Biltmore's legacy of family and hospitality lives on
Jenny Heinzen York -- Home Accents Today, August 5, 2010
VISITORS TO NORTH CAROLINA'S Biltmore Estate cannot help but be overwhelmed by the scope of the property and the grandeur of the home that sits on it.
But it is even more overwhelming to realize that Vanderbilts still own the entire estate, and receive no subsidies to maintain or operate it. And that's precisely where the Biltmore For Your Home licensing program comes in.
"For the mission of Biltmore - to preserve the estate and keep it privately owned - the upkeep is tremendous," said Tim Rosebrock, vice president and general manager of licensing for Biltmore. "Corporately, we know there are only so many people we can bring through the gates, so we need branded products to grow. We need our licensing business to grow and perhaps eclipse our travel business to help preserve it."
The estate, modeled after French chateaux and located in Asheville, N.C., is the largest privately-held home in the United States, comprising about 175,000 square feet in 250 rooms situated on 8,000 acres of land.
Descendants of the original owners - George and Edith Vanderbilt - still own and operate the home today, with the mindset of their predecessors to maintain self-sufficiency. Doing justice to America's largest home, while maintaining it and growing a number of businesses to support it, is an ongoing challenge that the family has undertaken to preserve its legacy and history.
According to a letter from Bill Cecil, president and CEO, and great-grandson of George Vanderbilt, "Biltmore is still family-owned, and we are passionate about our mission of preservation through self-sufficiency - a philosophy embraced before the first stone was ever put in place."
This need for self-sufficiency, and in recognition of the tremendous cost to own and operate such a property, ultimately led to the creation of the licensing program.
Biltmore For Your Home began in 1990, based on an idea by Dini Pickering, great-granddaughter of George Vanderbilt, and current vice president of the board of directors. The program was originally strict reproductions, but has changed over the past 10 years to reflect a more current lifestyle.
"We had, for years, guests' requests for things they'd seen and appreciated in the house during their tours," Pickering told Home Accents Today. "We saw it as a way to extend our legacy of gracious hospitality to our guests beyond their estate visit."
Noting that internal research indicates that Biltmore visitors tend to return every three to four years, "We also give people the opportunity to engage with our brand more frequently," Rosebrock said. "We want consumers to interact with Biltmore every single day," he went on, whether in the form of a glass of wine, or a home decor product or a plant in the garden. "It's that daily interaction that we think will help bring her back more often."
The target customer is women age 35-54 with a household income of $80,000 and higher. "She has an idea of what she wants to make her home comfortable - we have to make it accessible."
"Our philosophy about product now is to let the idea about Biltmore quality, tradition and family truly be the pillars of the product design," he said. "Our philosophy about product now is to let the idea about Biltmore quality, tradition and family truly be the pillars of the product design," he said.
"The products have to be appropriate for today," he said. "That's the lens that we have to look through."
Also key to Biltmore's licensing program is its strategic selection of vendor partners to produce the line.
"We're all disciples of the idea that product is king," Rosebrock said, adding that the Biltmore product managers negotiate the pace and amount of product introductions with vendors at the beginning of the relationship. "We want to be important to their business, and we want to be important to their product line."
"We want our partners to look for design inspiration, but then expand that into products that are styled and designed for today's home," said Elizabeth Ford, licensing manager at Biltmore For Your Home.
Biltmore currently has wholesale licensing relationship with Habersham (case goods), Habersham Feathers (upholstered furniture), Austin (sculpture and wall decor), Capel (rugs), Manual Woodworkers & Weavers (soft goods), Oriental Accent (lamps and accessories), Encore (accent furniture), Elk Lighting (fixtures) and Unique Stone (garden accessories), as well as a direct-to-consumer presence with Belk department stores and Artaissance wall decor.
The Kaplar mirror design from Austin was inspired by a repeated motif on the exterior of the home.
Capel’s Orchard House Rings rug was inspired by the leaded glass windows at the main entrance to the home.
"We've been able - thanks to the wonderful team that we have - to have designed some incredible pieces that work in today's home," Pickering said. "It's just a very exciting, authentic connection for us to maintain our relationship with our guests and hopefully our future customers."
TRADITIONS PASSED DOWN
"George Vanderbilt brought craftsmen from all over the world," Ford said. "We want our partners to share that because that was such a core attribute of his tastes. George Vanderbilt inspires us this way - we love to visit and experience the tradition and the classics - but George Vanderbilt thought ahead. He loved history, but he was a modern man. We keep that in mind when we build our collection."
"I've always loved the Biltmore," said Matt Eddy, president of Habersham, which has an extensive collection of Biltmore-licensed case goods and upholstery through its Feathers division. "I just think it's fabulous - the most beautiful place - and I just felt like we'd be honored to do it."
Eddy said Robert Williams, Habersham's chief designer, sought out architectural elements from the home to integrate into the product designs. "We used elements from the house and incorporated them into the pieces. They lived very differently back then, so reproductions of many of the pieces really aren't practical for now."
But one thing that still works for Habersham is oversized designs, scaled for larger contemporary homes.
"The grand scale (of Biltmore) is a big aspect," Eddy said. "Biltmore is grand, and we do grand!"
Capel signed a licensing agreement with Biltmore for Your Home in 2005, according to Mary Clara Capel, director of licensing for N.C.-based rug vendor Capel Rugs. "We felt like Biltmore would be a good partner because they are located in North Carolina, their brand is well-respected, and their look is traditional. Plus, they are family-owned. All these traits made it a good, natural fit for the Capel line."
Capel started by developing tufted reproductions of some of the estate rugs and then added higher end, handknotted reproductions. Additionally, Capel debuted outdoor rugs based on the entrance iron gates, and, most recently, transitional designs.
Capel currently offers eight Biltmore styles with multiple designs equalling 164 SKUs total. "Our future plans are to continue development of estate reproductions, vary their price points and create more transitional looks," Capel said.
Andy Cymrot, VP of sales and marketing for Austin, said his company has worked with Biltmore for about five years, and though the line is limited to about a dozen SKUs - predominantly sculptures, but also a couple of mirrors - there's a lot of opportunity for expansion going forward.
"We found a lot of great studies that worked on their own and really fit into our line," he said. "The fact that they are from Biltmore was a real bonus. It was a natural fit for us."
"There is such an abundance of inspiration from the grounds at Biltmore, to the architecture of the house, to the extensive collection of furnishings, we are never at a loss for ideas." - LOU WEBSTER
Since its acquisition of Eastern Breeze, now known as Austin's Studio A division, and its principals Mary Wilson and Will Foster, Cymrot said he sees new avenues for the partnership. "With Will's vision, he'll definitely be one who will look at something and be inspired," he said. "He's really good at extrapolating an item or image and building on it from there."
But what of the challenge of creating products that appeal to a modern consumer based on such a historical property?
"Great design never goes out of style," said Lou Webster, Capel's director of product development and design. "There is such an abundance of inspiration from the grounds at Biltmore, to the architecture of the house, to the extensive collection of furnishings, we are never at a loss for ideas. We explore possibilities from the house in consideration of today's color and design trends. For instance, we found that the leaded glass panes and exterior stone carving of the house were in step with geometric repeating patterns. These patterns led to the development of our transitionally styled Orchard House collection. At other times we work directly from antique rugs in Biltmore and update the color palette to keep them fresh."
Cymrot agreed that elements from the estate have a lot of potential for reaching transitional consumers as well. "Good product is timeless," he said. "I don't think it's stodgy or stuffy. A good product can work then, now and in the future. As a company we have steered away from being trendy - we want our designs to have legs to go on and on."
Biltmore's Christy Hodgins, director of marketing, said the vision each designer brings to the home adds to the depth of the collections. "Every designer, every brand, sees something new," she said. "Biltmore is real - the legacy is real. The gardens and the grounds offer a real organic inspiration, in addition to what the house offers."
TODAY AT BILTMORE
Biltmore opened Antler Hill Village earlier this spring as a way to provide visitors with more shopping and dining options - and to encourage them to stay longer on the estate.
The village includes a museum installation - The Legacy of Biltmore - that shares more personal details about the family, past and present. A section of that exhibition is dedicated to Biltmore For Your Home, including explanations of how the product development process occurs, actual samples of consumer products available, and a Web kiosk (housed inside a Habersham Biltmore armoire) where visitors can register to receive more information about the licensed products.
"It's a way to connect the past with the present with the future," Pickering said.
In the display area is a breakfast table, console and chairs by Habersham and its Feathers line, light fixture by Elk Lighting, wall mirror by Austin, rug by Capel, and tableware from Belk (Biltmore's retail partner) and Burton + Burton.
In conjunction with this opening, Biltmore For Your Home also recently debuted a catalog that will be published twice a year. "When you've walked through the space, you've grabbed a catalog, and hopefully stopped at the web kiosk to register - then you will have a real awareness of what Biltmore For Your Home has to offer," Hodgins said.
Capturing customers at that moment, when they are feeling enamored of the whole experience, is key.
"We can connect to a person, a place, a story," Ford said. "People love that they can buy into a piece of American history."
The carved design on Habersham’s Louis XV home office was replicated from a hand-carved detail in a recently opened room of the estate.
This 16th century solid oak chest (above) is located in the Music Room at Biltmore. At left, Encore reproduces the look with solid brass detailing.