Why Rachel Ray Stepped Out of the Kitchen to Create an Entire Home Goods Collection

No 'name slapping' for this celebrity chef

Ten hours into one of her 19-hour days, Rachael Ray has just wrapped up a late-afternoon taping of the syndicated cooking show that bears her name. For the last hour, she has calmly presided over a stove top full of simmering pots, assembling a nine-layer chicken burrito while guest chef Ryan Scott made five different dishes from a single recipe for biscuits. But now, as the studio audience files out and the lighting guys coil the cables, Ray doesn't want to talk about food. Instead, the topic is furniture, the furniture for sale in stores—and, specifically, what she doesn't like about it. Among the offenses: The stuff is too expensive, uncomfortable, pretentious and, most egregious of all, there's never any place to store wine.

"Everybody drinks wine, you know," Ray said, "not just rich people. And there's never a consideration for that in affordable furniture."

But it's not like Ray to complain about a problem without trying to do something about it—and, in the instance of furniture, she has. This summer, Ray announced the Rachael Ray Home Collection, a line of 130 pieces for the bedroom, living room, dining room and kitchen. Two years in the planning, the line is just now completing its rollout to retail stores nationally.

Ray is no stranger to extensions of her brand (see box), which already includes cookbooks, a magazine, a line of cookware and her own brand of dog and cat food. But the message Ray wants to send about her latest product line isn't just that it's practical, stylish and reasonably priced, it's that she designed it herself.

"This is not name slapping," she said. "I got frustrated that furniture didn't do what I wanted it to do as a consumer." Her response, she explained, was to come out with her own.

A number of celebrities have done the same thing in recent years. Some, like Brad Pitt and Jessica Simpson, can lay a degree of legitimate claim to the design field. Others—LeBron James, Donald Trump—not quite. But according to Marisa Mulvihill, partner in brand-consulting firm Prophet, Ray's TV show (which is about enjoying home as much as it is about making spaghetti carbonara) is enough to stake her the credibility she'll need in the home-furnishings arena.

"It's really about projecting a lifestyle," Mulvihill explained. "So if people like Rachael Ray, if they like the way she designs her sets and like that she's approachable and friendly and has a cozy and comfortable home—if they like what she projects, then her home collection might appeal to them."

No doubt, a big part of that appeal is the aforementioned fact that Ray has taken a hands-on role in creating the collection. "These are her designs, her ideas and her inspiration," said Don Essenberg, CEO of Legacy Classic Furniture, which manufactures about 100 of Ray's pieces. "There is not a single item in the collection," he added, "that she didn't doodle or make better in some way."

Doodling is actually serious business for Ray, whose world is built out of notebooks and the ideas and sketches she fills them with. "The process always starts on a piece of paper—everything starts with a doodle," she said. "I have a million notebooks for everything. Something will come to me, and I'll rip it out and end up giving him scraps of paper."

"Him" is the collection's general manager Michael Murray, whose job is to take Ray's ideas and engineer them into market-ready furniture. It is a job that, in Murray's view, could be harder than it is. "With design, you either have it or you don't—and she just has it," Murray said (perhaps predictably) of his boss. "She has always had doodles and her books, and she has many, many notebooks. And she'd have a note about what would be a better way to do this or that."

Seemingly incidental, those better ways to do things are much of what differentiates Ray's brand. Ray's pieces are unlikely to beat out Restoration Hardware's on chic or Ikea's on price—but their clever functionality goes where other collections often don't.

Examples? "Sure, come on," Ray said, leading a visiting reporter around a studio stage equipped with her furnishings. She points out how her étagère is finished on both sides ("I can't stand it when you buy a bookcase, and it's only finished on one side," she said). Its drawers are the push-pull kind. ("I think it's stupid to make a drawer that has a back," she said. "Why not let it push through?") Ray has equipped her chests and side tables with artfully concealed electrical outlets and USB ports because cord clutter annoys her. Ray's pieces are also fully interchangeable from room to room (she dislikes bedroom furniture that's too "bedroomy" and nightstands that are too "nightstandy"), and many pieces do double duty. The sliding door chest, for instance, can hold clothing or be a bar. "Everything is about form and function for me," she said.

And how is the market responding? Ray's company, Watch Entertainment, does not disclose fiscals. But Essenberg said that "the consumer response has by far exceeded anything we could have imagined."

Mulvihill added that furniture shoppers in the midpriced segment will often "look for some stamp of approval from someone they trust. So if Rachael says this is a nice sofa, they'll feel like, OK, then it probably is."

For her part, Ray hopes her furniture line's utility and pricing will even appeal to people who don't like her. It's one reason the metal plate bearing her name is small and inconspicuous on each piece. "So even if you can't stand me," Ray said, "you will still want to shop."

This story first appeared in the November 7, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.