Ron Johnson was at Target (TGT) in 1997 when I was invited to design the scaffolding they sponsored during the renovation of the Washington Monument. By chance, he looked at a sketchbook I had, which had a lot of small objects for the kitchen. He said, “You really have something here. Let’s talk.” I loved the challenge of making good design affordable. It’s what Wiener Werkstätte, Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright did.
We went from half a dozen objects in 1997 to more than 2,000 when the partnership with Target ended last year. When we had started, we got a whole 24-foot space and were the only outside designers. Then they added a larger stable of designers such as Isaac Mizrahi. Target eventually added 500 in-house designers. Little by little, we became the last outside designers standing. We became competition. That’s not a favorable position to be in. Instead of having a Michael Graves aisle, they began putting the toasters with the toasters, and tea kettles with tea kettles. It was harder to find our statement. It was a good time to go.
When Ron Johnson moved from Apple (AAPL) to J.C. Penney (JCP) [as chief executive officer] in 2011, I thought he’d reach out. Quite frankly, I was waiting for the call. I rarely went to J.C. Penney before that—I wouldn’t have liked it very much. But Ron and I had talked periodically over the years. When he came out with the genius bar at Apple stores, I wrote to say I thought it was genius. He called pretty soon after starting at JCP to say, “What I want to do is make America’s favorite store.” He clarified: “Not America’s favorite department store.”
I liked the idea of helping this store start over. And we’d get a shop within a store. The design challenge now is different. You’d smell a rat if we repeated the products we did for Target. I’m not interested in doing that. At JCP, we’re at a higher price point. We’ve done a toaster that I love—its finish, its shape. It looks like a piece of bread. The Target one was white plastic. This one is polished stainless steel.
With every project you pick the challenge and the person. [Johnson’s 15-month run has seen declining sales and a falling stock price.] I have great faith in Ron. He’ll get it done. I think this will be very big in a couple of years. This isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s a 100-year-old company. To completely renovate it is going to take time. It always does. —As told to Diane Brady