Destination Design: The high-end home furnishings on Georgetown’s Cady’s Alley

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of German kitchen studio Bulthaup. This version has been corrected.

September 25, 2013

The most stylish back street in Georgetown is Cady’s Alley, a hidden byway paved with granite Belgian blocks and lined with high-end design shops.

Once a dicey 19th-century passageway whose bedraggled residents took in laundry from prosperous Washingtonians, the urban alley is now home to what is sometimes called the Georgetown Design District. You can pick up a $9,704 Thomas Pheasant ivory linen Max sofa at Baker Furniture; snag a $99 Restore felt basket by Finnish designer Mika Tolvanen from Design Within Reach; or spend hours (and many tens of thousands of dollars) selecting trophy kitchen components from one of four custom kitchen studios, two German (Bulthaup and Poggenpohl) and two Italian (Boffi-Maxalto and Pedini).

The home furnishings stores on Cady’s Alley carry mainly high-end merchandise. Some don’t even display price tags. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy looking around if you don’t carry an American Express platinum card in your wallet. Soaking up good design in a charming location is fun.

Designer Rosemarie Howe, who lives in the neighborhood, is a regular. “You kind of feel like you’re on a mini-vacation in Spain or Istanbul when you’re sitting in that courtyard,” Howe says. “Even if it’s not in your price range, it broadens your mind to see all of this design in one place, almost like going to a gallery or museum. You should not be intimidated.”

Many of the historic brick buildings between 33rd and 34th streets that make up Cady’s Alley were artfully renovated about 15 years ago with modern touches of steel and glass to become a 120,000-square-foot retail and residential development. The pedestrian-friendly block, with its cascading baskets of flowers and cafe umbrellas, attracts shoppers looking for a bit of Milan or Paris style in buttoned-up Washington, as well as designers and architects.

“This is a very European-style part of town,” says Deborah Kalkstein, owner of Contemporaria (3303 Cady’s Alley NW), which sells top-of-the-line modern European furniture from firms such as Minotti, Molteni and Vitra. She also carries housewares by Italian maker Alessi. “We are a small community of retailers tucked away from the craziness of the rest of Georgetown.” Washingtonians go to her shop for iconic modern furniture, including Philippe Starck’s Kartell Louis Ghost chairs ($410).

It was about 15 years ago that Anthony Lanier, president of EastBanc, which owns and manages Cady’s Alley with partner Jamestown Properties, decided to create a design district open not just to the trade, but also to regular consumers. Lanier began buying buildings between 33rd and 34th streets on the south side of M Street NW and on both sides of the neglected alley in back. Historical records show the original name of the alley coming from the Keady family, which owned a saloon there in the late 1800s.

The economy and changing tastes have modified the makeup of Cady’s Alley over the years. A number of retailers have come and gone, including Gore Dean, Ann Sacks, Yves Delorme, Thos. Moser and Hollis & Knight. The contemporary lighting store Illuminations is closing at the end of the month and consolidating into its Penn Quarter location. (The moving sale ends Monday, so you still have a few days.)

Random Harvest Studio, which sold mid-priced modern furniture, closed in 2007 at the beginning of the recession as consumer spending was declining. “Some stores have really found their niche there, but unfortunately it wasn’t the right fit for me,” says Beth Aberg, the owner of the shop, who still operates four local Random Harvest stores. “I still love walking around Cady’s Alley and am glad that there are still furniture stores there, although they’ve been invaded a bit by apparel shops.”

More clothing boutiques do seem to be popping up, joining longtime tenant Relish (3312 Cady’s Alley NW), where a Cedric Charlier yellow leather pencil skirt will set you back $725. Recent additions include Bonobos Guideshop (3320 Cady’s Alley NW) and Intermix (3300 M St. NW). “We’re always looking for new retailers,” Lanier says. “We like to bring in an interesting crowd.”

If you’ve reached your luxury limit but still have time left on your parking meter, check out some more moderately priced design stores within a block or two of Cady’s Alley. Choices include West Elm, CB2 and Flor. If you prefer to shop for home furnishings while pushing a grocery cart, head over to Georgetown’s new T.J. Maxx/HomeGoods at 3222 M St. NW.

RETAIL HIGHLIGHTS

Baker Furniture (3330 M St. NW)

In 1998, Baker was the first store to open in the Cady’s Alley complex. Baker is known for its high-end upholstery, dining tables and chairs and other furniture made with classic styling and attention to detail. Sofas start at about $3,200. The stable of designers who create pieces for Baker includes Washington’s own Thomas Pheasant and Michael S. Smith, who has decorated for the Obamas at the White House. Floor sample sales are held in January and July, but you can always find samples and closeouts at www.bakeroddsandends.com.

Steven Alan (3319 M St. NW)

Last week, New York designer Steven Alan opened his first Washington store here to sell clothing that’s a little bit preppy and a little bit cool, as well as globally sourced home furnishings. Alan has 21 stores, including the first Steven Alan Home Shop, which opened this year in TriBeCa. His home products include handmade Australian noodle bowls ($46) and woven linen beach blankets ($48).

Waterworks (3314 M St. NW)

The luxury bathroom fixtures and fittings here are arranged as though they were in a jewelry store. The deep cast iron tubs and polished marble vanities are reminiscent of lavish Edwardian lavatories. Think Downton Abbey. But then there are more modern inspirations. You’ll find Waterworks designs in the homes of celebs; John Legend installed them in his place in the Hollywood Hills. The starting price for chrome bathroom faucets is about $1,200. Two years ago, the company launched a Waterworks Studio line, a smaller, streamlined collection with lower prices: A bathroom faucet set starts at $600.

HIDDEN GEM:

Don’t be afraid to enter Janus & Cie (3304 M St. NW), although the scale of much of its glamourous indoor-outdoor furniture seems to be tailored toward seaside mansions in Santa Barbara. Seek out the secret garden inside the showroom that’s lined with faux boxwood hedge walls and try out a chair. The company specializes in making high-end weather-resistant furniture, including the very sleek $5,300 Amalfi Tuxedo sofa, piled with pillows and bolsters that can all be left out in the rain.

BEST DEAL

Luxury comes in all price ranges. At Waterworks, the front of the store stocks elegant and functional accessories for the bath that more of us can afford. You can pick up a Waterworks hand soap in the Fresh Linen scent ($7) or splurge on Italian-made Marvis Aquatic Mint toothpaste ($12) that’s a staple in Tuscan villas.

GRAB A BITE

Kafe Leopold + Konditorei (3315 M St. N.W.) has an Austrian vibe. Coffee or schnitzel is best savored at outdoor tables overlooking the alley. Stroll across a charming little bridge over the canal at the end of 34th Street NW and discover French cafe and bakery Malmaison (3401 K St. NW). This new venture, in a former warehouse with garage-style doors that roll up, is perfect for a quick salad or a macchiato and opera cake.

SPECIAL EVENTS

Cady’s Alley will be part of a new FAD Georgetown (fashion, art and design) celebration to be held Oct. 10-12. The event, sponsored by the Georgetown Business Improvement District and local stores, includes gallery openings, design workshops and special store hours.

HOURS

Cady’s Alley shops set their own hours; some are closed Sundays or Mondays. Check before you go. Find a list of stores and hours at www.cadysalley.com.

PARKING

You can usually grab a metered parking spot on one of the surrounding streets. For more parking venues, check out www.georgetowndc.com/parking.

The home and design coverage of Jura Koncius has taken her inside hundreds of homes, from tiny studios in Penn Quarter to country castles in Warrenton. Jura also hosts the Home Front live chat, Thursdays at 11 a.m. ET.
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