Christian G. Carron, with contributions by Kenneth L. Ames, Jeffrey D. Kleiman, and Joel Lefever. Grand Rapids Furniture: The Story of America’s Furniture City. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Public Museum of Grand Rapids, 1998. v + 244 pp.; numerous color and bw illus., directory of furniture makers and their marks, bibliography, index. $35.00.

As scholarly investigation of nineteenth-century American furniture has matured in the last few decades, we have moved from broad surveys of the material to more specialized studies. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, the up-scale panoply of objects in the 1970 exhibition and catalogue, Nineteenth Century America, was followed in 1986 by the more temporally focused exhibition and publication, In Pursuit of Beauty, and finally by the monographic treatment in 1995 of Herter Brothers: Furniture and Interiors for a Gilded Age. Across the river, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, nineteenth-century studies have followed a similar path but have often focused on a somewhat broader economic range. The 1960 ground-breaking exhibition and abbreviated catalogue, Victoriana: An Exhibition of the Arts of the Victorian Era in America, included 260 objects that ranged from small, pressed glass cup plates to parlor cabinets. In 1979, Brooklyn examined the gilded age of the American Renaissance and in 1997 presented a monographic exhibition on the progressive, machine-made furniture made for the upper-middle market by New York designer and manufacturer George Hunzinger.

It is not surprising, then, as the millennium draws to a close and nineteenth-century revivalism is regarded with historical objectivity, that scholarly focus should be directed toward the regional accomplishments and history of machine-made, middle-market furniture in the United States. After all, it is this latter aspect of the furniture trade that most characterizes the American contribution to the history of Western furniture rather than the superb handcraftsmanship of Herter Brothers. Although acknowledgment of this aspect of the furniture industry seems slow to have manifested itself here, it has evidently long shaped the view of American furniture abroad. For instance, although the examples of American furniture chosen by the Keepers at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, are characterized by progressive design—side chairs by Samuel Gragg and George Hunzinger and a sofa by John Henry Belter—they also espouse a ready acceptance and ingenious use of the machine. In fact, one of the few pieces of American furniture selected to bring back to England by the British delegates to the 1853 Crystal Palace Exhibition in New York was a small, Elizabethan revival occasional table whose main virtue was that it was made largely by machine.1

The book under discussion here examines in unprecedented historical detail the development of the machine-made furniture business in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the self-proclaimed “Furniture City.” One uses the term “business” with intent; this study is more a socioeconomic history of the furniture trade in this city rather than an object-oriented study replete with stylistic analyses. Although this volume makes considerable contributions to the history of the furniture trade that will be useful to curators, collectors, and antiques dealers, one can only lament this current trend in the discipline that diminishes the object. By not focusing on the furniture as art objects, the author precludes a discussion of the stylistic characteristics of Grand Rapids furniture that might distinguish it from machine-made furniture from other centers.2

Another aspect of this book is endemic to current publication practices. The book was published in conjunction with an exhibition held in 1994 that was drawn from the collection of twenty-six hundred examples of indigenous furniture in the Grand Rapids Museum to mark the 140th anniversary of the institution; the exhibition is now a permanent installation. Museums and publishers seem apprehensive about the appeal of exhibition catalogues that they fear will have a shorter shelf life than more independently conceived books. Since the potential market for specialized art history books is so small, it is difficult to understand this anxiety. As a result, the nature of the exhibitions that inspired these publications is not recorded and is lost unless, presumably, one travels to the host institution and inspects the exhibition files. Clearly one way around this issue would be to include an abbreviated exhibition checklist in the more generalized publication to document those objects that were displayed. This information might be important in helping future historians evaluate possible influences that the exhibited objects had on taste and scholarly interests. In addition, the present book suffers from a lack of rigorous editing. Not only are some foreign names misspelled (Pierre de La Mésengère, not Pierre de la Mésengère), but accent marks are also omitted (möbel, not mobel). Also, some basic information is repeated by the multiple authors (the prizes awarded at the Centennial Exhibition for bedroom suites and the ethnicity of the work force, for example). These reservations aside, this book is full of new information and of revealing, often amusing or sad, anecdotes.

The book is divided into nine chapters that trace the history of the furniture industry in Grand Rapids from the 1830s to the present. There are more than two hundred photographs that include color images of furniture in the collection of the Public Museum of Grand Rapids as well as historical black-and-white images. Although the photographs are coordinated chronologically with the text, they are not numbered and constitute virtually an addendum. This lack of coordination between pictures and text also results in an omission of illustrations necessary to elucidate important points. The captions, often quite long, are printed as sidebars in sepia as opposed to the black of the text. There are, regrettably, no footnotes, although some sources are cited in the text. The lack of footnotes severely diminishes the scholarly value of the text and raises numerous questions about various conclusions drawn. Six of the chapters were written by Christian G. Carron, who also curated the exhibition that inspired the book, and three others are by scholars who collaborated on the project. There are general background chapters that set the cultural stage for the furniture history, describe the increased reliance on machinery, and relate the rise of labor unions. The historical sections trace the humble beginnings of the industry and conclude with a fascinating description of the adaptation of the furniture industry to new materials and markets in the late twentieth century.

In chapter one, “Good Timing and a Flair for Leadership,” Kenneth L. Ames, a champion of material culture studies, provides a good introduction to the importance accorded furniture in American Victorian culture. He suggests four main reasons for the rise of the furniture industry in Grand Rapids. First, by the time the city began to prosper in the 1870s, manufacturers had built new factories from scratch with the latest machinery and did not have to endure the costly and time-consuming conversions that plagued manufacturers in established eastern centers such as New York and Boston. The establishment of the Grand Rapids Furniture Market, a semi-annual trade show, brought buyers and sellers together in an organized and efficient manner, and the publication of the Grand Rapids Furniture Record, a well-designed and well-written trade journal, also appealed to consumers and helped educate them about new trends and products. The fourth crucial development was the establishment in 1903 in the Grand Rapids Public Library of a reference section dedicated to publications on the history of furniture and the trade for the instruction of local designers and manufacturers.

Chapter two, “Arrivals and Beginnings,” by Carron, traces the early history of the furniture industry in the city. Traditionally, William “Deacon” Haldane, from upstate New York, was the first furniture maker in Grand Rapids in the mid-1830s. The first manufacturer to employ power machinery, however, was Ebenezer Ball beginning about 1849; he perhaps is the true father of the machine-made furniture industry in Grand Rapids. Other early settlers included the Widdicomb family, from Devonshire, England, by way of New Hampshire, who arrived about 1857. The text is rife with familiar names of American manufacturers, and it is a revelation to learn about their origins and that their factories were located in Grand Rapids. Carron outlines the fortuitous combination of conditions that encouraged the furniture industry: rich natural resources of both hard- and softwood forests and of natural waterways that included the Grand River and access to the Great Lakes; the newest technology; capital investors who were not adverse to high risk; and a large work force composed of skilled woodworkers from Germany, England, Scotland, and Canada, as well as unskilled newer immigrants mostly from the Netherlands and Poland and native-born African Americans who arrived from the South during Reconstruction. The arrival of the railroad in 1857 was the final ingredient for success; it reduced the travel time to New York and the large eastern markets from two or three weeks to two or three days.

Joel Lefever gives three case studies of the most influential manufacturers in the nineteenth century: Berkey & Gay Furniture Company; Nelson, Matter & Company; and Phoenix Furniture Company. These firms established vertical monopolies and owned tracts of forests, lumber mills, and means of transportation in addition to large factories with the latest machinery. These factories eventually also had photography studios to produce promotional material and mail-order catalogues. Grand Rapids firms early on referred to themselves as furniture makers rather than cabinetmakers, which alluded to handwork, to emphasize the low cost and high quality that machine-made furniture could attain. As time progressed, Grand Rapids manufacturers tended to abandon low-end production in favor of middle and upper-middle market goods. This strategy often entailed the addition of carved decoration to the machine-made furniture, and by the early 1880s the Grand Rapids Furniture Carvers’ Guild was established. Although these companies had independent sales forces, they soon realized the benefits of cooperation and held joint trade shows and established manufacturers’ associations. The attribution of furniture is often difficult due to the scarcity of labeled pieces and the conscious community of style established to create an identity for Grand Rapids furniture. Brief hints on preferred drawer construction methods and use of chalk marks during assembly are offered to differentiate the production of one company from another, but these are ultimately somewhat vague and not conclusive.

“Making Connections,” written by Jeffrey D. Kleiman, offers a fascinating account of the Byzantine interconnections of the banking and furniture business in this one-industry town. Nineteen furniture manufacturers eventually controlled the industry. Berkey & Gay, Grand Rapids Chair Company, and Phoenix Furniture Company were at the center of these interlocking business interests, and their shared executives also controlled the four major banks. The fate of the furniture worker was entirely at the mercy of the entrepreneurial class. Beginning in 1910 the workers attempted to begin collective bargaining but met with no cooperation from the factory owners. In 1911 the first great strike occurred but led to few gains for the workers. Although the Clayton Anti-Trust Act of 1914 helped break up the overlap of business influences, the lot of the workers was not dramatically improved. This brief history of the labor movement in Grand Rapids is clearly and poignantly told, although it lacks historical context. The furniture labor movement had begun in New York by the mid-1880s. There is no explanation why the movement took so long to arrive in Grand Rapids.3

The remaining five chapters relate the history of the Grand Rapids furniture trade in the twentieth century. Grand Rapids responded to the stylistic trend, if not the full spirit, of the arts and crafts movement in the first decade of the century. Curiously, although one of the main tenets of the movement—handcraftsmanship—was ignored, another goal of the movement—to provide simple, well-designed furniture to a large audience—was ironically accomplished by the large-scale production of machine-made furniture in the arts and crafts style. During the 1910s and 1920s, the Grand Rapids factories specialized in good-quality historical reproductions. Foreign designers had been lured to Grand Rapids to help establish the arts and crafts market, and this trend continued in the succeeding decades. In 1917 the importance of the designer was acknowledged, and the Grand Rapids Furniture Designers Association was founded. In 1931 the association hosted the first meeting of the American Institute of Decorators. To ensure the historical accuracy of their reproductions, some manufacturers purchased antiques. Hollis M. Baker, the owner of Baker Furniture Company, owned more than four thousand pieces of antique furniture. He opened the Baker Museum for Furniture Research in 1941; eventually a portion of this collection was transferred to the Public Museum of Grand Rapids.

The success of Grand Rapids manufacturers owed a great deal to their willingness to subsume personal identity in favor of collective marketing. Between 1899 and 1913 most city-made furniture was labeled not with the manufacturer’s name but rather with the communal “Grand Rapids Made” logo. The extent of this cooperative solidarity was unusual but served the city well. Rather than trying to establish name recognition for dozens of small firms, the city-wide logo benefited them all. More important than the city logo was “The Market,” the semi-annual trade show that brought wholesale buyers directly to the city. Both local and out-of-town manufacturers set up displays. Although the Market had its beginnings in the late 1870s, the 1910s and 1920s witnessed its greatest success. In 1925, Grand Rapids had ten exhibition halls, and about 560 dealers participated. An entire entertainment industry grew up to support the Market, and hotels, restaurants, and theaters flourished. Other cities, of course, had similar markets, and eventually the larger and more accessible American Furniture Mart in Chicago superceded the one in Grand Rapids, which ceased in 1965.

The great prosperity in the United States in the 1920s curiously did not include the furniture industry in Grand Rapids. Victorian cultural ideals about the importance of the home declined, and Americans were more inclined to spend money on a new car than on new furniture. Increased production capabilities in those years also saturated the furniture market, and prices fell. There was an attempt to stimulate the industry through the introduction of the art moderne style in the mid-1920s. Josef Urban, Donald Deskey, and Kem Weber, among others, were lured to Grand Rapids. The Herman Miller Furniture Company, which hired Gilbert Rohde in the early 1930s and later George Nelson, was the most successful company to bring modernism to a large market.

The Great Depression sounded the final death knoll for the traditional furniture industry in the city. By 1940, 30 percent of the furniture companies had closed. The number of workers declined from twelve thousand in 1929 to fewer than three thousand in 1940, and wages dropped 50 percent between 1929 and 1933. Traditional manufacturers largely retreated to the smaller, high-end market of reproduction colonial furniture, inspired by the new museums devoted to our colonial past such as Colonial Williamsburg and the Henry Ford Museum. During World War II, the furniture factories were successfully refitted for war production. After the war, the experience of the efficiency of large government contract orders and the need to furnish new houses, schools, and offices to accommodate the demobilized armed forces refocused the furniture trade in Grand Rapids to the contract furniture business. School furniture, which had been a staple of the economy since the late nineteenth century, store and restaurant fittings, theater and stadium seating, and especially flexible office cubicles became the new specialties of the local industry. Office environments have become the mainstay of the industry and the hope of the future as well.

The last section of the book is a “Directory of Grand Rapids Area Furniture Makers and Marks.” This section is perhaps the most useful aspect of the publication and reason enough for all furniture historians to have this book on the shelf. About eight hundred individual makers and companies from western Michigan, established from the 1830s to the present, are listed, in addition to some retailers and purveyors of supplies vital to the industry. Although some entries are short, those for more important firms include “company history,” “personnel,” “marks and labels,” and “other sources.” This last category suggests sources for more information, such as the location of company catalogues and where to find examples of furniture in public collections. The inclusion of reproductions of numerous company logos, however, may be somewhat misleading for the average collector; these marks seldom appear on furniture but rather were culled from company catalogues and advertisements. The cross-referencing in this section has not, unfortunately, always been well edited. For example, the innovative plywood chairs designed by Frank Gehry for Knoll, Inc., that are touted in the text are mentioned only under the actual manufacturer, Davidson Plyforms, Inc. The short bibliography and index also suffer from a lack of editorial acumen. For example, Leslie Green is listed as a separate author from Leslie Green Bowman, and similar publications from the Metropolitan Museum of Art are listed in one case under the title of the exhibition (In Pursuit of Beauty) and in another under the author (Herter Brothers). In addition, the date of publication given for each title is incorrect. Finally, in the too brief index our colleague and Metropolitan Museum curator Catherine Hoover Voorsanger is the only historian included among the furniture firms and designers of Grand Rapids.

Pointing out flaws is only one task of the reviewer, and I would be remiss to end on a negative note. This publication should be applauded for its seriousness of purpose and its major contribution as the first scholarly step at documenting the ongoing history of Grand Rapids as a vital center of the furniture industry in the United States.

Barry R. Harwood
Brooklyn Museum of Art

1. Clive D. Edwards, Victorian Furniture: Technology and Design (Manchester, England, and New York: Manchester University Press, 1993), pp. 164–65.

2. For an interesting discussion of this issue, see John Walsh, “Eight Theses for Art Historians and Museums,” College Art Association News 24 , no. 2 (March 1999): 10–12.

3. Labor unrest and strikes were reported in national furniture trade papers such as the American Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer; for example, see Barry Harwood, The Furniture of George Hunzinger: Invention and Innovation in Nineteenth-Century America (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Brooklyn Museum of Art, 1997), p. 135 and notes 202 and 203.