"Our store does it the old-fashioned way, where a customer can have all interior products coordinated through a full-service store," Zapfe says. Since its founding in a northern neighborhood of Chicago in 1966, the story of Creative House Interiors has been one of growth in size, services and-aptly enough-creativity. After three years Creative House relocated to Niles, IL, and grew from "basic draperies, designer pillows, beads and window shades" to specializing also in custom bedspreads, shutters and carpeting. Five years later the business was moved to Glenview and its services were expanded to include wall coverings and upholstery. "Putting it all together" became its motto. Then, in 1981, Zapfe purchased and rehabbed his current facility while adding a full-service workroom, window shade shop and a premium line of paint.
"We are a throwback to a time when a customer can go to one place and get all those services," Zapfe says. This type of coordinated, creative service is what's lacking in the box stores and all the discount outlets-or as Zapfe calls them, "the no-brainer stores." It's also the very thing that will separate independent, small retailers from the competition.
Zapfe's advice to retailers is to "spread themselves out a little bit. Take on a nice private label paint line. It's unbelievable what you can do. If in creating a room design for a customer the subjects of window treatments, wall coverings and carpeting come up, wouldn't it be better if I sold all of them?"
Even stylistically, Zapfe says the past is returning. Heavy quilted and formal valances are making a comeback, he observes, as are festoons, swags and puddle draperies. Zapfe finds customers once oriented to vertical and horizontal blinds want more character in their houses these days with over treatments and top treatments. "Our over treatments coordinate with the walls. That's an example of our full service," he says. It's a casual, relaxed formal look, he describes, not as refined as in the past but with an emphasis on fine workmanship. "A return to elegance," Zapfe says. "A look of elegance in softness and fabrics combined with new products. A gelling of both hard and soft treatments," he adds.
The key to Zapfe's approach to decorating is creativity, an abhorrence of canned treatments-those seen time and time again that may be both beautiful and functional, but have become generic-easy to sell, but show no spark. It's these canned treatments that Zapfe says lead to window treatments becoming just another commodity customers can shop. "We must be creative. We must have the ability to put things together, and I don't mean just assemble them," Zapfe says. "Be different. Don't go with the flow," he advises. "Be creative and you can be successful. Be a look-alike and you end up fighting prices."
In designing window treatments, Zapfe and his Creative House employees often begin by asking, "Why can't we do something cool? Why can't we do something different?" For example, in over-the-pole draperies, "we put in shoulder pads, stuff the one-inch foldovers for pleats to make them look three-dimensional when in reality the fabric would lie flat. It gives it the rich, dimensional overdrapery look. We cut out fabric around the bottom of the pole so you can't see up and see the brackets and returns," Zapfe says. In hardware, Creative House showcases hand-painted finials and color coordinated faux finishes.
Zapfe's in-house workroom has everything to do with the store's creativity and adaptability in designing. "We're not limited," he explains. Today the Creative House motto is: "Your idea store." (It's even used as its address on the World Wide Web: www.your-idea-store.com.) When a decorator gets an idea for banding a primitive-print fabric shade with a Southwestern border or extending the motif of a decorative drapery rod onto a wall with hand-painted ivy leaves and vines, for example, Zapfe knows Creative House has the talent and skill for him to say, "Let's try it!"
Creative House Interiors takes a whole-room approach to designing that begins with the background. "We're a background specialty store," Zapfe says. "A good design for a room starts from the walls out. Good decorating starts with the windows, walls, floors, artwork, lamps, then furniture," he explains. "Background decorating is really creating a background that is a foundation for the furnishings. The furniture doesn't have to be a focal point of the room. In fact, in my decorating schemes they rarely are. You sit on furniture and look at the other things.
"If I have a great view out the window, believe me I'm going to do a window treatment that is minimal so I can take advantage of the view. If I have an ugly view-a building next door, or houses right on top of one another-then I create a great romance inside the room. Real interior design is the background-it's the walls, it's the floors, it's the windows," Zapfe says.
A line of premium paint has been one of the newest additions to Creative House Interiors, but an important one. "We find paint a critical thing to carry. We use it to match with products-it's the mortar the brings the window treatments, the wall coverings and the carpeting together," Zapfe says. "You can create so much with great window treatments and so much with paint. Between paint and window treatments you can do wonders in a room," Zapfe says.
Zapfe's customers come from the middle and upper-middle class suburbs surrounding Creative House. He describes them as "people who appreciate great help. They're professionals. Style-conscious. Not easily bowled over. You have to know what you're talking about and sell them on knowledge and logic. We can do all high-end, but we're more down-to-earth than that."
To attend to customers' needs, Creative House provides three state licensed interior designers, two window and wall coverings design consultants (not fully accredited or licensed) and a host of services including upholstery; window treatment, painting, wallpaper and carpet installation; finish carpentry and faux finishing.
To promote his employees' talents, Zapfe says Creative House "acts as a supplier to our designers and our employees. Our store provides them with whatever it takes for them to create almost anything."
Zapfe says his responsibility is to be a mentor for his employees, to give them the background, experience and the space to improve their skills. Zapfe believes fostering creativity is essential for his business and the industry as a whole. "If we do not provide platforms or theaters for creative people to work in our industry, soon there won't be an industry. It's going to be high-end designers and box stores," he says. Successful retailers will be those who operate small, multiple-service stores that can attract creative people who can flourish in that environment, he says.
"We better address in our industry the question of where creative people can go. We need to capture the public's attention, but I'm afraid the industry is losing through a canned approach to decorating in place of total creativity," Zapfe adds.
Zapfe even looks for creativity from his suppliers. He searches for the little, out-of-the-way manufacturers making something different and creative. But in all cases, Zapfe looks at functionality first. "My first question to sales reps is 'How do I maintain this?' Our strength is having smartly engineered products that work for our clients," he says.
Perhaps the most important Creative House employee, however, is Ron's wife Ruth. "Her job probably is the most crucial to our success," Zapfe says. "She sets appointments and delegates the leads to the right sales personalities. She is the purchasing and collection agent. Her ability to smooth over problems with clients and employees is legendary," he says. "A good sales staff, sewers and expert installers are great, but without an efficient administrator, the rest can go to hell fast."
The team of professionals at Creative House Interiors sell by design knowledge, product knowledge and coordinating designs and not by price, Zapfe says. "For most customers price is not the major thing. They want to do business with someone who knows what they are talking about. People want to believe in who they are buying from," he says.
For Zapfe, that comes down to concentrating on good, old-fashioned virtues of professionalism, enthusiasm and caring. "Caring means you learn about the products. Enthusiasm means you enjoy what you do. That," he says, "is the ticket to success."