House of Kingsdown

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Kingsdown: Mattress Design Insights. Kingsdown Chair Mike James and his wife and inspiration, Natalie, strike a pose in the showroom window at the Las Vegas Market.
MODEL BEHAVIOR Kingsdown Chair Mike James and his wife and inspiration, Natalie, strike a pose in the showroom window at the Las Vegas Market.

The 120-year-old bedding maker embraces current fashion when it comes to mattress design.

Retailers should take a cue from Kingsdown Chair Mike James on the importance of their store windows.

It’s about two weeks before the Las Vegas winter market and James is already at the World Market Center. Why? He’s eagerly awaiting the last two beds to display in the showroom window — for him, it’s the most crucial element because it lures buyers inside.

James waits with the impatience of a designer during New York Fashion Week prepping models for the catwalk. But for him, his models are his mattresses, and this is Kingsdown’s Winter Season — everything is on the line.

“I’m not leaving Vegas until these two beds get here,” he declares.

Admittedly, James has a reputation in the bedding industry for being something of a maverick, someone who’s not afraid to take risks, not afraid of bold looks — and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“When I walk into a mattress store, if my eye doesn’t immediately go to a Kingsdown bed, then I’ve failed,” James says.

Best in value

Not only does James differentiate Kingsdown’s beds by their design, but he also strives to create the best value proposition.

“When I look at the marketplace, we have to have the best look and the best value,” he says. “We don’t MAP price anything. So when a buyer comes in and looks at a product, I need them to look at it and say, ‘I can sell that for 65 to 70 points’ … That’s my job. The mattress has to feel right and most of all, it has to look like they can get more money for it than one of my competitors.”

That’s why the fashion and the design part of the equation are so important for James. 

“I have to make things look rich at every price point, so the retailer can get as much as they can for that at retail,” he says. “And if I do that, then the retailer can sell it for what they want; they can flip it for 45 or 50 points. But most retailers, especially in this economy, are looking for ways to capitalize on fewer people coming through the door.

“Having something that’s not MAP price, and having a product that looks fashion-forward with the feels that we’re bringing to market, will allow retailers to get the markup and capture that customer when she comes in. And that’s our job as salespeople and as designers.”

Creative process

Kingsdown: Mattress Design Insights. Kingsdown refreshed the Vintage Couture collection with boiled wool handles (shown), tape and bases.
COZY UP Kingsdown refreshed the Vintage Couture collection with boiled wool handles (shown), tape and bases.

James is quick to credit his wife, Natalie, one of his key sources for inspiration, for helping him develop fresh, new styles. “We’re always on the lookout for something that is fashion-forward and cool in look, that we think we can take the design of and make a mattress border out of it,” he says.

Their inspiration comes from fashion, furniture, carpet, drapery, even high-end wallpaper by Missoni.

“At Harry Rosen (a luxury men’s retailer), they know me because I’ve been in the store so many times,” James says. “I will stand and look and from across the room, I’ll see a blazer or a shirt, or I’ll literally go through all the pocket squares. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used a really nice pocket square as inspiration.”

The white-and-gray CT Nassau ticking on the Vintage Couture beds was inspired by modern artist Brendan Murphy, particularly his 22-foot Boonji Spaceman sculpture installed on the pier of Hodges Bay Resort & Spa in Antigua, a Kingsdown client.

Kingsdown: Mattress Design Insights. Custom boiled wool Converse sneakers were the inspiration behind the boiled wool embellishments seen on the Vintage Couture collection.
CHIC SNEAKS Custom boiled wool Converse sneakers were the inspiration behind the boiled wool embellishments seen on the Vintage Couture collection.

“That ticking gets me motivated because I see it and know it’s a game changer,” James says. “It’s something a high-end furniture retailer that hasn’t done business with us in the past and maybe hasn’t come into our showroom, but maybe will walk by our window and see those beds and go, ‘Those are current-looking covers. That’s the type of furniture I’m buying. … These guys know what they’re doing. I’ve got to walk in the door.’”

How did James develop his keen eye for style? He had a great teacher: Natalie’s father, Hugh Owen, of Owen & Co., which merged with Kingsdown Inc. in 2018 to form The Kingsdown Group, headquartered in Mebane, North Carolina since 1904. “He really instilled in us, when we started taking hold of the business, that we needed to take it in a different direction,” James says.

Owen & Co. was founded in 1995 and operated in Canada under the Kingsdown, Bassett and James & Owen brand names.

In an interesting twist, James started out as a hockey player. He’s the former goalie at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, and he also played minor league hockey in the United States. Even then, he had his own style. “I would say from a dress standpoint, I always tried to dress a little bit differently,” James recalls. 

Now he uses both his singular sense of style and his teamwork approach to help shape Kingsdown.

All in the band

James’ design team consists of his wife, Natalie; David Ballantine, vice president of national accounts and product development for Kingsdown Canada; and John Farnham, senior vice president of product development at Kingsdown.

“Very rarely can a band make music with only one person playing an instrument,” James says. “We have a five-piece band here, of which I happen to be lead singer, but all of the other players are very important.” And he is quick to credit Frank Hood, CEO of Kingsdown, and the company’s board for supporting the fashion-forward product development moves.

Natalie James’ contribution comes from her fashion perspective.

“I feel that it’s important to take inspiration from the fashion industry,” she says. “And to just be aware of your surroundings and when you see something creative, go with it. When you’re moved by something, go with it.”

While she gravitates toward more traditional paisleys, her personal style leans more contemporary, such as boiled wool Converse sneakers (right).

“I’m more modern with my approach to fabrics, so I might take two and a half steps forward, and Mike might pull me back to two,” she says. “I get really, really excited by what I see, and he brings that back into how we can market it and make it work for our industry and for our mattresses.”

Farnham is James’ opposite. “I am the foil in some cases to Mike,” Farnham says. “He is the ‘what if,’ and I am the ‘yes, but.’ I’ve got 32 years of manufacturing experience, so I’m the one who translates the idea into something that can come out the door and go on a truck. So, a lot of times I’m the guy who puts up the roadblock, but the challenge is to find a creative way to meet the same goal.” 

James will float an idea to Farnham, and it’s Farnham’s job to build out a spec that gets as close as possible to what James is asking for, or to suggest an alternative. “We’re constantly creating,” Farnham says.

Ballantine balances all the others. “The designs I select are often times very different from what Mike selects,” he says. “I typically find things that are complementary, but not necessarily the same.”

Ballantine says he tends to be a little brighter and busier, and James tends to be a bit more conservative.

“What we do as a group is take all those ideas, put them together and find pieces that work in conjunction with each other,” he says. “Natalie puts on the flare and the finishing touches. It’s a really fun process.”

Style + Substance

It’s no surprise that the Kingsdown window at the Las Vegas Market is themed Style + Substance. “We want people to walk by that window and go, ‘Wow, OK, these guys are different. We have to go in and have a look,’” James says.

But just as important as the look of the ticking is the design of its inner layers. Simply put, the design of the “feel” is also crucial.

Case in point: Recently Kingsdown revamped its popular Vintage Couture and Insignia hybrid collections, and James hired a retail consultant, David Brummett, formerly of Mattress Firm, to be his fifth band member.

“David’s now helping Dave Ballantine and John to revamp our feel and all the different layers of foam and how to put it all together,” James says. “I can get kind of stuck on how we look, and the important thing is that when somebody comes into the store and tries the bed, it has to look great, but it has to feel great, too.”

Before the recent refresh, Kingsdown’s beds used to feel from “kind of soft to kind of firm,” but now, James says Brummett has helped differentiate the feels and expand them from “extremely firm to ultra-plush.”

“I think we have a much better line because of this process,” James says. “Having David work with John and Dave Ballantine has been very valuable to us.”

What’s next for Kingsdown in the realm of design?

With a gleam in his eye and a sneaky, dimpled smile, James will only reveal, “You’ll just have to wait and see.”

Want to see more? Watch the Kingsdown Beds by Design video.