Traditional showrooms have produced mixed results for remodelers. They're attractive because they provide a controlled environment for product selection. But for some companies, floor displays smack of shopping-center furniture stores. And that retail atmosphere runs counter to the luxury or high-design brand many upscale companies promote. Keeping displays updated is another challenge, as every new manufacturer release makes existing installations obsolete.

To upend this cost-benefit imbalance, a growing number of companies are updating the showroom concept, creating sleek, client-ready environments that offer the best of traditional showrooms without the sales floor feel.

San Diego design/build firm Marrokal Construction has two facilities: a corporate/construction headquarters and a separate Design Center that serves as the company's face. The Design Center is a working design office and conference space for meeting with clients — all design-related meetings after the initial in-home consultation are held there.

Much of what's on display at the Marrokal Construction facility is integrated into the design of the space itself.
Marrokal Construction Much of what's on display at the Marrokal Construction facility is integrated into the design of the space itself.

The facility includes several conference rooms, as well as product selection rooms, where materials are stored in custom Marrokal cabinetry and only displayed to clients as needed. Though the office is in a commercial building, Marrokal built it out with residential finishes. Archways, custom cabinets, and stone floors all serve to give clients confidence in the company's design skills and quality craftsmanship.

Still, says director of design John Davies, the Design Center retains the feel of a professional working environment. Deliberately placed windows allow clients to see Marrokal's design staff at work, reinforcing the idea that they are working professionals.

“The idea of the Design Center is to convey professional credibility,” Davies says. “It's not like a tile or carpet or flooring showroom where there are people walking in off the street looking at displays.”

Marrokal Construction doesn't entirely eschew the practice of displaying products or design possibilities. But whereas traditional showrooms rely on stand-alone vignettes, Marrokal's integrated mini-vignettes serve as talking points, Davies says, readily pointed out to clients.

EFFICIENT SELECTIONS Lee Kimball, a design/build company in Boston, also recently abandoned the traditional showroom after relying on it since the 1940s. For Lee Kimball, a drawback of the traditional showroom was that the myriad products on display too often distracted clients from the task at hand. The company's new Selection Center is a minimalist environment designed to put clients at ease and ready them for an efficient selection process.

Business manager Maureen White says the Selection Center is “Spartan and soothing. It's a comfortable place to be in.” She describes the aesthetic, which favors bare surfaces, clean lines, and light-toned finishes such as maple, as “kind of spa/industrial.”

Throughout Marrokal Construction's Design Center are mini-vignettes, such as this niche off the lobby with a built-in granite console table.
Marrokal Construction Throughout Marrokal Construction's Design Center are mini-vignettes, such as this niche off the lobby with a built-in granite console table.

The conference rooms maintain this clean, spare feel. Doing away with vignettes entirely, Lee Kimball keeps its product and material samples hidden away in drawers and cabinets. The minimalist environment, White says, “helps the client feel more focused. There's no clutter like you find in traditional showrooms.”

“When you enter the room,” says design director E.J. Krupinsky, “you don't see much of anything. There are no countertop displays, no granite, no quartz, no door hardware, everything is hidden. All you see is austere, minimalist cabinets around the room.” Designers limit the number of items presented to clients at any one time, making choices that reflect a winnowing process completed before the client arrives.

New technology also plays a role. To show clients appliances and built environments — or anything else that can't be stored in a drawer — there are touch-screen monitors on each conference table connected to a massive database of images. Using an application designed for professional photographers (Portfolio 8 by Extensis), Lee Kimball has indexed thousands of images to various search terms. Clients can call up images from any number of completed Lee Kimball projects, browsing through photographs of rooms; appliances; finishes for floors, countertops, and back-splashes; anything they might want to incorporate in the design of their project.

Putting all of this visual information at clients' fingertips, White says, allows clients to quickly familiarize themselves with Lee Kimball's design aesthetic. And it gives designers an insight into the client's tastes, too. “It helps give them a sense of what we're about and it helps us to understand what they're drawn to,” she says.

David Zuckerman is a freelance writer based in New York.