A new collaboration of Menlo Park businesses is looking to turn the city's downtown into a regional destination for interior design projects, bringing together 20 local design stores for the first time.
The idea had been around for years, but in spring of 2021 the collaboration gained momentum with the help of Alex Beltramo of Teresa's Antiques, a business started by his mother over 40 years ago. Beltramo said Menlo Park has been a center for design far longer than the official collaborations began. When his family business moved to Menlo Park from San Francisco, they advertised themselves not just as an antique store but as one part of a larger collection of design shops that customers could enjoy — even though each shop operates independently.
The creation of the Menlo Park Design District, registered as a nonprofit, has further solidified and codified the preexisting community between shop owners.
"We really feel like we're more of a part of a community, which makes it feel more meaningful," Beltramo said. "And it's good for business, because now we'll a draw a wider range, because it makes sense for people."
The Menlo Park Design District aims to be an alternative to San Francisco's, making it so residents don't have to travel as far to complete interior design projects. Members are also offering free design events on the first Thursday of every month, offered by experts at the various stores in the design district. The first class was set for Aug. 4 at Art Ventures Gallery. The next will be a lesson on countertops at Rocco & Taupe on Sept. 1.
Brian Flegel of Flegel's, said he believes that the history of design in Menlo Park has always been about community and collaboration. Flegel's, which opened in 1954 says it's Menlo Park's first furniture store, features products from a variety of Menlo Park stores.
"We've always had ... a really good relationship with everybody, because there's always been an ecosystem, right?" Flegel said. "And it always behooved everybody to have Menlo Park, at least downtown, be a destination if you're thinking about doing something for your home."
Flegel also believes that the collaboration will be beneficial to businesses in the long run, compiling knowledge and resources from a variety of shops with different areas of expertise to create a place where everyone can find what they need.
"This is just the start," Flegel said. "But I think that there's a pretty good balance of nobody's really trying to directly do the exact same thing as somebody else. Everybody has their elements."
Ana Williamson, from Ana Williamson Architect, said she shares the sentiment that the design district is about more than just economics, but coming together as a community.
"(I hope this will) revitalize the downtown and bring in foot traffic and people who are interested in art and design and lifestyle and just inspiring environments," Williamson said. "I'm also hoping that we can create a sense of community among the merchants. You see the storefront but you don't know the owners and this has really made us bring everybody together to do something, to create something together for Menlo Park."
One surprising factor getting credit for the creation of the nonprofit is the pandemic. Elisa Spurlin of Peabody Gallery believes COVID-19 can be credited for bringing merchants together, even after some have worked on the same street for over 20 years and never met face to face.
"A lot of things changed during the pandemic, but one of the things that happened was, you saw a lot of unique collaborations happen in all kinds of industries" Spurlin said "This gave us a chance, because for a lot of us, we were closed for a while. So in addition to trying to survive, it also gave us a chance to sit back and go, 'What do we do different?'"
Over time, more merchants have caught onto the idea of collaborating and forming the nonprofit design district, a vision of a tight-knit business community that Beltramo said was supported by the late Bob Hanson, another shop owner. Carolyn Ivers of Harvest Furniture emphasized that she felt everyone's voice was heard in the meetings that led to the creation of the district.
More details about the Menlo Park Design District and its events can be found on their website.