Spotlight on Room & Board

Maybe you’ve seen their catalogues. Maybe you’ve admired a friend’s couch or dining room table, only to be told, “Thanks. It’s from Room & Board.” Maybe you’ve shopped at the Edina store or perused the outlet center in Golden Valley.

But did you know that furniture retailer Room & Board is a uniquely local company created by John D. Gabbert, son of Don Gabbert of Gabberts Design Studio and Fine Furniture fame? John branched off on his own more than 30 years ago and today, Room & Board—headquartered in Minneapolis—employs close to 600 people. As of right now, there are stores in hot-spots California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, Washington, and Washington, DC., as well as two stores in Minnesota.

And even though John has received numerous business offers to grow the company, he’s not interested. He wants to stay small enough to keep concentrating on the customer-focused culture they’ve worked so hard to build. He also firmly believes in the importance of working with U.S. manufacturers. More than 90 percent of Room & Board’s assortment is intentionally made by American craftspeople—small, family-owned businesses of woodworkers, weavers, printmakers, metalworkers, and artists in communities across the country. John prefers to keep the company operating at a level where these small businesses can continue to call Room & Board their biggest client; he doesn’t want to grow so quickly that local shops can’t keep up with demand.

It’s easy to see the appeal of Room & Board furniture. The hip designs, often described as “contemporary, yet classic” (think midcentury, with the clean, uncluttered lines of Danish designers George Nelson, Hans Wegner, and Florence Knoll) are created from timeless materials like wood, steel, cotton, and granite.

Some say Room & Board is similar to Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware, only with more reasonable price points. Some say the furniture is a higher-quality, American-made version of Ikea.

I say Room & Board is in a league of its own. Not only is the furniture beautiful, but the prices are fixed in the once-a-year catalogue, the design associates don’t work on commission (three cheers for a “no pressure” sales environment!), and I really respect them for being so deeply committed to supporting the little guys. They could have easily said, “So long, suckers!” and ditched their local craftspeople when they had the opportunity to grow—moving the bulk of their operations overseas—but instead stayed loyal to the small, family-owned businesses … because that’s the kind of company they are.

I also like that they support and encourage design students to think outside the box through the annual Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) competition.

The company is obviously doing something right. The retail chain had $253 million in sales in 2011, and was on target to hit $290 in 2012.