Ironically, Australia's enthusiasm for buying online from overseas has led to one of the most significant new store launches in Sydney: US homewares giant Williams-Sonoma, which opens in Bondi Junction on 2 May. The multibillion-dollar Williams-Sonoma Inc (WSI) owns the home furnishings brands Pottery Barn, Pottery Barn Kids and West Elm. But cookware is at the heart of its flagship brand, Williams-Sonoma, born in 1956 when a man named Chuck Williams began selling French pots and pans from a tiny hardware shop in Sonoma, California.
A little over a year ago, WSI began selling online to an international market. Such was the interest from Australia that the company chose to open its first retail presence outside North America here. Its four main brands will each have their own shopfront and multistorey retail space in Bondi Junction's newly built Exchange Building.
Williams-Sonoma combines cookware, tableware and food in the kind of huge, American vein that we haven't seen on our shores before (think a stylised amalgam of Simon Johnson, Peter's of Kensington and David Jones's homewares). The distinctive Pottery Barn aesthetic, meanwhile, has been so pervasive in popular culture over the past couple of decades that plenty of Australians are familiar with it. It's a grown-up, polished image of homemaker perfection embodied in Hollywood rom-coms such as You've Got Mail or Something's Gotta Give (cue sophisticated linen sofas, classic standing lamps, artfully cluttered bookcases and plenty of beige). And West Elm is like Pottery Barn's hip, design-conscious younger sister: more upmarket than Ikea, more approachable than Space.
Few are more excited by the group's arrival than WSI's Australian expats, former magazine editors Anna Last and Vanessa Holden. Last is creative director for the Williams-Sonoma brand, while Holden is creative director for West Elm. "Australians have always been advanced in how we entertain and decorate our houses," says Last. "That's why Australians are so attractive over here [in the US] - we have a different slant. We're good at putting together an heirloom, granny's china pot, with something we found on a travel, and something new that we shopped down the street. Americans like to buy a 'look' and are a little less adventurous, although that's changing."
That's why West Elm's eclectic approach to decorating is a good fit for the local market, says Holden. "Australians aren't looking to create a perfect space, but they're looking to create a personal one." She singles out West Elm's Emmerson dining table made of reclaimed pine as a likely hit for the Sydney store, along with designer collaborations such as Schmidt Brothers knives and Common Good cleaning products. "And big statement pieces like the chopping boards for communal entertaining, which for me is what Australian entertaining is all about: a really casual but artful approach to the table," she says.
The stove is very much at the centre of Williams-Sonoma, says Last. "Williams-Sonoma has a rule that you should always walk into a store and smell something cooking." Along with cooking demonstrations and tastings, the store will also reflect the current trend for nostalgic American foods via its waffle mixes and barbecue rubs. "Those kinds of quirky American things will be fun for people to try," says Last. She also expects the return to old-fashioned housekeeping will resonate with Australians, citing the Agrarian range. The handcrafted beehives, cheesemaking kits and vertical herb gardens will entice even urban dwellers with tiny balconies. At the time of writing, it was uncertain how much of this range would make it across the Pacific, but here's hoping the DIY tofu and kimchi kits make the cut.