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Made in America

12/14/2013 6:00:23 PM
Article by John Howell

I attended the High Point Market in October with one goal. I’d read about the Made in America Pavilion that had started in 2011 and has grown to incorporate over fifty companies exhibiting their latest offerings in furniture. I wanted to see first-hand what these companies were doing to overcome the overseas migration that furniture manufacturing has undergone in the last couple of decades.

I knew that what is referred to as “Market Square” was where I’d find the Made in America Pavilion. Market Square is the place to find everything from new, innovative designs to antiques. My focus, since I’m a woodworker, was primarily on wood furniture.

I must admit that I didn’t attend without prejudice. I was hoping to find companies that produced high quality wood furniture where the beauty of the woods were enhanced to their fullest potential and the integrity of the furniture was beyond reproach. My belief is that the furniture industry needs to move in this direction in order to regain substantial market share.

Market Square is a complex of three buildings connected in an interesting yet confusing arrangement, gently climbing a hillside near the center of town. I found the Made in America Pavilion on the first floor of the first building, named “Suites at Market Square”. The first floor was the top floor, at least in this building. The confusion had begun, but it made my quest seem more like an adventure.

The most interesting exhibit I encountered in the Pavilion was that of a company named Peacock Décor Lodge Living. The company is run by Jerry Williamson and his son, Jerry Howard Williamson, in Alabama. They salvage wood themselves from storm damaged or otherwise non-viable trees to create “live edge” tables, benches, and desks. The tops are made from 2½″ thick slabs of maple, sycamore, pecan, and any other interesting species they may find. The grain is striking; the style is rustic with splits, knots, and the live edge left in its natural shape (just the bark is removed). One key point is that the seasoning is done with great care so that the slabs remain stable and workable.

Accent Table Box Elder Top with live edges and a cedar base from Peacock Décor Lodge Living.

Market Square also featured some very creative and innovative displays of furniture made from recycled wood and other materials. Two examples that stood out were from Groovy Stuff and Warehouse 2120. These exhibits along with several others were inspiring. They show the type of innovative entrepreneurship that reminded me how America became such a success in the first place.

I still hadn’t found what I hoped for the most. Interesting as these exhibits were, they were limited in their potential for gaining significant market share. Due to their nature they had to be produced as one-offs. I wanted to find the type of furniture that had the potential to be produced efficiently for a larger segment of the furniture market and at the same time possessed the qualities mentioned above.

I finally found an exhibit that met the criteria, from Roguewood Furniture. They are based in Oregon and use domestic woods, including selections from local forests. According to their website, they strive to find wood that is responsibly harvested.

Their designs showcase the woods to their full potential. The woods are selected and matched specifically for their intended location on the piece of furniture. For example, the claro walnut I saw on the headboard of a bed on exhibit was book matched from leaf to leaf and balanced so that it was centered on the finished panel. With a tight curly figure, the overall effect was spectacular.

Headboard shown in Oregon Claro Walnut at High Point Market Spring 2013 from Roguewood Furniture.

I didn’t ask if I could knock a piece of furniture apart to examine the joinery. Based on the attention to detail that I witnessed on the surface, however, I tend to believe that the claims of high quality craftsmanship found on their website are true for the joinery as well.

The majority of furniture offered to the American public over the years has been of mediocre quality with muddy finishes hiding mismatched grain along with cheap woods and wood substitutes. It’s gotten to the point where most people rarely get to see the potential beauty that thoughtfully designed and crafted furniture can offer. Aside from the aesthetic disappointment, the furniture industry in America has opened the door to foreign competition. This is because muddy finishes allow foreign manufacturers to substitute most any material that even remotely resembles the woods used in American furniture. Also, workers with just moderate skills can readily produce cheaply made furniture. If we continue to try to compete on price alone, we have little chance of regaining much of the market share that we’ve lost to low cost offshore manufacturers.

At High Point the “Made in America” slogan was seen frequently throughout the show, but we need more than this slogan alone. Hopefully, with the right effort, the furniture industry will begin to help consumers appreciate high quality furniture enough that they’ll be willing to pay a premium for it. Then furniture Made in America will be something to be proud of and furniture manufacturing in America can grow again.

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