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Economy and Business

Will Cleveland be the "Milan of the Midwest"?
Cleveland Furniture and Millwork Fair held in Halle building

Kabir Bhatia
The District of Design includes the intersection of Euclid Avenue, Huron Road and East 13th Street
Courtesy of Heidi Weber
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In The Region:
Like any great design, Cleveland's District of Design has emerged in fits and starts over the last 4 years.
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The two men piloting this vision are Dan Cuffaro, head of the Industrial Design Department at the Cleveland Institute of Art, and Ned Hill, dean of Cleveland State University’s College of Urban Affairs. 

When they proposed the District of Design in 2006, empty storefronts dotted the Euclid Corridor near Playhouse Square.  They still do.  Cuffaro and Hill had letters of intent from companies like KraftMaid and Royal Appliance to open showrooms in the district, but the economic slump delayed those plans.

So instead of banking on big business, they approached a booming but hidden industry that’s been here the whole time: Amish furniture makers.  The Amish were originally one spoke in a wheel that included companies like Saeco and Little Tykes.  Now they’ve come to dominate the District of Design’s plans, as Ned Hill explained in what was once a display window for Halle’s Department store.

"We’ve continued to work with the Hardwood Furniture Builders’ Guild for the past three years, maintaining contact.  And they came to us last summer, and they said ‘can you help take us global?’  We have a 300 million dollar a year, completely invisible, near-heirloom quality furniture industry.  That nobody gets.  They think its wood hand-chewed by beavers, put together for country kitchens.  But take that same quality into a different look and feel, and you can open up new markets."

Last month, they held the first Cleveland Furniture and Millwork Fair in the Halle Building.  Wholesale buyers and the public were invited to view wares from the Amish.  Rarely has a religion leveraged itself into a brand, but the Amish have done it with handcrafted wood furniture.  Hill says that, to remain competitive, the Amish must combine their craftsmanship with more modern aesthetics, courtesy of Cleveland’s design talent.  Cuffaro’s vision to make Cleveland the "Milan of the Midwest" hinges on combinations such as this one.

"There’s a design culture here, it’s progressive… there are interesting, innovative ideas happening… It’s about quality of life, about making staying-in-Cleveland a viable choice."

Cuffaro says “staying in Cleveland,” even for a few nights, will be enticing for buyers from the institutional sector.  Amenities like shopping, nightlife and hotels are plentiful in the Playhouse Square area, and he hopes buyers will see a show or dine out before browsing for goods.

"The location’s great, both in terms of the type of space available, we have hotels, we have restaurants, there’s entertainment here, so it’s a really great mix that illustrates the kind of dynamic we’re trying to create."

That dynamic is supposed to unite designers of household appliances, toys, furniture and even fashion with architects, photographers and consultants, marketing, distribution and support services in the 24-block area from East 9th to East 35th streets.

Stefanie Kauffman is owner of 55 West, an eclectic home décor boutique in Millersburg.  She’s says her furniture-making Amish neighbors were mostly pleased to make contact with the designers in Cleveland.

"The folks that are usually positive thinkers had positive things to say, and vice-versa.  There’s maybe been a stereotypical sense of what Amish furniture is, oak with a honey finish.  So a lot of these guys are really focusing on improving their design and producing something that’s beautiful and practical and serves its purpose."

Hill says renewed attention to aesthetics will even help the Amish compete with IKEA, the company that serves as a model for the District of Design as a whole.

"Our goal is to put together enough companies with the showrooms, so we can just blow IKEA out of the water.  IKEA, wonderful design, terrific shopping experience, love the meatballs, don’t love the quality.  If everyone thinks this is one small pie, and they’re fighting for it, you’ve got slivers of the pie.  Now we got ‘em in a baking contest."

If the District of Design is a pie, Northeast Ohio is hoping it won’t cool any time soon.

Related WKSU Stories

Design District in downtown Cleveland seeks to redesign the city's image
Monday, September 22, 2008

Listener Comments:

Ha, what a joke. Cleveland is the armpit of the nation. Chicago is the real "Milan of the midwest"

Posted by: Pffft (Chicago) on March 6, 2013 2:03AM
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