Chiasso (pronounced key-AH-so) — an Italian slang expression meaning “uproar” — may look like a cross between an art gallery shop, an upscale home goods store and the Sharper Image, but its mission is completely its own. The Chicago-based retailer is known for its “formfunctionfun” designer merchandise and “Please touch!” attitude.

Attorney and art lover Keven Wilder founded Chiasso after being inspired by the Museum of Modern Art store in New York. “She had a vision of taking MoMA to the masses,” explains David Marshall, Chiasso's president and CEO. Wilder opened the first Chiasso store in 1985 in a basement space on Chestnut Street in Chicago's Gold Coast district. “Her twist was to give Chiasso a sense of whimsy and fun which has been our secret ingredient,” Marshall says.

An eclectic mix

Each of Chiasso's 16 locations offers an eclectic mix of design-driven home furnishings from Alessi teapots designed by Michael Graves to chess sets by Karim Rashid. The stores are bright, interactive and perhaps a bit loud, says Tom Casey, Chiasso's director of visual merchandising and store development. The stores, which The San Francisco Chronicle once described as “a modern-art museum on steroids,” are designed to be as fun and engaging as the products Chiasso sells.

Four new expanded-format stores (nearly double the size of Chiasso's average 1,200-sq.-ft. plan) feature an inviting combination of light woods, stainless steel fixtures and an edgy World Beat soundscape. If the larger stores fare well, explains Marshall, they will continue to expand with this format and include more furniture and larger merchandise.

When Marshall, the former COO for Chicago mens' apparel retailer Bigsby & Kruthers, and a group of investors purchased Chiasso in 1996, they realized the store's destiny did not lie solely in bricks-and-mortar sites. In 1999, Chiasso launched a website and a catalog operation. In 2001, the two operations accounted for 40% of Chiasso's total business. “We literally exist — and thrive — because of this multi-channel approach,” says Marshall.

In late 2000 and early 2001, the chain opened four of its new larger stores and is monitoring performance closely. A first store in Manhattan is also planned this year. Chiasso has tempered its future expansion plans in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Some under-performing stores will be closed in 2002, but Marshall hopes to open four to seven new shops during 2002 and 2003 “dependent upon rent requirements versus the new realities of sales trends, particularly in tourist markets.” International development is also possible in the future, says Marshall.

Chiasso looks for locations in upscale regional malls — near center court — with demographics that support its modern offerings. Home furnishings retailers such as Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn are desirable co-tenants.

Marshall believes Chiasso could be a 50- to 75-store chain. Consumers certainly seem hungry for its witty merchandise: Total sales for 2001 are projected to reach $19 million, as compared to sales of $13.5 million in 2000.

Contact: David C. Marshall, president and CEO, 773.342.7900; dave@chiasso.com.

Pat Matson Knapp is a Cincinnati-based writer.