The New York Times:
High-End Design in a Low-Profile Area

By Stacey Stowe

AT first, inconvenience spurred Nancy Zwiener and Richard L. Ott to open a design center in an old factory building on the fringe of Hartford’s Latino neighborhood: they were tired of traveling to Boston or New York.

Richard Ott and Nancy Zwiener in DesignSourceCT, the showroom they opened in a former factory building on Park Street in Hartford.

Richard Ott and Nancy Zwiener in DesignSourceCT, the showroom they opened in a former factory building on Park Street in Hartford.

Ms. Zwiener has redecorated 10 homes for her own family throughout the United States in the past 28 years, and she was a pro at navigating the floors of the D&D Building in New York and the Boston Design Center with Mr. Ott, whom she has hired to decorate her homes for the past dozen years.

But both had grown weary of the two-hour drive in either direction from Hartford to decorate both her main residence here and the family summer house in the Katama section of Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard, and they believed they had the backgrounds to make a success of a design center in Hartford.

About four years ago, as the youngest of her four children was approaching middle school, Ms. Zwiener and Mr. Ott began considering their own design showroom.

“I love beautiful things, and I love the hunt,” Ms. Zwiener said. “Richard has the professional design experience. My background is suitable for marketing and pricing.”

Thus, the birth of DesignSourceCT, a 20,000-square-foot showroom that opened on Aug. 8. Conceived as one-stop shopping for home design, the center has wares that include furniture, lighting, accessories and carpets by manufacturers that grace the pages of shelter magazines. Custom upholstery, drapery and framing are also offered.

Call it industrial chic with a dose of Zen. The interior is almost entirely concrete, from the stained concrete floors to the massive pillars to the 20-foot-high ceiling. Sunlight filters through the west side of the building, supplemented by track lighting. Metal ceiling fans whir overhead, stirring white linen panels affixed to columns. The panels function as dividers, creating salonlike settings or rooms arranged show-house style.

Like the showrooms in Boston and New York, the business is “to the trade,” which means it serves designers and architects with tax identification numbers and trade references. The public can tour the building, but they can buy only through professional designers.

All goods are sold at “designer net” prices; the showroom buys at wholesale and sells at a slight markup to the designer, who can set whatever price he or she wants in selling to clients, Ms. Zwiener explained.

The showroom also functions as a kind of design library, where designers and their clients can peruse books or sheet-size samples from fabric manufacturers like Brunschwig & Fils, Old World Weavers, Scalamandré and Cowtan & Tout.

Furniture, which is selected at seasonal shows in High Point, N.C., a major manufacturing center, includes the Swain, Knoll and Leathercraft lines. There are boutique-line accessories like a table of custom-painted wooden salad bowls by Chilmark Market of Martha’s Vineyard. Computer access, a design library and color copiers are also available.

“We’ve been pleased – thrilled – with the willingness of designers to come on board,” said Mr. Ott, 48, who maintains private clients through Richard Ott Interior Spaces. “It speaks to the caliber of the showroom and its sophistication.”

The showroom at 1429 Park Street sits just off Exit 46 of Interstate 84 amid a knot of businesses housed in former factories, including Lyman Kitchens and R. L. Fischer, a home accessories and custom sewing store.

This neighborhood, known as Parkville, skirts the city’s most vibrant Latino enclave, with markets, cafes and restaurants, including some offering Vietnamese, Thai and Portuguese fare. Real Art Ways, a gallery and cinema, sits around the corner, and the Wadsworth Atheneum, the art museum, is 10 minutes away.

This site is a hulking 100-year-old former boiler factory owned by Carlos Mouta and a few business partners. Their company, which owns a number of buildings in the Hartford region, performed most of the heavy restoration work.

“It was raw, a mess,” Mr. Ott said with a laugh and grimace at their initial viewing in the spring of 2004. Ms. Zwiener, 50, added: “But we walked in the door and said, ‘This is it.’ We just knew.”

The first thing they did was replace glass block with tall windows to open up to the neighborhood, install rugby striped green awnings and add other entrances on the north and west sides of the building.

Each of the five floors covers 40,000 square feet. The first three are zoned for wholesale, retailing or office use; the top two, which feature panoramic views of the city, are being reserved for loft apartments.

DesignSourceCT has half the first floor. The remaining 20,000 square feet there is expected to have a wedding center, complete with gowns, a tea shop and event consultation, as well as a 2,500-square-foot rug showroom and a design consignment shop.

Mr. Ott lives a few miles away in West Hartford. But Ms. Zwiener, a graduate of Duke with an M.B.A. from the University of Pittsburgh who worked in financial management for the Ford Motor Company in Detroit before her children were born, lives in the city’s west end, its most affluent and best-preserved neighborhood. Her 1929 brick Georgian sits a block away from funky Queen Anne and Arts and Crafts style houses.

She and David, her husband of 28 years, the president and chief operating officer of worldwide property-casualty operations for the Hartford Financial Services Group, moved here five years ago from a secluded development in Farmington, a nearby suburb.

Moving to Hartford and locating a business here were deliberate decisions. “I believe in Hartford,” Ms. Zwiener said. “The people who live here with fine homes deserve to have the access to these kinds of things.”

In opening a business devoted to prosperous, style-conscious clientele, Ms. Zwiener and Mr. Ott are gambling that a revival is in the works in Hartford. But the city has a long way to go. Its 124,000 residents, many of them black or Latino, are among the nation’s poorest. More than 30 percent live in poverty and less than 25 percent of the homes are owner-occupied, according to the United States census.

Still, a state-financed $1 billion downtown revitalization is in full swing, with the recent opening of a convention center. Developers are looking to lure empty nesters and young professionals to city apartments.

Mr. Ott and Ms. Zwiener are determined to play a part in the revival. They hired a local shop to make their signs and a local artist to create murals in their front lobby. They are selling tickets to their opening cocktail party on Nov. 11 for $25 each as a fund-raiser for the Boys and Girls Club of Parkville. In addition, surplus fabric and carpet squares are donated to the textile program at Neighborhood Studios, a student art program.