People - December 2005

Designer will draw on past to shape future
By Chris Roush

Nancy Webster might be the most influential home-design diva you’ve never heard of. Last year, HFN, a trade publication, ranked her the third-most-powerful person in home fashion and design, behind French designer Philippe Starck and Martha Stewart. Webster, 52, headed the design team of discount retailer Target for much of the past two years.

In September, she became CEO of Thomasville Furniture and possibly the first woman to run a large furniture maker, says the trade publication Furniture Today. She plans to change its direction by targeting people younger than 40 while keeping its baby boomer base. “There is a tremendous amount of buying power in the young consumer that we have an opportunity to focus on.”

Webster started her education in home fashion and design early — at home. Born near Burlington, she grew up on a 150-acre farm in Orange County. Her mother designed products for White Furniture and children’s clothing maker Peaches ’n Cream, now-defunct companies based in Mebane. Through an exchange program at N.C. State University, Webster got an associate degree in fashion design from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York in 1974. She got a bachelor’s in textile technology from State in 1975. After graduation, she designed upholstery fabrics for Cannon Mills in Concord. A year later, Cannon sent her to New York to help design bedspreads for Sears.

She switched to Eden-based textile maker Fieldcrest in 1977 and spent 20 years with the company, becoming vice president of creative development for bedding and bath products. She left at the end of 1997 and joined Fort Mill, S.C.-based textile maker Springs Industries in 1998 as senior vice president of creative development. Minneapolis-based Target hired her in 2003 to organize and recruit a 100-member in-house team that designs many of the chain’s products.

Thomasville’s parent, St. Louis-based Furniture Brands International, hired Webster for her experience in brand development and product innovation as Thomasville expands its retail operation. It laid off more than 600 workers last summer but planned to open six Thomasville Home Furnishings Stores, for a total of 163, between October and January. It still has about 4,000 employees, more than 75% in North Carolina. Furniture Today reported that Thomasville had sales of $500 million in 2004.

As CEO, Webster will have plenty of other things to worry about besides design, but it will occupy a prominent place in her mind. “Our goal is to make great design very affordable.”