That's the one," a man in a chalk-striped suit says, pointing toward the Brittany sofa. It looks straight out of a British gentlemen's club: dark leather, tufted back and arms, brass nail studs. "Don't you think it's a bit too masculine?" his wife asks, making a face. "Ah," she brightens. "What about this?" In a flash the sofa becomes magically reupholstered in a white Saratoga toile with soft pink roses. This one would look more at home in a Fishers Island sunroom than flanking a Lake District stone fireplace.
A few years ago the couple would have been seated in a designer showroom with their decorator, eyeing a line of sofas while flipping through a swatch book. Instead they are on the Ralph Lauren Home Web site, enjoying the easy-access world of interior design. One of the chief advantages of hiring a decorator has always been having someone else do the legwork—especially if you lived in an area where high design was hard to come by, or simply didn't have time to traipse through endless specialty shops looking for that one perfect piece. Now, with the explosion of interior-design sites on the Internet, you can easily find what you need, whether it's something as basic as a canopy bed, as esoteric as Chinese bamboo flooring, or as old-world as an Italian tabletop inlaid with marble and semiprecious stones.
It's not just the consumer who's been liberated. "For thirty years I used to pack up furniture from my shop and drive it around the country to antiques shows," says Eron Johnson, owner of Eron Johnson Antiques, an 18,000-square-foot store in Denver. "Two years ago we put up a Web site and now our entire store comes to you, whether you're in Atlanta or Argentina." Today Johnson estimates that up to 40 percent of his business comes through online sales.
One of the best and most comprehensive of these interior design sites is the stylish, user-friendly Ralph Lauren Home Web site (www.ralphlaurenhome.com). The brainchild of David Lauren, son of Ralph and presumed heir to his company, it's an excellent home-furnishings resource for people working without a decorator: It catalogues hundreds of Ralph Lauren sofas, chairs, chests, tables, wallcoverings, fabrics, paint colors, and light fixtures. In addition, each new collection is photographed and presented as a fully realized interior, helping you understand how to incorporate specific pieces into your home. For Lourdes Fanjul, who lives in Palm Beach, the best part of the site is scanning these collections for ideas—and being able to shop from home without leaving her two toddlers. She recently bought a pair of hurricane lamps and a white-lacquer coffee table from the site and is eyeing a set of blue-and-white upholstered chairs from the Jamaica collection. "I get so many ideas just browsing through the site," she says. "I go on it all the time."
Perhaps the Web site's most innovative feature is how, at the click of a mouse, you can cover your sofa of choice in any of dozens of different fabrics, then add it to your own personal online workbook. Maybe you'd like to try that chinoiserie davenport in the cream Carnegie herringbone or the red Van Wyck jacquard? If that's not right, there are 38 other linens, eight tartans, five tweeds, and a range of checks, stripes, and toiles. "It really helps clients envision what a sofa is going to look like upholstered, which has always been such a challenge," says Stephen Miller Siegel, a prominent New York architect and interior designer who recently did the home of Barry Diller. "You can show people a swatch, but it's so hard to make that visual leap unless you're in the business." And when you're done shopping for sofas, you might watch a video on setting a formal table or peruse the list of the best flower shops in Berlin or Los Angeles.
"It's an approach I call 'merchantainment'," explains David Lauren, "which is the blending of merchandising and entertainment. Take our paint, for example. We get strong marks from Consumer Reports— partly because of all the textures we offer, such as linen, denim, or chambray. But for years people would buy, say, the linen paint and then get home and realize it wasn't so easy to apply and the effect wasn't working. We wanted to educate our customers, and the Web site was the perfect way to do it." While other sites give advice on creating faux finishes (my.eisenhart.net, for instance, shows how to create a leather look), Ralph Lauren Home does it with a painstaking thoroughness, offering not only hundreds of colors but videos with step-by-step instructions on different techniques.
Lauren, 33, has always had an entrepreneurial spirit similar to his father's. He made a name for himself as the editor in chief of Swing, a magazine for "intelligent twentysomethings" that he started in 1990 while a sophomore at Duke University, distributing 10,000 copies a month from the back of his car. After graduation he sold partial ownership to Hachette Filipacchi, where it soon had a circulation of 120,000. Despite initial buzz, the magazine struggled, ultimately folding in 1998. It was then that Lauren joined Ralph Lauren Media as chief creative and marketing officer. His mandate: dreaming up the Polo Web site from scratch.
"I knew very little about technology," Lauren admits, "which was good because I asked very basic questions and insisted that everything be kept simple. Our goal from the beginning was to capture the things that inspired each season's collections." The site, he decided, would be about more than shopping. Like the company itself, it would be about luxury lifestyle and all its trappings.
With polo.com and later runway.polo.com—where you can view Ralph Lauren fashion-show footage, from daywear to couture—the company discovered a large following of people interested in looking at luxury goods online. So Lauren decided to take it one step further with the Ralph Lauren Home site, which the company launched last year. "We took a real gamble," he says. "Very few Web sites were selling such high-end things that had to do with fabrics and feeling them, like sitting in a chair and seeing if you're comfortable. But we were determined to do it the right way." In particular, Lauren wanted people to be able to experience the whole world of Ralph Lauren Home in one place.
A hallmark of the most recent collections is an increasing exploration of unusual and innovative materials. The new Clivedon collection, for instance, features round Halton end tables of Macassar ebony ($4,200) and a Strand dining table of polished rosewood on steel legs ($16,500) with a matching Crittenden rosewood credenza ($17,850). But the most surprising introduction is a sleek black-leather chair reminiscent of Breuer called the RL-CF1 ($14,000). If the name sounds more like a fighter jet than a piece of furniture, that's only appropriate, as the frame is made of carbon fiber—the same material used for Stealth Bombers and the Formula 1 racecar. The inspiration was Ralph Lauren's favorite new addition to his car collection: a limited-edition McLaren F1 made of carbon fiber. Able to go 220 miles per hour, it is the fastest street car in history. Only 100 were produced and Lauren bought two of them.
"I wanted to capture the streamlined look and quality of craftsmanship of the car," says Ralph Lauren. "What I find most exciting about the carbon-fiber chair is that it melds technology and beauty. It was interesting working with carbon fiber because it's extremely light and yet has great strength. It also has a subtle herringbone pattern that adds another dimension to the design of the chair."
Sometimes inspiration comes from a more obvious source—the world of fashion. And nowhere is that synergy more apparent than in the new Tourville line, drawn from the Ralph Lauren Spring 2003 Women's Collection. Here, Lauren takes incredibly lush couture fabrics and translates them for a new medium: the bedroom. Textiles that feel as though they were meant to be ball gowns—champagne-colored silk adorned with intricate handwork and gold beading, rich damasks in soft, bohemian French colors—become instead the decadent Odelette patchwork quilt of glistening fabrics ($25,000).
Siegel is convinced that the roots of Ralph Lauren Home have everything to do with its success. "They're still a fashion company at heart," he says, "so each season they introduce fresh ideas. They're constantly reinventing themselves, which is why they're the best in the industry." He is particularly keen on their range of fabrics. "They're so versatile," he says. "Classic enough to look at home in any setting, but modern enough to transform antiques into something more lively and current. My favorite new fabric is a glazed orange linen. They call it tangerine, but I think of it more as a persimmon. It looks just like an antique textile."
If the very thought of trying to navigate the hundreds of fabrics on your own is overwhelming, a phone number on the Web site connects you to a sales associate who can help with anything from curtain suggestions to explaining how to launder a cashmere blanket or which colors will make a room look smaller or larger. Curious about the curvaceous Beekman sofa, I called for advice on upholstering it, saying I wanted a burgundy stripe. "The question to ask yourself when looking at a fabric is, Will it conform to the shape of the sofa?" replied sales associate Suzanne Pangilinan. "I wouldn't use a stripe on this because what guarantees that the lines will stay straight after two or three years? Stripes work best on a boxy sofa with rectangular arms and no curves." She went on to counsel me about fabrics for my new nursery, explaining which colors and materials would be easiest to care for (navy-blue cotton duck).
Lauren also asked the in-house designers to help him create a city guide revealing their favorite sources for, say, Chinese artifacts in Chicago (Pagoda Red), Frank Gehry furniture in Dallas (Century Modern), or custom frames in Los Angeles (Peter's Gallery). "We are the definitive place where people look for instruction about quality living," Lauren says. "So we're going to give you all the information you could possibly need. We're happy to share our resources because in the end we're the ones who are going to show you how to pull it all together. You're going to need us."
Point, Click, Change
The beauty of www.ralphlaurenhome.com is that it enables the user to take the design sensibilities of the Ralph Lauren Home Collection and customize a piece to his or her liking. For example, the Beekman couch, designed with soft edges and plush cushions, can—at the touch of the mouse—have Edgecliff ticking, Old North corduroy, or Seawater windowpane fabric, among others. Having to visualize your upholstery from those annoying swatches is, thanks to David Lauren, a thing of the past.