By Laura D. C. Kolnoski • Photos By Premier Digital Photography

Lilting strains of arias course through the showroom of Eye Design, but the difference between this independent optician and chain eyeglass purveyors only begins with sound.

Though designer brands like Cartier, Chrome Heart, and Anne et Valentin are on hand, a substantial portion of the store’s “more subtle” inventory comes from other independent merchants from Italy, France, Belgium, Germany, Las Vegas, and New York—a testament to owner Linda Cohen’s principle that personal style is more important than a recognizable brand.

Cohen’s career in eyewear began in high school, when she took a part-time job with Hillman Cohan, where she developed an interest in helping customers choose their look. Also interested in accessories, she found the associated fashion aspect exciting.

“Through suggesting eyewear, I got involved with the technical aspect,” she said. “The business became more attractive than college, because I could apprentice while attending school. It takes four years to prepare and learn the technology, and more to become an optician.”

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The next step was to find the finest optician to work with. The Anspach Brothers “old world” optical house, with locations in East Orange, Summit and Livingston, fit the bill. There, she watched experts and absorbed everything she could, including the style and grace of design legends. That was in the 1970s, when designers like Diane Von Furstenberg and Oscar dela Renta were just embarking on the era of designer branding.

“I took the ball and ran with it,” she said. “The combination of technical and fashion aspects appealed to me.” Four years later, the store moved to Ocean Township, and Cohen, a newlywed, was downsized out. Encouraged by her husband Michael, she struck out on her own. “I never wanted to get fired again,” she said. “I decided to excel at my own style.”

Cohen stayed in Deal, and her customer based stayed with her. During the 20 years she operated there, she opened a second location in Manalapan, which endured for five years. Along the way, the owner learned how to buy for different types of people and various face shapes, trying on every frame herself to determine quality and weakness, fashion and function. In 1999, she opened Eye Design in Red Bank, and loved the area so much that she and Michael moved there. Over time, the business has become a destination store. Three licensed opticians assist her, each with 20 to 30 years’ experience, and eye exams are performed by Dr. Jeffrey Goldberg, an independent doctor of optometry.

Cohen’s emphasis was, and is, on combining comfort, design and technology—a multi-aesthetic zeal that has helped propel her to become President of the State Board of Opticians, a post she held for five years.

“The right frame does more for the face than a facelift,” she explained. “It must complement facial features. When the prescription is not measured correctly and there is not a proper exam, there can be breakage due to poor quality, eyestrain, neck aches, and other problems. We offer a comfort zone in terms of trust.”

Cohen has traveled to Europe every fall for the past 28 years looking for unique materials and designs to create a varied inventory, seeking out small designers who have become important over time. She knows their personal stories and visits their design rooms and factories. While meeting with independent craftspeople around the world, she often considers specific customers and face types back home. In Red Bank, new pieces are then hidden away, saved for those they are specifically selected for. Some are from “…very private lines that are not shown to the masses.”

Eye Design customers often have more than one pair of glasses for different purposes, “Like having different golf clubs,” the owner explained. Looks for the workplace, weekend, and special occasions all help enhance personality.

“Every movie star, rock star, fashion icon, or Wall Street wonder boy has made bold statements about who they are simply by adorning themselves with
provocative eyewear.”

Current trends include bold styles and wraparound glasses. Updated aviators are still in, Cohen pointed out, but it’s all about the details. Natural materials like wood, sterling silver, natural materials, and titanium in bright colors are in demand, as is interesting detail work that doesn’t scream the designer’s name.

Extending her brand, Cohen offers accessories to complement eyewear, combining extra style and flair with convenience. Accessories send a message, she explained, but should not be overdone. Popular now are cashmere wraps with light, loose knits that work for men or women. Silk scarves, jewelry, eyeglass boxes, and handbags are artfully arranged around the store and shown by her staff.

Also involved in the community, Cohen serves as an alternate on the Red Bank Planning Board.

“It’s good to have a business person on the board to advocate for what goes on in the business district,” she said. “One is not properly dressed until they have integrated eyewear into their personal style,” she added. “Every movie star, rock star, fashion icon, or Wall Street wonder boy has made bold statements about who they are simply by adorning themselves with provocative eyewear. Here, we stay abreast of the newest innovations in lens technology. I am proud of my products and would put my inventory up against any in the world.”