Ballard Designs, a different kind of catalogue

By Terri Sapienza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2010

When it comes to home furnishings catalogues, it's often difficult to distinguish one from the next. But Atlanta-based retailer Ballard Designs (http://www.ballarddesigns.com) has steadily been making strides to set itself apart from the pack, and people are taking notice.

"They've really stepped it up," says Herndon designer Lauren Liess. "Most of my catalogues get tossed right into the recycling basket, but [Ballard's] sticks around a little longer. Their new cover looks like a magazine."

On the front of Ballard's August 2010 catalogue, four gold sunburst mirrors, loosely set against a pale pink background, introduce a line of products by Atlanta designer Suzanne Kasler. Simple, subtle and sophisticated, the catalogue looks more like a shelter publication than a mailing from a mass-market retailer.

And that's the point.

"When our customer is thinking about design, we want her to think of Ballard," says company President Ryan McKelvey. (He also says their customers are "overwhelmingly female.") "We're trying not only to be a resource for products but also for design help and inspiration."

Ballard's collaboration with Kasler -- the first of its kind for the company -- is just one move it has made recently to more closely align itself with design-minded customers. When online home decorating magazine Lonny (http://www.lonnymag.com) launched in 2009, Ballard was one of the first companies to advertise. And it has partnered with publications such as House Beautiful, Traditional Home and Southern Living to feature advice from their editors.

Ballard's aim, McKelvey says, is not only to show its products but also to give customers ideas on how to use them. "We explain what we are doing and why we are doing it."

For example, a three-page spread in the August catalogue is devoted to "Building a Bedroom." A photo of a Ballard-styled room is followed by a step-by-step breakdown on how the space was created. The same breakdowns are given for a living room, dining room and home office. On the Web site is Style Studio, a decorating resource center where customers can submit photos and get answers to design dilemmas, and read tutorials on decorating basics such as how to hang art and choose the right rug.

Atlanta resident Helen Ballard Weeks started the company in 1983 after her home won a contest and was featured in Metropolitan Home magazine. The publication received more than 500 phone calls from readers asking where to find the furniture and accessories. Seizing an opportunity, Weeks created and mailed out a direct-order, two-page, black-and-white brochure featuring a few pieces of furniture similar to her own.

Today, the company mails out 17 catalogues a year and has a circulation of 35 million. Its furniture and accessory line includes more than 4,000 items. In 1997, Ballard became a part of Cornerstone Brands, a publisher of catalogues including Frontgate, Garnet Hill and Smith & Noble. Since 2008, Cornerstone, along with Home Shopping Network, has been part of HSNi Inc.

Ballard's furniture and accessories are known for their versatility and for their modern take on classic, traditional styles. Inspiration for products comes from traveling, antiquing and flea market shopping in the United States and abroad, says McKelvey. The items are considered more timeless than trendy and, most important in these economically troubled times, affordable. Homeowners and designers say they often look to them for high style without the high price tag.

"I love Ballard," says Vienna designer Rachel James. "You can take one of their pieces and add designer trim or fabric and really make it look like a high-end piece. You can mix their pieces with flea market finds or something more expensive, like Henredon, and it would work."

But if folks in our area want to buy from Ballard Designs, they'll have to pick up the phone or go online. The company has only two storefronts, in Tampa and Jacksonville, Fla.; there are outlets in Atlanta and West Chester, Ohio.

Ballard has no plans to open more stores. But when it does, the D.C. area may be just the place.

"It's a great market for us," says McKelvey. "It would definitely be at the top of our list."


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