An Empire, Yes, but More Serene Than Martha’s

By Brook S. Mason
from the New York Times — April 28th, 2002

New York Times - An Empire, yes, but More Serene Than Martha's

RYE, N.Y. — CHRIS CASSON MADDEN is no Martha Stewart and would be the first to say so. But Ms. Madden, an interior designer whose pictorial book, “A Room of Her Own,” about personal refuge space at home, has touched a nerve among frazzled American women, is building a business empire of her own. And it is remarkably similar in structure, if not yet in size, to the one-person-brand model that Ms. Stewart created 20 years ago.

Ms. Madden is fast becoming a brand in every room of the house. Since that successful book five years ago, she has written a string of others describing how to attain a soothing, English-country look in the bedroom, living room, kitchen and bath. She has a weekly television program and a syndicated newspaper column that reach millions. She has designed interiors for Katie Couric, Toni Morrison and Oprah Winfrey.

And in the last two years, she has put her name on expensive-looking but affordable collections of comfortable furniture, cozy pillows and throws, sold in hundreds of stores from Bed Bath & Beyond to small boutiques across the country. Also part of the plan are more branded home furnishings like rugs, bedding and wallpaper, and perhaps a magazine and public stock offering of her company, Chris Madden Inc.

Ms. Stewart, whose publicly traded company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia , dwarfs Ms. Madden’s in size, declined to comment on Ms. Madden or her business. For her part, Ms. Madden, 51, a trained designer, former magazine editor and mother of two teenage boys, praised Ms. Stewart, saying, “Martha’s an incredible marketer and the end result is spectacular.”

But Ms. Madden is also quick to point out the distinctions. She is not building a business around how women should entertain family and friends or manicure gardens, but around how they should seek solace and solitude. Ms. Madden is not selling how to impress; she is selling how to decompress.

“There wasn’t anyone speaking to women’s personal needs for a sanctuary,” Ms. Madden said in her second-floor office, crammed with product samples, near the Rye train station, 25 miles northeast of Manhattan. “Nor were there affordable, durable, stylish home furnishings available to make their homes a haven.”

In 1997, that perceived vacuum led her to write “A Room of Her Own,” which described the domestic retreats of 40 American women, from Ms. Winfrey to a hermitic Roman Catholic nun.

The book has sold more than 100,000 copies and is in its 10th printing. It was the launching pad for her business, in much the same way that Ms. Stewart’s “Entertaining” was her starting point in 1982.

Whether Ms. Madden’s taste can endure as a distinctive style, of course, is unclear. And she is certainly not the only person following the path of media self-promotion and name-brand products blazed by Ms. Stewart.

The designer Christopher Lowell, for example, has a program on the Discovery Channel as well as his own product line, from sheets to paint in 49 colors in 240 Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse stores. B. Smith, once described as the black Martha Stewart, has a nationally syndicated television series on entertainment, crafts and design, shown in 187 markets nationwide, as well as a bedding and bath line at Bed Bath & Beyond. But her B. Smith Style magazine ceased publication two years ago.

Chris Madden’s revenue is small — $2 million last year, much of it in licensing fees for the more than 160 products sold with her name on them. But sales of those products in stores are expected to reach $76 million this year, compared with $62 million in 2001, said Ms. Madden’s husband, Kevin Madden, 63, who is chief executive of of the company. (Ms. Madden is president.) The Maddens wouldn’t specify the company’s profits but said they were in the low six figures.

Sales of her collections for Bassett Furniture, the country’s sixth-largest furniture maker, have more than doubled since their introduction in 2000. Her living room sets, with middle-market prices like $1,200 for a sofa, are Bassett’s largest-selling collection. Her line of baby furniture for Babies “R” Us hit stores in February; in the second week, the cribs sold out. In March, her Sanctuary collection line of decorative throws and pillows, inspired by “Room of Her Own,” were introduced in 200 Bed Bath & Beyond stores. Her candles, some weighing up to 15 pounds and ranging from $30 to $100, are featured in 600 boutiques and gift shops. In June, Mohawk, a leading maker of carpeting, will introduce her rug collection.

All of Ms. Madden’s consumer goods are linked in ambience, palette and quality. Her furniture’s dark wood tones, muted Scottish plaids and English cabbage rose patterns are meant to convey a haven from stress. They are also meant to appeal to a broad market. Her $24.99 pillows, for example, are not stuffed with down and covered in Irish linen; they are polyester, covered in synthetic fabrics.

Ms. Madden’s design tastes — and some of her products — can be found in her books, which so far have generated $1.3 million in sales. She just turned in her 15th book, “New American Living Rooms,” to Clarkson Potter — which is also the publisher of Mr. Lowell’s and Ms. Stewart’s books.

“Chris truly understands the harried lives women lead, and she touches a really wide audience,” said Lauren Shakeley, editor in chief of Clarkson Potter.

The books follow a formula: photographs of homes of both ordinary people and the famous, with commentary by Ms. Madden. Some become the focus of her television show and newspaper column.

Virginia Powers, general manager of Olsson’s, a bookstore chain based in Washington, said sales of Ms. Madden’s books were second to Ms. Stewart’s in the lifestyle category. “Of all the lifestyle books, Madden has carved out a special niche for modern women who want their surroundings to be beautiful but reflective of themselves,” Ms. Powers said.

Susan Fournier, a Harvard Business School professor who teaches brand marketing, said Ms. Madden had shown that Ms. Stewart’s formula could be replicated. “There is a compelling story behind the Martha model in which the media content brings the products and catalogs to life, thereby driving the sales,” she said.

Melody Mitchem, a mother of two in Cedar Hill, Tex., a Dallas suburb, is a typical Chris Madden customer. For her, it was only a short leap from watching the television program to buying the bedroom and dining room sets, chaise longue and marble-topped dresser. Ms. Mitchem said it was “the details like carved magnolia blossoms on the bedpost finials and the cedar-lined drawers that set Chris Madden’s furniture apart.”

“The furniture looks far more expensive,” she said.

Retailers, too, cite Ms. Madden’s attention to detail. “It’s the special touches, like a key with an elegant tassel and the parchment-lined drawers, that make her furniture a great value and standout,” said Christa Cavanah, a buyer for Macy’s West in San Francisco.

To grow further, however, Ms. Madden’s business may need far more than just home furnishings. Branded furniture is hardly novel these days. “With more and more so-called celebrities from designers Bob Mackie and Jessica McClintock to model Kathy Ireland lending their name to home furnishings lines at every price level, the field is now becoming crowded,” said Pamela Singleton, a home furnishings industry analyst at Merrill Lynch .

Ms. Madden faces another risk in the furniture business — the whim of fashion. “Consumers’ taste can be fickle, and sometimes a furniture line can literally bomb, not only losing millions of dollars but also negatively impacting on the designer’s entire brand,” said Carl Levine, a licensing consultant in New York.

Despite her background, Ms. Madden does not describe herself as a designer. One of nine children from an Irish family, she won a scholarship to the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, where she studied fashion design. She went on to work in the publicity departments of Random House, G. P. Putnam & Sons and Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Mr. Madden said he saw “a glimmer of an I.P.O.” ahead, but the Maddens have hired no advisers. At the same time, they are selective about potential business partners. They turned down an opportunity for Ms. Madden to be a spokeswoman for G.E. Lighting, for example, as the Maddens set their sights on furniture.

Ms. Madden, of course, lacks the scale of media exposure achieved by Ms. Stewart, who has 34 books with more than 10 million copies sold, programs on CBS and cable, and a monthly magazine, Martha Stewart Living, with a circulation of 2.4 million.

Ms. Fournier, the Harvard professor, said the Maddens need “a high-profile magazine so their content messages are going out more regularly.”

The Maddens agree. “A regular magazine would be a powerful tool to drive sales,” Mr. Madden said. If the Maddens decide to start one, they have the backgrounds for it. Ms. Madden was an editor at Departures, an American Express card-holder magazine, and Ladies Home Journal; her husband is a former Condé Nast publisher of Self, House & Garden and Bon Appetit.

The Maddens share another similarity with Ms. Stewart: their homes and office serve as design laboratories. But everything is on a considerably smaller scale. Ms. Stewart runs a major headquarters in Manhattan with 150,000 square feet of prime real estate, a vast home compound in Connecticut, a coastal estate in Maine and a staff of hundreds. The Maddens content themselves with an 11-room home here and a newly acquired ski house in Vermont. The office has a staff of four, and no one holds an M.B.A. degree, much less expertise in licensing or corporate finance. “We rely on our instincts,” Mr. Madden said.