Treasure hunter animates his Biltmore Village furnishings store
Dwellings is a global jewel box of a home store, known for furniture collections that strike just the right cultural and aesthetic tone. Lines are clean and contemporary, but also warm and organic (not sterile-modern). Colors are earthy but animated. Vignettes trend toward soothing — but ex-pect a bold surprise around every corner.
Owner Chris McMillan prizes the handmade and declares boredom his enemy. Meanwhile, his friends — in this case the store’s design and sales team, a staff of six — are everything. “Dwellings wouldn’t be Dwellings without them,” he says.
The native Texan’s path to store ownership is a yarn filled with sink-or-swim moments. In high school, he worked for chain retailer The Container Store, then a little-known operation. He attended college for a bit, then returned to his hometown of Arlington and checked his old workplace to see if they had any openings. They didn’t, but suggested McMillan go around the corner to what he describes as a “family-owned, fast-growing furniture retailer whose collection was very progressive.”
The company, Bright Ideas, offered him a position, and things started to happen fast. Next thing he knew, he was transferred to revive the store’s Austin location: “I remember walking into this wreck of a store and tackling it one night, moving furniture by myself, rehanging all this art, and just having at it. It was a trial by fire.” But McMillan ended up cherishing the management and sales teams he worked with. For the next eight years, he built out the company’s stores all over Texas.
His next stint, as a buyer and merchandiser for high-end Italian furniture company Cantoni, came with its own lessons. “I got fantastic experience buying at High Point [North Carolina], Dallas, Italy, and the New York City trade shows,” he says. But McMillan also tried to bring in a line he favored for its ultra sophistication — “and no one bought it,” he admits. “The lesson was that you need to buy for your customers, not necessarily for you.”
McMillan credits his visually oriented mother for creating a beautiful home, which also contributed to his life’s direction. But he got weary of the Texas heat and needed a change, so he arrived in Asheville two decades ago with a container of pieces from India, a dream, and not much more. While working in product management and distribution for a wholesale importer, McMillan had “[fallen] in love with the artistry, the rich handwork that’s passed down in families … that can’t be duplicated … I traveled and got hooked on scouring Indian warehouses stuffed with one-of-a-kind British antiques and handmade treasures.” He notes that “these artisans are also experts at using reclaimed materials.”
McMillan originally envisioned a store that sold gifts and knickknacks, but his customers made him recalibrate. “My original store was 2,500 square feet, and I displayed my merchandise on all these cool Indian prop pieces. Well, [the props] were the first things that sold. I got the message, returned to India, [came back] with four more containers, and said, ‘OK, I’m a furniture store.’”
Dwellings suffered a major hit just nine months after opening in its first location, in Biltmore Station by the Swannanoa River, in 2003. In September of that year, back-to-back hurricanes Frances and Ivan pummeled Asheville, leaving the store under five feet of flood water. “That gutted me,” says McMillan. He credits Shari Robins, then a part-time employee, for the “encouragement I needed to keep going when I considered giving up.” Robins currently oversees Dwellings’ day-to-day management.
Now a 10,000-square-foot retail wonderland, Dwellings relocated in 2010 to Reed Street and is chock full of an ever-changing collection of on-trend, low-key upholstered pieces, case goods, rugs, and eye-catching accessories. An exercise in Boho beauty, the inventory is arranged in vignettes to show off bold texture and a palette ranging from placid naturals to spicy brights. “Dwellings grew with me,” says McMillan, “and while our collections have evolved, we’ll never lose our love for India.”
He closed for eight weeks during the pandemic, noting, “my focus was really to keep everyone working.” Stores selling home furnishings and decorative items, being less necessary than appliances — “more a want than a need,” says McMillan — “usually take a hit in recessions.” And so he and his crew were nervous when it came to reopening.
“But we got slammed,” he reveals. “People are nesting big time, and we’ve more than doubled our business each month since reopening.” Retailers and wholesalers were caught off guard by this dramatic uptick. Dwellings emptied out its warehouse quickly, and the venue’s suppliers, including noted North Carolina makers, got backed up.
As usual, though, the creative team at Dwellings kept humming along; in-house services include residential and commercial design for clients’ scratch projects and upgrades. And if the energy on the floor feels palpable, there’s a good reason for that.
“The minute we sell a piece,” says McMillan, “we rearrange everything.”
Dwellings, 9 Reed St. Suite B, Asheville. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 10am-5pm; Sunday, 12-5pm. For more information, call 828-350-1333 or see dwellingsinspired.com.