By Ron Ortiz
During the last half of the 19th century, furniture manufacturing became an important industry in Michigan, especially in the Grand Rapids area. Since then, more than 800 furniture makers were located on the west side of the state. With its huge concentration of furniture makers, Grand Rapids earned its reputation as "The Furniture Capital" by manufacturing huge quantities of furniture of all styles. While Grand Rapids was the best-known city in the country for its furniture, large quantities were also built in other Michigan cities including Detroit, Grand Ledge and Holland. In the late 1890s, over 7,000 people were employed in furniture factories across the state.
Most of the furniture manufactured during this period was traditional styling. However, during the early part of the 20th century, some companies expanded their lines to include tines by contemporary designers. Among the some of the best-known companies that designed Art Deco or Modern furniture at some point in their history is Baker Furniture, Grand Rapids Chair, Imperial Furniture, Johnson Brothers, Johnson-HandleyJohnson, Charles Limbert Co., Michigan Chair, Sligh Furniture, Stickey Furniture and Widdicomb Furniture.
Baker Furniture is still headquartered in Grand Rapids and continues to operate as a subsidiary of Koehler Co. with factories in Holland, Michigan and North Carolina. Although Baker Furniture manufactured some significant modern lines of residential furniture designed by Donald Deskey, Finn Juhl and Robsjohn Gibbings, it is best known for its reproductions of American and European antiques.
While its first products were caned chairs, the Grand Rapids Chair Company turned its full production to parlor, living and dining suites by the 1920s. Beginning in the 1950s, the company produced a line of modular residential units named the "Cross Country" line. Grand Rapids Chair operated as a subsidiary of Sligh Furniture from 1945 to 1957 and subsequently was fully integrated into Baker Furniture in 1973.
Imperial Furniture's largest inventory of designs consisted of tables, bookcases and desks. Imperial Furniture claimed to have invented the "coffee table" in the 1920s. Founded in 1903, the company was sold to Bergsma Brothers in 1954 and closed its doors in 1983. In 1908, the three Johnson brothers founded Johnson Furniture Company and in the same year hired English designer, Tom Handley. In 1922, the four men started Johnson-Handley-Johnson as a companion company. Both companies produced significant lines of modern furniture by such designers as David Robertson Smith, Eliel Saarinen and Paul Frankel. In 1983, the company merged with Rose Manufacturing Company to form RoseJohnson Inc., which is now the La-Z-Boy Contract Group.
Charles P. Limbert Co. manufactured Mission and folk design-inspired chairs. In 1902 the company introduced its Dutch Arts and Crafts line in oak and ash. The factory moved from Grand Rapids to Holland, Michigan in 1906, although its showrooms remained in Grand Rapids. Limberts last Mission and Arts and Crafts designs were produced in 1918. After this time, the company concentrated on 17th and 18th century designs until it closed in 1944.
Michigan Chair Company began in 1890 and manufactured chairs in a wide range of styles including Mission, Prairie, Austrian Modern and Art Deco. A successful manufacturer for almost four decades, the company closed in 1938, reopened in 1946 but closed permanently in 1972 Sligh Furniture Co. began in Grand Rapids as a manufacturer of bedroom furniture and suites. By the mid-1920s, Sligh was among the largest bedroom furniture manufacturers in the world. During the depression, the company closed in 1932. It reopened as Charles R. Sligh Co. and moved to Holland, Michigan in 1933. Today the Sligh Furniture and Sligh Clock Division still operates today, making wooden office furniture and grandfather clocks.
The best-known name in Arts and Crafts furniture is Stickley. Of the five Stickley brothers, Albert and John George Stickley formed Stickley Brothers Furniture in Grand Rapids in 1891 to produce chairs and tables in Colonial and Mission styles. By 1903, the Stickley Brothers began its "Quaint Mission" trademark with residential furniture in oak. This style of furniture became widely known and is highly collected. The company ceased production in 1954.
George Widdicomb and Sons incorporated as Widdicomb Furniture Co. in 1873, manufacturing inexpensive bedroom furniture. Its first modern pieces were introduced in 1928 and ten years later, they produced nothing else. Designs by Robsjohn Gibbings and George Nakashima made Widdicomb an important manufacturer of FiftiesModern furniture. The John Widdicomb Co. began when brother John ventured out on his own. The company continues to operate in Grand Rapids today; producing traditional forms with a wide variety of specialty finishes.
Herman Miller Inc., based in Zeeland, MI, began in 1923 as a manufacturer of residential furniture. Over the years, the company has become synonymous with the design and manufacture of modern furniture for home and office. Designers Charles and Ray Eames and George Nelson have designed contemporary furniture such as the "Marshmallow Sofa" and the "Molded Plywood Chair." Today, Herman Miller Inc. has customers and locations around the world.