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Unpacking Crate&Barrel

Gordon and Carole Segal saw a void in the Chicago retail market in 1962, and they set out to fill it by opening the first Crate&Barrel store in an abandoned elevator factory in the then-questionable Old Town neighborhood.

"I was doing the dishes—classic Arzberg dishes we had picked up on our Caribbean honeymoon—and I said to Carole, 'How come nobody is selling this dinnerware in Chicago?,'" Gordon Segal recalls. "I think we should open a store." And, as they say, the rest is history. With "more taste than money," the Segals displayed their unique housewares en masse on the crates and barrels they were shipped in, and found a niche and a name.

At a time when gas-station give-away glasses were common kitchen table fixtures, shoppers were immediately drawn to the grocery store–style displays of contemporary merchandise at reasonable prices. As the business grew, store displays became more sophisticated and the inventory more diverse.

Before the age of home-improvement cable television shows, the Segals brought accessible design into the American home. They added the Finnish fabric line Marimekko to their inventory in the late 1960s, and the bold, colorful prints became a signature style of the era.

Carole retired to raise their family, but Gordon Segal still runs the Chicago-based company they founded together about 50 years ago, now a dominant home-furnishings chain with more than 100 stores across the United States. Always keeping his motto, "Stay humble, stay nervous," in the back of his mind, Segal has continued to fine-tune Crate&Barrel throughout its history, creating shopping environments that engage the senses. He pays close attention to the exteriors, too, focusing on building stores with architectural merit. Stores in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Chicago have received awards for their outstanding architectural design.

The home-furnishings industry has exploded since Crate&Barrel's humble beginnings, and Segal has kept a keen eye on what interests the buying public. In 2000 Crate&Barrel launched CB2, a new concept store aimed at a young urban market with—again—a single store on Chicago's North Side. And, so that no one in the family feels left out, in 2001 Crate&Barrel formed a partnership with Land of Nod, a quirky children's furniture catalog company. They opened one store—guess where?—on Chicago's North Side to start, and have since expanded to several locations. The Segal empire just keeps growing.

Updated: 2014-02-11

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