In 1953, architect Ben Thompson opened a shop on Brattle Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, called Design Research. Thompson, an original member of Walter Gropius’s The Architects Collaborative, was intent on showcasing (and selling) the best design products from around the world. For years, he did just that and then some: Design Research is credited with introducing Marimekko to the United States, as well as becoming one of the first importers of modern Scandinavian design. The store closed in 1979, but many employees went on to make names for themselves; all of them, including product designers Lu Wendel Lyndon and Maynard Hale Lyndon, of LyndonDesignStudio, point to Design Research as one of their first sources of inspiration.
The two met and fell in love in 1971 while working for the company—Lu as the assistant merchandising manager and Maynard as the manager of the Beverly Hills store—and married in 1980. After leaving Design Research in 1973, the couple opened Placewares in Concord, Massachusetts, a store dedicated to “wares for your place—from chairs to plates to hooks, hangers, desks, and clocks,” as Maynard explains. “This is also when we began to design a lot of our own products.” After nearly 30 years of running Placewares—expanding it to a seven-store empire with a thriving catalog business—and splitting their time between Massachusetts and their new home in The Sea Ranch, California, they decided to call it quits in 2004.
On a recent visit, however, I quickly learned that you can take the couple out of the store, but you can’t take the store out of the couple. “After a year of just designing, we decided we needed that interaction with the people who were using our products,” Lu says. And so the couple has opened a single Placewares store in Gualala, California, about eight miles from their home. A rainy afternoon spent with the two turned out to be an education on the finer points of product design, retail history, and lives well lived.
Lu: Necessity is the mother of invention. Something that has always stuck with me from Design Research is what was written in one of their catalogs. It says, “Welcome to Design Research and the DR look. DR won’t sell it unless it looks and lives beautifully. We don’t care how much it costs. That’s why in this catalog you’ll find designs that cost only 75 cents, you’ll also find some that are close to $1500. DR was originally founded by architects for architects, to do exactly what our name implies, to work on the forward edge of new concepts, styles, and materials. We thought that there must be designs that were as livable as they are beautiful, and we were right. Our buyers continue to subject each new design to the same rigorous criteria. It must be beautiful, it must work and be functional, and it must be both timely and timeless.” Forty years later, that’s still an apt statement.