RH’s New Home at U Village Makes High Design More Accessible to Young Seattle

Posted on November 30, 2016, 1:10 pm
9 mins


Restoration Hardware has undergone a major shift in its brand in recent years. It still produces its classic furnishings, but with the introduction of the RH Modern, it has expanded its aesthetic and therefore its audience. A number of new, gallery-style retail spaces have popped up in cities around the country, and the latest just opened this month in Seattle’s University Village.

This isn’t just about optics, though. Behind this shift in presentation is a honing of the RH mission that helps consumers really think about design in earnest, and empowers artisans and artists to work at a scale they couldn’t before. The RH brand is now not just a design line, but a design platform.

Walking into the space, one immediately notices how it more closely resembles an opulent residence, rather than a showroom. Its multiple floors are organized according to specific products, but each one has a large central space that creates a sense of harmony with its symmetrical layout. Moving through the adjacent smaller rooms, one can easily imagine how these layouts might fit into one’s own residence and make it feel more like a home.

That’s a critical thing in Seattle. The Pacific Northwest has no shortage of high design objects, from local artisans and international firms alike. Even after many showrooms went dark during the 2009 recession, some dealers have carried on and local designer-makers have worked directly with a savvy clientele.

Unfortunately, for many newcomers to Seattle, it can be difficult to know where to look, or even how to start putting together a cohesive design in their own home. The desire and the budget may be there, but for lack of imagination or savvy, many never seem to get around to it.

RH Seattle’s format makes it easy for visitors to immerse themselves in a space and sort of try things on. Those working with an interior designer of their own choosing will be able to refine their choices. For those who want a designer’s assistance, there are also resident and partnered designers on hand to navigate the process.

That process is also streamlined through RH’s Atelier model, which allows one to peruse samples of textiles and materials for custom orders according to one’s desired palette. RH has typically been known for its muted color schemes, and that hasn’t changed much, but especially in RH Modern, one sees more pops of color emerging.

The same can be said superficially of the fine art selections that RH Seattle, The Gallery at University Village offers. Just as the company has started partnering with a wider array of designers, in 2013 it also launched its RH Contemporary Art platform. In addition to holding exhibitions at its flagship space in New York City, RH Contemporary Art works directly with national and international artists to place work among the decor.

Hanging work among decor isn’t a new concept in high-end showrooms, but there is an extra polish—and uniformity—to the arrangements at RH Seattle. Seeing art presented this way in a retail space will be a new experience for many visitors and first-time art buyers. Certainly, there are many people out there who want art in their home, but who are intimidated by the process of buying it, or even walking into a gallery. I can see someone growing more at ease with buying artwork through the experience at RH Seattle and by working with designers there. It may be what gets some buyers to really start venturing into the broader art world.

RH has already made a splash in the art world, thanks to the “Rain Room” that it commissioned from collaborative studio Random International. After debuting at MoMA, “Rain Room” went on for an extended stay at LACMA, where it is in its final (seriously this time) extension. Tickets to “Rain Room” have sold out months and weeks in advance, so let this also be a reminder that you have until January 22, 2017 to buy a ticket (from the limited slots remaining) if you want to see it in Los Angeles.

At present, one won’t find explicit or provocative work in RH Seattle, The Gallery at University Village. You’ll see a lot of sumi, ink wash and monochrome paintings that aren’t high on content, but are visually striking. I was especially fond of ink paintings by Jonathan Chang and Daniel Diaz Tai. There isn’t a set schedule yet for when the represented artists here in Seattle will change. One can expect to see some new things come through in 2017, though, and this may include local artists.

RH Seattle, The Gallery at University Village

The space does not just invite repeat visits from customers. The rooftop terrace is intended as public space where people can bring their coffee and laptops and work al fresco. The central garden is open to the air and will be especially gorgeous in fairer weather, but there is no need to wait for spring to enjoy the terrace. The horseshoe-shaped perimeter around this central garden is sheltered against the elements.

On all levels, RH is making design and art more accessible without sacrificing quality. It is aspirational, but never snobbish. On my walk through of the space before the official opening, I was struck by how upbeat the staff were. It wasn’t just the excitement of the impending opening. They had been trained to embody the ethos of the space of itself, which is one of welcome. That’s something that one doesn’t often feel in showrooms or in many galleries, and it is hopefully what people will want for their own homes.

In short, the RH rebrand is not a superficial rearrangement, but something that goes deeper. As a critic, I have to be a skeptic, but even I can’t help but sense that RH’s leadership doesn’t just want to do more business, but also better business. This is also reflected in RH’s professed commitment to manufacturing as responsibly and sustainably as possible, and empowering designer-makers to seek solutions in that realm for themselves, too.

I could go on about my favorite pieces in the RH collection, about how dazzling the helix chandeliers in the grand staircase were, especially reflected in the dozens of mirrors that cover the walls. I could talk about how nicely the architecture speaks to our own native design sensibilities and floods the space with cool, natural light. But all of these things are best experienced in person, as is the general atmosphere which one can only hint at, never fully convey.

Whether you are a design aficionado or just ready to graduate from your umlauted IKEA sectional, you are bound to have a memorable experience at RH Seattle. For some, it may even be a transformative experience. And if enough people are inspired by RH’s model, it may transform how people approach design here in Seattle and beyond.

Check out images from the pre-opening party of RH Seattle below.

RH Seattle, The Pre-Opening Party

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.