Insider Knowledge: Shane Brogan VP of Merchandising at West Elm

Have you been to West Elm lately?  If you haven’t, you’re missing out!

My dear friend, Sandy, who I worked with at Banana corporate in SF, joined West Elm’s corporate team over a year ago, so she’s been keeping me in the loop on changes they were making to their merchandise offerings, new artisan collaborations, and overall revamped look & feel. I’ve purchased a few things on their website over the last year but it wasn’t until I walked into their Lincoln Park store in Chicago a few months ago that I really understood all of the incredible things they’ve done with the brand since James Brett became President in January 2010. (Brett was the Chief Merchandising Officer of Urban Outfitters and also worked on Anthropologie Home before joining West Elm.)  I was literally shocked when seeing all of the changes. Standing in the entrance, I got the whole I-don’t-know-which-direction-to-look-in-first, sweaty palms, increased heart rate thing that happens to me when I walk into a store that I like. Chris thought I’d lost my mind! Men.

Sandy told me that West Elm was now really standing behind table top and kitchen accessories, which launched in March of this year, so I wanted to check in Shane Brogan, West Elm’s VP of Merchandising for Kitchen, Table Top, Decorative Accessories, Lighting, & Textiles to better understand their new positioning with Kitchen as well as learn a little bit about Shane because I’m so darn impressed with what they’ve done! Here’s the first installment of On My Plate‘s new column, Insider Knowledge, where I talk to the people behind your favorite brands.

In case you don’t know, a “merchant” is a buyer for a vertical company, or, generally speaking, a company that produces and sells their own goods in their own stores.  I was a Merchant for Banana Republic’s Women’s division from 2000 to early 2004.


What is your professional background and how did you become a kitchen guru?
SB: I’ve been in Retail my entire career and have always had a personal passion for home goods, especially kitchen. I joined West Elm a little under two years ago and it just felt like the perfect melding of my personal & professional interests.

Shane joined the West Elm merchandising team from the Abercrombie & Fitch corporate merchandising team.

Do you cook?  If yes, how often and what do you like to cook?
SB: Yes! I love to cook. Moving to New York from Columbus, Ohio was quite a bit of a culture shift for me though. The pace of life here is so much faster and take out & delivery are far too easy on a long weekday. I’ll usually set aside one weekend day (sometimes both) and cook a big meal. My guilty pleasure is comfort food. If it’s rich & heavy, I’m cooking it.

Do you collect anything for your kitchen or home entertaining?
SB: I love a good bowl. I have WAY too many of them. Little prep bowls, pasta bowls, cereal bowls… I’m a sucker when it comes to things like that. The Modernist Bowls at West Elm right now are one of my favorites. I love the pattern on the inside and outside and they’re the perfect size for ice cream.

Do you have any particular food products you can’t live/cook without?
SB: I’d have to say cheese… which I know requires no cooking at all. There’s nothing better than standing in front of a big stocked cheese counter. For Holiday, we just delivered new slate boards and I’ve already served cheese on them twice. My favorite is an aged Mimolette.

What is the one cooking utensil everyone should have in their house?
SB: A chef’s knife. We just launched an exclusive collection of knives with the Schmidt Brothers from Brooklyn, NY. I’m obsessed with their knives because they have a special curve in the handle that makes them easier to hold. And I LOVE that the handles are wood. The 6” chef’s knife is my new go-to in the kitchen.

Do you have any philosophies or tips on entertaining at home that you would like to share?
SB: Don’t try too hard. If I’m inviting people into my home for an evening, it’s to share a special night or an occasion with them- not to impress. As I mentioned, I love comfort food, especially served family style. And my table is never too matchy-matchy. I mix all of my favorite things- I like to mix & match my dinnerware, napkins and serving pieces.



What was the impetus for West Elm to focus on kitchen accessories vs. the dining room? 
SB: We’ve always had strong dining furniture, but we’ve really expanded our kitchen & entertaining options this year starting with our Modernist & Naturalist kitchen this past March. We’re thinking of the whole home, and for most people, the kitchen really is the center of the home. I know that’s always been true for me. Plus, Kitchens & Dining Rooms are pretty much one in the same these days- just like guest rooms tend to be offices, nurseries and guest rooms all wrapped in one. Of course this is especially true in New York, but I don’t think it’s specific to urban environments. A lot of homes have “great rooms” that encompass living, family and the kitchen all in one. This all translates into customers wanting their kitchens to reflect their personal style where previously this room was all very utilitarian with a focus on function over style.

We’ve taken the same point of view in the kitchen that we do in other areas of our collections, which is to give our customer choices that they can mix and match and combine in the style that is perfect for their home. Right now in stores you’ll find 15 full dinnerware collections with a huge assortment of novelty and seasonal salad plates, canapé plates, bowls and mugs. All of these things can be mixed & matched and layered in a number of ways to create a really personal table.

Has West Elm always carried table top?
SB: In a small way, yes. However, it’s never been as robust as it is today.

I understand since James Brett has come on board, collaborations with artists, artisans, etc. have become more prevalent in the store, in general.  How have collaborations impacted the kitchen accessories/ tabletop department? 
SB: Collaborations are so important to the West Elm brand and you’ll find them across all our categories- from Furniture to Textiles to Table Top. There are no true guidelines. We work with people whose work we respect and we feel pretty lucky to have the platform to be able to introduce our customers to smaller designers who might not have the resources to reach as broad of an audience as we do through our catalog and stores. Our collaborators are part of the process from the inception of the project and it’s so fun working with such super creative people. Sometimes there are larger collaborations where there are just too many ideas to keep it small. And sometimes, it’s only a few special items. Totally depends on the situation.

How did the Schmidt Brothers collaboration come about?  How did you “discover” the brand?
SB: We were at the Housewares show in Chicago last March when we met them. We took a look at their line and immediately, we were interested in working with them. Cutlery is such a serious and often intimidating business. These guys were the first cutlery brand that I’ve ever found approachable. And they have the same philosophy as we do. Don’t throw away your favorite knives- integrate them with ours.

What is your design philosophy and how does the kitchen accessories and assortment tie back to the rest of the store?
SB: There’s obviously a modern sensibility in what we design. That being said, we really don’t believe that anyone’s style is so one dimensional. People’s homes are a mix of their favorite things. They have antiques, books, things they picked up while traveling, etc. And we try to mirror that. We’re not trying to sell a prepackaged look. We’re trying to make people’s homes exactly how they want them to be. And that may be different for everyone. We often say that a perfectly decorated home is simply full of the things someone loves. Our Table Top and Kitchen assortments are direct reflections of that philosophy.

I noticed you have some of my favorite cookbooks and food novels/biographies, including Farm City by Novella Carpenter.  Sandy tells me that you have a hand in choosing the books.  How do you pick the cook/foodie books you sell?
SB: Yes, the Buyer for the category and I choose the books we carry. We may buy a book because it works back with a story we’re trying to tell- like we had a tapas story this past summer. Or we may buy a book because we find the content or photography inspiring.

Do you have any new initiatives happening in November? 
SB: The initiative I’m most excited about is getting Schmidt Brothers cutlery in the stores. I can’t wait to buy the big 15-piece block (pictured above) for myself. As I said, their branding and the knives themselves are amazing. I think it really brings something new to the space.

What are some of your favorite pieces you sell and why?
SB: We have a new café bowl (pictured above) coming out this November. When we found it, I was instantly in love. I love the shape, the colors… everything about it. And it’s only $4! Again, I need another bowl like a I need a hole in the head… but you’ll find stacks of these in my kitchen this holiday!

Do you ever plan to sell food products?
SB: At this point, if the story is right. We’re working a lot in Haiti this holiday with Christmas ornaments and décor. So it felt right to bring in the only Haitian coffee bean sold in the U.S. to merchandise with our French Presses we developed with Bodum. The beans are roasted by La Colombe in Philadelphia and we just love working with them. They’re passionate about coffee and charity and we just clicked immediately.

How would you describe your customer?
SB: Eclectic. Conscious. Fun.

Are there any products you can give On My Plate‘s readers a sneak peak to – something that is coming out for the Christmas holiday?
SB: With this being holiday, there is a TON of new stuff hitting the store over the course of the next month. You already know the café bowls are my favorite, but I’m also excited for our Santa Cookie Jar (pictured above). I never thought I would own a seasonal cookie jar. But this guy is modern and new and I love it.


Thanks, Shane!  Check out West Elm’s Kitchen offerings here.


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6 Responses to “Insider Knowledge: Shane Brogan VP of Merchandising at West Elm”

  1. Corinne November 14, 2011 at 10:07 am #

    LOVE this post… I had the exact physical reaction you did when I visited the West Elm Lincoln Park last week. My motivation for the trip was for a lighting fixture for what will be our nursery. The reward, a million different gift ideas for people (including myself!) who will be entertaining this season!! Perfect hostess gifts, accessories to compliment current housewares…. SO FUN. Only issue was took the trip on foot.. taking the SUV back this week.

  2. Sandy November 15, 2011 at 6:54 am #

    Amazing. Thanks Melissa!

  3. Betsy McCloskey November 15, 2011 at 10:29 am #

    Way to go, Shane…You are really making a difference!!!

  4. Melissa November 16, 2011 at 6:39 am #

    I’m so glad Corinne!! Doesn’t the store look amazing?! Thanks so much for sharing your comments and I’m glad I’m not alone with my overwhelming shopping experience! 🙂

  5. Tommy York November 19, 2011 at 9:38 pm #

    Awesome interview! I LOVE West Elm.

  6. Kate November 21, 2011 at 7:07 am #

    I wonder if the NYC store is similar! I’ve been ordering West Elm merch online and have been very impressed. After reading this post I want to go to the store too! I know Vanessa Holden from Martha Stewart also signed on recently as creative director and has had an impact on the look of the catalogues…great post!

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