready-to-wear, I saw that the best thing we could do to establish a brand is to be associated with a specific aesthetic. So rightly [or] wrongly, I started chipping away things that we would not do and certain looks we would not have,” he says. “We’re very dialed into aesthetics in all our product categories, [which have] an organic, modern, minimalist feel, and that’s the lens that everything has to be seen through.”

Key quote: “We don’t talk a lot about our heritage in our advertising. Every time we would hire a new advertising [agency], they’d go, ‘Oh, you have a unique position [on] craftsmanship, the age, the history—you need to be selling this for all it’s worth.’ And I’d say to them, ‘This is a fashion industry.’ Yes, that type of heritage is very important to have as a basis for consumer trust, but if that’s the main thing you’re selling, it’s just not a great model to inspire people,” he says. “They want to be inspired by what they see, and if we tied ourselves to just talking about our heritage and craftsmanship, I think we would miss out on the new consumer who’s much more interested in the specific aesthetic of the lifestyle that we’re driving to.”

This episode is sponsored by Loloi. Listen to the show below. If you like what you hear, subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

BOH executive editor Fred Nicolaus and host Dennis Scully discuss the biggest news in the design industry, including supply chain snarls that some are calling “Covid Junior,” out-of-control home prices and the future of the family decorator. Later, designer Rosemary Hallgarten and Thibaut CEO Rick Kilmer join the show to talk about the deal that will see their companies join forces.

Listen to the show below. If you like what you hear, subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.


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