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Designs on the White House

Mitchell Gold wants to make a difference, sell lots of furniture, and redo President Kerry's living quarters

If the presidential election turns out the way Mitchell Gold hopes, John F. Kerry will go to the White House, and Gold's furniture will go with him.

"I desperately want my furniture in the White House," said Gold, a North Carolina furniture manufacturer and delegate to the Democratic National Convention. "I'm campaigning. What other nut would do this?"

What other nut indeed? Gold occupies an unusual position in this country, at the distinctly uncrowded intersection of presidential politics and upholstered furniture. This week he's schmoozing with pols, going to meetings and parties, and talking up the issues that he cares about, such as equal rights for gay people. Next month he opens a 5,500-square-foot showroom on Berkeley Street at the edge of Boston's South End and the Back Bay. And in November, he hopes, he'll be picking out fabric swatches for 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. (He's just redone Al and Tipper Gore's house in Arlington, Va., from "outdated traditional" to "very modern hip traditional," with furniture from his own line.)

"I think your environment does contribute to how you think and feel; they'll make better decisions with my furniture," asserted Gold, who is still peeved that he missed the boat last time around. "I was mad at myself that I didn't put it out there to President Clinton that he could have my furniture," he said. "The private quarters were so traditional and goopy and heavy."

You may not have heard of Mitchell Gold but you might know the look of his furniture anyway, since his designs are carried by the trendy trinity of furniture retailers -- Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, and Restoration Hardware. "It's amazing that people who know nothing about furniture, who wouldn't know Duncan Phyfe from Duncan Hines, always seem to know Mitchell Gold," said Mark McMenamin, senior editor of InFurniture, a trade publication for the home furnishings industry.

Gold's furniture, which targets upper-middle-class consumers, he said, is designed by Gold's business partner Bob Williams. It's big on simple mid-century lines, leather club chairs, slipcovers, cutesy names like "Sammy Swivel" and "Kitty," and restrained colors that appeal to young consumers seeking to advance beyond their make-do post-college aesthetic. And apparently to Washington insiders.

"This guy is the best," gushed Tipper Gore at a dinner she and her husband gave Sunday night for about 60 friends and supporters, including Gold, at the Boston Harbor Hotel. His furniture is "fabulous," she said. "It's the best. We love it."

Part of his cachet is a savvy marketing strategy that Bostonians may just be waking up to. Consider the politically inspired campaign touting the Boston store, which piggybacks on the Democratic convention: red, white, and blue billboards -- including one on Canal Street, half a block from the FleetCenter -- proclaiming "Send Mitchell Gold (furniture) to The White House." Or the window signs for his new showroom, located on the site of the former Workbench building: "Elroy for President," says the caption for a picture of his tub-style swivel Elroy swing chair. "Elroy can swing to the left . . . to the right . . . or somewhere in between. . . . Elroy feels that all butts are created equal."

Butts, biceps, chiselled bodies -- they all figure into his current magazine ads, found in most upscale style magazines, including Metropolitan Home, Elle Decor, and InStyle. They range from adorable (diapered babies) to provocative (half-naked male models). All of them feature Gold's adored English bulldog/mascot Lulu, who goes everywhere with Gold but, alas, wasn't welcome at the convention. (In homage to Lulu, though, Gold's store will be pet-friendly. Visitors to the showroom will be encouraged to bring their dogs, who will get treats and the use of water bowls and sleeping mats.)

This approach to selling furniture is a maverick strategy in "the stodgiest of industries," as Gold puts it. Being maverick obviously hasn't hurt him, though. The Mitchell Gold company, located at "One Comfortable Place" in Taylorsville, N.C., will do more than $80 million in sales this year, Gold said; his Boston showroom will be his 10th, with more to come, including Los Angeles in September. Gold has three franchisees who will run the Boston store -- Andrew Terrat, a financier-turned-designer; Steve Elbaz, who currently owns Biltmore, a South End furniture store; and Barbara Goldberg, who manages Biltmore.

To say that Gold has a strong personality is a serious understatement. His furniture, he said boldly, is "attractive, irresistible, and must-have." His employees "dare to take risks and refuse to fail." And he doesn't run with the crowd.

"There is an outsider quality to him," McMenamin said. Unlike the majority of manufacturers, Gold is not a member of the American Furniture Manufacturers Association trade group. And in contrast to other companies that maintain straightforward showrooms at the semiannual home furnishings market in High Point, N.C., Gold's "is almost like a temple," he said. "There really is an otherworldliness to it," he added. His sales staff wear shirts with Mitchell Gold logos. His clients are picked up in a Mitchell Gold Mercedes, and served bottled water with Mitchell Gold labels.

"There is an aspect of control there that was very similar to Martha Stewart with her minions," McMenamin said. "He's like the snobby rich kid in school but you always want to be invited to his showroom. He even had John Edwards speak in his showroom when [Edwards] was running for president."

Don't think Gold doesn't already have designs on Edwards, should the senator find himself moving into the vice presidential mansion. "Bob and I want to redo the private residences for the president and vice president," Gold said. "Our specialty is creating an oasis for people after their day's work and that would be perfectly appropriate for the new administration."

Despite the rapid growth of his company, a lot of Gold's time these days is going to politics. He gives time and money to the Kerry-Edwards campaign, organizes fund-raisers, and plans to take off the two weeks prior to the election to help with campaign work. "As a gay man," said Gold, "I feel the Democratic party is the party of inclusion."

He said he has advised Edwards, among other legislators, on issues of gay and lesbian rights, as well as day-care policy. Several years ago, Gold and Williams started on-site day care at his company, which he considers "my greatest achievement. It started as a business decision when I noticed that if we had employees with young kids, we'd start to lose them around 4 o clock. All they thought about was how they had to go out and pick their kids up. Now that we have a day care, those are our most loyal employees. We've had a ton of free press. Our customers see the playground and walk in with a smile. My pitch to politicians is that they should use their bully pulpit to encourage businesses to have day care."

Meanwhile, as he moves through the DNC party circuit, politicians have not forgotten Mitchell Gold. Congressman Barney Frank gave him a hug and welcomed him, and his store, to Boston Sunday afternoon at a party sponsored by the Stonewall Democrats, a gay-rights group. He got more hugs that night from York state assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell, brother of Rosie; and from Wisconsin congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay person to be elected to Congress, at a fete sponsored by the Matthew Shepard Foundation, named after the 21-year-old man murdered in a gay hate crime in Wyoming.

Such a busy week -- parties, caucuses, meetings, and of course the speeches. "I Blackberried to Al after his speech to say how great it was and Tipper Blackberried back: "Al and I say thanks," Gold said. He was scheduled to have tea yesterday with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and was to lunch with Edwards today.

But there are other things to think about, too. Like, how to make modern hip traditional fit Pennsylvania Avenue. Mitchell Gold is undaunted though. "I'll get all the tassles taken off," he said. "My hope is that if Kerry is elected, we'll have the opportunity to make the White House more inviting. It's looked the same way forever -- I'd call it Goopy Traditional. But it's just ugly."

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