Surveying (and Surviving) Virginia Furniture Brands

Bassett FurnitureWhat Virginia furniture has to do in order to survive the recession

MARTINSVILLE – While it is High Point (and North Carolina) that is associated with the American furniture industry, it is the southern part of Virginia that is the hub for traditional American furniture. The region is home to a cluster of old-school, middle class brands including Stanley, Hooker, Pulaski, Rowe and Bassett.

While the industry has been in severe decline, and some firms have turned to importing, somehow (and quite miraculously) Virginia’s furniture makers have survived. For instance Stanley has introduced a Young America collection, which grows along with kids.

While not specifically mentioned in Michael Porter’s The Competitive Advantage of Nations, the Virginia (and North Carolina) furniture “cluster” most certainly follows Porter’s model, namely where a group of similar firms do not merge but instead compete ferociously, but in the end depend upon one another for survival. It is a healthy rivalry; as these rivals fight for market share they literally expand their own collective market as they borrow ideas, share suppliers and recruit away top talent.

Most consumer goods production has moved out of the U.S. But this is one place where U.S. manufacturing did survive. Why? Raw materials are cheap, labor is talented, shipping times are long and furniture is bulky. In addition, many pieces of furniture are made after they are purchased. That is not to say that imports can’t win. But U.S. furniture has natural advantages, and manufacturers need to exploit them.

Some of the surviving Virginia-based furniture makers are listed here. While the market downturn has hurt them all terribly, and there are no guarantees, it could have been far worse. These companies have made it thus far:

  • Hooker Furniture: Publicly traded (NASD: HOFT ) they are both an importer of furniture and a manufacturer. They have a Bedford, Va.-based subsidiary Sam Moore that sells upholstered furniture.
  • Pulaski Furniture: Part of Home Meridian International, they have a license agreement with Build-a-Bear Workshop and the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow.
  • Stanley Furniture: This company was founded in 1924 when Thomas B. Stanley, later a Virginia governor, started the company. Traded on NASDAQ as STLY, the stock was in the $6 range at press-time. In this climate, that sounds good!
  • Rowe Furniture Mostly an upholstered furniture maker, it was started in 1946 by Donald Rowe, Sr., Ralph E. Bentz and Donald Jordan in the Roanoke area. Rowe Fine Furniture Holdings Corp is owned by Sun Rowe, LLC, an affiliate of Sun Capital Partners, Inc.
  • Bassett Furniture (NASD: BSET) A nationwide chain of over 100 stores, Bassett Furniture has partnerships that include a John Elway collection called Elway and a sales approach much like Ethan Allan. The collections are all in a catalog; delivery is within 30 days.
  • Vaughan Bassett Based in Galax, Virginia, Vaughan-Bassett Furniture Company was founded in 1919 by B.C. Vaughan and J.D. Bassett, Sr., both of whom were from Bassett. Mr. Bassett, Sr., and his brother, C.C. also founded what today is Bassett Furniture.

O.K., so we’ve got these companies, the economy is tanked, and no one is going to be buying houses for the foreseeable future. Disaster? What should they do? Companies are doing the desperate thing, including withholding dividends, cutting back on staff, postponing advertising and overall hunkering down to make it until another day. We can’t help with those extreme moves, as every company in the U.S. is doing the same thing, just trying to figure a way to survive.

But what we can do is give some low-cost, high-impact branding ideas on what the companies should be doing at the same time they are hunkering down. They should continue to look forward, and do low-cost things that look to 2010, when the recession is fully over and people feel like buying houses again.

If they can just make it through next year, they can make it.

Immediate steps:

  1. Develop design talent. This does not only mean students from interior design schools but graphic designers, product designers and curators at Virginia’s many museums. Product design and ideas are critical to the future of the industry. Partner with new talent that needs exposure, not for big licensing deals, but small $5,000 one-off projects with artisans, graphic designers, curators and architects that have an audience of their own, but not in furniture.
  2. Import and export. Furniture firms have been consumed by whether they should continue to build furniture in the U.S., or import. This is an old argument. They should continue the trend of importing smaller items in Virginia but making key furniture in Virginia. Think of it as fashion, where there is a “couture” line and a mass market line.
  3. Create a sense of excitement about U.S. manufacturing. Some smaller repro makers have showrooms and shop tours. This is good. All should have this. Not only does the furniture get branded with a trademark, but its factory staff becomes a part of the experience. Factory floor staff sign each piece with a Sharpie. Think of it as a Volkswagen Wolfsburg factory tour. Certainly knowing that a sideboard was made by a particular American craftsman adds SOMETHING to the value.
  4. Pillage the past for a Virginia look. Companies like Richmond’s Biggs Furniture grew from a small antiques shop in Richmond into a major reproductions manufacturer that came close to rivaling Ethan Allen. Ditto with Colonial Williamsburg in the 1930s, where reproductions of the Williamsburg collection sold at CW’s Craft House. Furniture that is in a museum is an “ad” for new products, and products are “ads” for museums. There is a definite Virginia sense to design; while hard to define, it is about plantations, British influences and a certain ease of life. Through the 20th century, Virginia styles seemed ruled by Queen Anne, Chippendale, Hepplewhite and Federal designs, with only a token nod to Arts and Crafts and Modernism. And why should it have, when Virginians like Nancy Lancaster were ruling London with her furniture and William Haines gave the traditional a Hollywood spin. Today, Virginians like Bunny Williams and Charlotte Moss define a certain traditional style in New York. If your furniture says Made In Virginia, you need to use that to your advantage and make it mean something.
  5. Look to Apple. Apple has company stores, but sells at other locations too. It takes pride in its design, mostly in the U.S. It outsources production. While furniture making is low tech, the common brand and value building elements are the same. Logistics, packaging, presentation, design and overall thinking are things that Apple and furniture companies have in common. Packaging and shipping is part of the brand; read our story on the Boston branding agency Soldier Design, which talks about how to “brand” your shipping.
  6. Stop licensing outside brands. The trend in furniture is to license brand names for product lines. While there is nothing wrong with it, it misses the point. The problem is that they only get the “brand” for a limited amount of time, and then must renew it. What the furniture companies need to do is to develop their own look and reinforce their own brands. Stanley, Hooker, Pulaski, Rowe and Bassett need to have their own design directors who establish and burnish those furniture lines, much as Gucci hired Tom Ford. Rowe furniture, right before the time of a Chaper 11 filing, hired Jonathan Adler to design a licensed furniture line. What would be better is if the companies hired talent to design under their own brands, and gave those designers authority within the company.
  7. Embrace the start ups. Furniture has a low barrier to entry, and big established companies need to look invest in small start ups to gain ideas. In the 1970s, rustic pine “crate-style” furniture became the rage, when Richmond-based This End Up opened up on Richmond’s Strawberry Street in 1975. This company swept the industry during the 1970s recession. Are there other This End Ups in the making?
  8. Embrace the collectors. Each brand has dealers on Ebay that sell their furniture. Ensuring a thriving re-sale market of collectors of each of the brands will increase brand valuation. That means furniture company websites must include old catalogs, product photos and archives, so that potential buyers can see their potential purchases as part of a long narrative.
  9. Repro as talent base. Virginia is a hub of American reproductions makers including The Workshop of Charles Neil; Jake Cress; Owen Suter’s; Henkel Harris; Suter’s of Virginia; Jaeger & Ernst; Randall Frey; Tom Seeley Furniture; E. A. Clore Sons, Inc. and Howerton Furniture. These independent makers could partner with larger companies, they smaller guys getting distribution and the big companies being able to offer more products to dealers.
  10. Warehousing is the industry too. Because of Virginia’s ports, the state is also associated with international furniture sellers and importers like IKEA, Kingsley Bate, Gloster and Flexa. They are just as much a part of the industry, and can help in resource sharing as part of the cluster.

We would love it if other manufacturers, however small, would add their links below so we can come up with a complete list of Virginia furniture makers and brands:

18 Comments

  1. Alhough the corporate office for This End Up was based in Richmond, manufacturing has always been in the Raleigh, NC area. Currently the manufacturing plant is in Sanford, NC.

  2. I purchased coffee end tables manufactured in Roanoke Virginia by Wells Furniture Manufacture stamped on the bottom each piece.
    What years was Wells furniture manufacture building furniture in roanoke va.

  3. I’ve got an end table and coffee table with Wells Furniture Company, Roanoke Virginia stamper on them. Trying to decide whether to take them back or not. Dealer sold them as Baker. Anyone know the history?

  4. I have an end table marked Wells Furniture Co. of Roanoke VA. Can you tell me if the company is still around or when they were in business. So far my search has been fruitless.
    Thanks

  5. Hi,
    Just a quick comment about WELLS furniture. I just bought a pair of great looking end tables at a tag sale, both are marked WELLS of Roanoke. Tag says fine reproduction furniture to which I must agree. The matching end tables look like they are about 200 years old. They have banded mahogany with inlay drawers, double tapered reeded legs. They may be done in the “regency” style. Whatever the style, they are well made and have a classic / formal look. A friend told me that Wells was known for good quality, but went out of business about 20 years ago. Well(s),
    that’s the end of my comment!

  6. I have a Queen Anne solid cherry end table. Very nice…The man I bought it from said it was made by Wells furniture Co. but it is not marked Wells. I would love to have another to match this one. Can you help?

  7. I have a dresser of my grandmothers I am trying to redo. The workmanship is awesome on the Mirror it says 1946 Galax, Va. I would love to know if there is any information on who made it.It seems to be made of Popular wood, oak, and laminate. Thank you

  8. Hi.
    I just. Got. A dining table. From Berky& gay. Do. U know. Where. Can. I get. The. Cabinet
    Thanks
    Y

  9. Looking for information on a furniture maker – J R Denton & Son in Harrisonburg, VA – I have a parlor table and would like to know more about this maker. Thank you.

  10. i worked for wells furniture co in 1951 with a bobby moses. charles george to mention a few .

  11. I gave a chifferobe my grandmother gave me. She lived in Alabama. It is cedar lined and has Wells Furniture of Roanoke, VA and several other markings on the back. Can you tell me anything about this peice 0f furniture and is there any value to it? It is very old.

  12. Thomas A. Johnson Furniture Co. is a fine furniture company in Lynchburg, Virginia. Mr. Johnson is an amazing individual and talented designer and woodworker. I could talk with him for hours. He has a fine furniture line but also does custom cabinetry, millwork, etc and uses reclaimed wood for the most part. Definitely worth a visit…
    http://www.thomasjohnsonfurniture.com

  13. i have a closet by wells furniture marked on the back made in roanoke va. with a number 231 wal can anybody tell me about this piece of furniture

  14. I have a six sided coffee table made by wells furniture , no 21133 can you tell me how old it might be , made of maple

  15. Wells Furniture, owned by the Wells family was located in SE Roanoke VA. Was bought by Hooker Furniture around 1980. Closed down in about 2006……later bought by Chervan, a local Bedford Business.
    Wells made excellent furniture, if you have it, keep it.

  16. Painted table Wells Furinture Co. #22332. Would like some info about it.

  17. There is no finer custom furniture maker in America than Suter’s in Harrisonburg. None.

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