DIEM 2015 Looks at Design, Millennials in an Expanding L.A. Market

Jordan Riefe

As L.A. emerges as a global design center, the community confronts a changing landscape and worries about losing its "scrappy" spirit.

As art and design leaders around the world come to recognize Los Angeles as a growing nexus for international taste, the West Hollywood Design District, ground zero of that nexus, held its annual marquee event, DIEM 2015, a day-long symposium on art, architecture and design. What sounds like the name of a hip new Vietnamese noodle joint really is an anagram for Design Intersects Everything Made, a series of panel discussions that took place on Nov. 13 in galleries and showrooms around the Pacific Design Center, which houses some 100 brands.

“This whole thing is going to be upended, and it’s happening very quickly because of new technologies,” admonished Christiane Lemieux, founder of DwellStudio and co-host of HGTV’s Ellen’s Design Challenge, about the changing nature of design. “They’re going to do 80 percent of it on an app with an augmented reality program.”

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This sent a chill through the crowd gathered for a panel on how to market to millennials, just one of six happening throughout the day. Others included a look at art’s expanding role in society and future architectural plans for high-density infrastructure and domiciles for the elderly, as well as a lighthearted look at how pets impact interior design choices.

Opening the day was an inquiry into whether or not L.A.’s art and design scene is growing too big too fast, trading the lawless creative landscape that made it so appealing to begin with for the more establishment names and brands that constitute a developed market. Throughout the afternoon, whether it was the slow migration of artists from New York to L.A. or infrastructure that accommodates the city’s increasing population and housing density, millennials found their way into the conversation. While the term often brings to mind broke or under-employed college grads, 18-34 year olds wield a whopping $1.3 trillion in annual buying power.

“Instagram, social media, sharing,” offered Eric Vecchione of Brooklyn-based Uhuru Design on how to penetrate the coveted market. “Social capitol is as important as actual capitol.” Consensus gathered around the idea that an original story accompanying a unique durable product, with some of the proceeds going to a philanthropic cause, was the ideal way to get millennials to open their wallets.

“Their bullshit meter is so high, and they can see it coming. They’re just going to have none of it,” interjected Lemieux. “What they dislike vehemently is just being sold to. You can’t push something. You have to pull. They have to buy your story. They have to buy your design. They have to want to hang out with you, and that’s the only way they choose to be sold to.”

One traditional marketing approach that was roundly rejected was using the idea of a celebrity spokesperson. If the celeb actually uses the product and the link is an authentic one, a famous face can increase sales. Otherwise, an endorsement feels like a hard sell to millennials.

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While they sound like a finicky demo, millennials are not so different than most luxury customers who seek products that are unique and durable. In fact, Vecchione revealed that though Uhuru Design is popular with that younger market, his largest demographic is white male Republican baby boomers. The same group, with a healthy mix of their overseas counterparts, is behind the real estate and subsequent architecture and design boom in L.A., a sector that will experience employment growth of 6.2 percent through 2016, according to an Otis College of Art and Design Report.

Much of the growth can be attributed to an influx of wealthy foreigners buying prime property as an investment. Some actually inhabit their new homes or condos, while others leave them empty. But either way, local firms usually are called in to design for eclectic tastes stemming from points west, east and middle east, bringing a melange of international influences. Expansion in the sector has drawn the attention of major design centers like Paris and New York.

“L.A. has always been hot, you can just see it’s hot now,” DIEM chairman, Darren Gold, told The Hollywood Reporter. “West Hollywood has been a center of design since the '40s. I think there’s more of a spotlight on it.”

Some on the panel worried that recognition from the global design community is due to increased density and growing reliance on mass transit — in other words, now that L.A. is more like New York and Paris, it’s worth talking about. “We are a little too cool for our own good because everything is becoming more institutionalized. So we lost the scrappiness,” observes Gold. “We’ve got so much attention on us from the rest of the world. It’s harder for us to be doing things the L.A. way.”

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