Destination by design: Greenwich creative hub is open for some more company

Suzanne Blum recalls the customer whose travels on a mid-May day took her from Boston to Greenwich and through the doors of the Waterworks showroom. After soaking in the scene for a spell at the bathroom and kitchen design store, the woman headed for the door - but not before asking for advice.

“She said to me, ‘Now that I have been here, before I go back, what do you suggest that I do, where do I go. I just want to get inspired,’” Blum says of the exchange.

It was relatively easy to direct her. Blum, who is the store’s general manager, merely advised her to head out the door and start walking. Putnam Avenue, where Waterworks is located (23 W. Putnam to be exact), has a string of home furnishing and design stores, all within a short distance of one another (not to mention art galleries, bakeries, coffee shops and restaurants). “I gave her some places to stop, but I said, really, you can just go up and down the street and find some very interesting shops. She left excited.”

Since October, more than a dozen stores, offering custom furniture, designer lighting, art, wallcoverings and décor, have come together under the banner of the Greenwich Design District. Organized by Darien-based public relations firm Images & Details, it helped to answer the question of how to trade those clicks on a mouse for heels on the pavement.

“I have seen that area become more densely populated with design-related businesses. I thought they needed to pool together to help each other, as well as become a destination for consumers and design professionals,” says Beth Dempsey, president and founder of the firm.

The idea of an interior design center is not new. The New York Design Center and the Decoration and Design “D&D” Building in New York City have served the trade-only business and consumers for decades, as has La Cienega Design Quarter in Los Angeles. The San Francisco Design Center started in the early 1970s. The Miami Design District and the Chelsea Design Quarter in London arrived more recently.

In the past several years, however, design districts have popped up in smaller cities and suburban communities, such as the one that opened up in Philadelphia in April, the Sarasota (Fla.) Design District in 2014 and Stamford’s Waterside Design District in 2016. There are others in West Hartford, Nashville and Washington D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood. Most mix national and international brands with local boutiques and services.

“Greater interest in interior design is being driven largely by social media and online content, which is fueling a higher demand for design services and products,” says Cheryl Durst, the executive vice president and CEO of International Interior Design Association. “More people are seeking out sources and information that help them express individual design preferences and inspire their own unique sense of place.”

Homeowners-turned-design enthusiasts, she says, want to work with interior designers and invest the time and money. “The proliferation of design districts across the country is a response to this new wave of interest.”

Real-life browsing also provides a more tactile experience. Go ahead and run your hand over plush towels or blankets, turn the handle on a faucet, or nudge that bar cart and see how it moves.

“For people who love design, it’s an excuse to get out of the house, meet people and be inspired,” says Amy Crain, who runs Home, with her husband Shawn Miller, at 36 E. Putnam, which is full of custom furniture and lighting from Apparatus, Bocci, Lindsey Adelman and others. “It gives you fresh eyes. You see things you have never seen before. It leaves you inspired.”

Everyone is welcome to walk in to Putnam & Mason (34 E. Putnam), a design atelier located next to Home. Launched a year ago by New York designers Kim Alessi and Robert Passal, it provides a sophisticated, cosmopolitan feel to the leafy, tree-lined avenue. The showroom more resembles a sophisticated city abode than a store.

“We all do things a bit differently, and I feel the others can fill in the gaps that we can’t fulfill,” Alessi says, adding that she also benefits from popping in on her neighbors when time allows.

Since forming, the group has hosted several events that brought in top names in design for talks and presentations. The district is poised to expand its visibility with a new website and efforts to market it as a destination - a reflection of how the interior design industry has shifted.

“Professional interior designers — those specializing in both residential and commercial applications — have long had access to trade-only resources housed within design centers. This movement toward the democratization of design has expanded selection and purchasing opportunities and is providing greater access to interior sources among professional designers as well as homeowners,” Durst says.

The district’s future is its evolution as a resource and point of reference for designers, design watchers and visitors simply out for a stroll.

“It goes beyond seeing this as a commercial destination, but also a leisure destination for fans of creative entertainment,” says Dominique Mason, a sales associate at Waterworks and liaison for the district. “Over time, we would like our design district to be considered a go-to alternative to the city, but also simply as a place to have fun, a place to learn, and an area that can create buzz and excitement.”;

Twitter: @xtinahennessy