In the early 1900s, we looked to the hardwoods and built an industry that produced more household furniture than any other state in the country. Times and business practices change, but we still proclaim: Ours is better.
The back of A Gainsborough chair is what makes it the Gainsborough chair. Especially the curve. Because you can have a chair with a high-and-wide back and still have a Gainsborough chair, just not the one. You see, there are two distinctive chairs that share the name Gainsborough. Both are named after 18th-century English portrait artist Thomas Gainsborough, and both claim to make you look your best sitting down. The other chair is a formal armchair with a high-and-stiff back. It’s a chair designed for men who sit shoulders straight, chest out, and legs crossed. The Oval Office has a set of them in front of a fireplace. But again, that’s not the chair. No, the Gainsborough chair came from here. It was ours.
Designed in the mind of Ray Neville, director of style and design for Tomlinson Furniture in High Point in the 1940s, our Gainsborough chair simply suits us better. Its curves are more graceful, its cushion more supple. In a word, our chair is more hospitable.
Tomlinson marketed the chair specifically to Southern women. It printed sales materials promising a chair, “… in which any woman looks her
loveliest” and once constructed an oversize version to serve as Miss High Point’s throne.
A black-and-white photograph in the High Point Museum shows a beauty queen framed by a Gainsborough chair sitting on a float, parading down Main Street. Chances are that somewhere along that route, someone leaned over to the person next to him and pointed out our Gainsborough chair. That it was made here in High Point at the Tomlinson factory on the corner of Lindsay Street and High Avenue. Perhaps even that his hands helped sand it or glue it, upholster it or finish it. That, truth be told, compared to the other Gainsborough chair, ours is more beautiful.
Outside the redbrick building where Tomlinson Chair Company started making things in 1901, a wrought-iron sign is fixed to the wall. It reads, in gold letters: String & Splinter Club, Members Only. Inside, Charlie Green works to shake hands with everyone he can. On this spring morning, in the middle of High Point’s biannual furniture market, Green is busy promoting exports.
A veteran of the furniture industry, Green is the chairman of the North Carolina Furniture Export Council. He says the future of furniture on our soil depends on developing new business on foreign soil — in places like India and China that, ironically, now build much of our furniture and ship it to us. Corporate offices here tell people there what kind of furniture we want. Green says our opportunity lies in catering to what they want.
He’s someone who looks like he knows what he’s talking about. At 74 years old, he has a head of silver hair, parted to the right, and wears a gold Rolex watch. His initials, C.A.G., are stitched into the left cuff of his shirt. To prove he knows what he’s talking about, he ends nearly every thought with a nod and a half-questioning “OK” to compel you to keep listening.
Green makes his way around the room introducing North Carolina’s seven foreign trade representatives for the furniture industry. They work on behalf of the state’s commerce department to help furniture businesses here find a foothold in their respective home countries of Brazil, Mexico, China, Japan, South Korea, Germany, and Canada.
They’ve come to this place, an ornately decorated dining room that once was a factory floor, to talk over breakfast about what people want. To say that Brazilians want furniture that’s bright and contemporary, while Mexicans want something classic, clean, and cheap. That in Canada, especially western Canada, developers are building pricey condos in the sky. That in Vancouver, the average price of a house is $800,000. There’s opportunity, they say, if you’ll give people what they want.
That’s the nature of the sale, the nature of business. A reciprocal — some say — relationship where you get what you want by giving someone else what she wants. Or, at least what she thinks she wants. To sell anything, you first have to convince the buyer why she wants to buy. To show her, to prove to her, that she really does look her loveliest in our Gainsborough chair.
That’s why, in this redbrick building where Tomlinson started making things, there’s no sawdust. Only the original hardwood floors and exposed brick. A developer repurposed and repackaged industry’s grit to make room for white collars and pantsuits. Four-hundred and thirty thousand square feet — less than a tenth of which the String & Splinter Club occupies — is largely dedicated as booths for retailers, designers, and manufacturers to show what they have to offer.
Each booth looks a lot like home. Better than home. Every color coordinates and the lighting is perfect. You come here to become your brand. If you’re Lilly Pulitzer, you upholster furniture in bright pink and green, set it against a wall of bright blue, with a few bright white accents like a chandelier and lamp. If you’re Capel Rugs, you cover the floor and wall with designs in every hue, for any room in the home and outdoors, too. You see, to be prestigious — to be wanted — you have to look the part.
Furniture first came to North Carolina in the late 1800s. In 1880, it only employed 85 North Carolinians, most of them in small cabinet shops. Together, they produced less than $75,000 worth of furniture in a year. Out of 38 states in the union, North Carolina ranked 36th in furniture production.
New York, Michigan, and Massachusetts held a clear advantage. They had sprawling forests, skilled workers, the financial backing of wealthy industrialists, and, most importantly, customers. New York City, Grand Rapids, and Chicago hosted annual furniture markets long before High Point ever did.
But in the course of two decades, from 1890 to 1910, something changed. Business and political leaders in North Carolina’s Piedmont looked south to the rolling Uwharrie Mountains, northwest to the Sauratown Mountains, and due west to the Blue Ridge. And they realized that we, too, have an abundance of trees. Strong trees that make for strong wood. Oak, hickory, and walnut among them. Hardwoods.
At the same time, in the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction, another industry — textiles — began to boom. With it, rural farmhands became urban industrial hands. A crossroads became a town, and a town became a city. Factories grew out of the ground, and houses grew out of necessity. And then we needed something to fill our houses with. Something for sitting, sleeping, and storage. So, we started building things.
In 1888, a man named E.A. Snow supplied lumber to two other men, Thomas Wrenn and John Tate, to construct a factory to house the High Point Furniture Company — the first furniture manufacturer in town. Snow received stock in the company as payment and later sold his interest to start Eagle Furniture Company. His story could be many others’. By 1900, 33 furniture factories operated in High Point, while others cropped up in places like Lenoir, Hickory, Thomasville, and Lexington. Local men funded almost every one. They came to the table, made money, cashed out, and then joined others to bet the house on building a new company.
The industry grew at such a rapid clip that by 1910, more than 250 furniture factories in North Carolina produced nearly six times the output of 1900. In 1910, we produced twice as much as any other Southern state. By 1939, we produced more wooden household furniture than any other state in the country.
On a largely forgotten backstreet in High Point — a street that runs parallel to the same tracks where the Southern Railway Company once took our Gainsborough chair to people everywhere — a bay door is rolled open and a breeze blows in.
People are working inside, stretching and stapling fabric or leather onto a solid wood frame. The sharp-sounding pop of a pneumatic staple gun escapes outside.
Their boss is Charlie Green, and this is his new business — The Best of Everything. When he’s not talking about the importance of exports, he’s here at his office, sitting at a large desk in a large room with white walls and fluorescent lighting. A secretary sits at a smaller desk nearby. Stacks of books and papers fill nearly every surface. On the top of one stack, there’s a book by Nido Qubein, president of High Point University, motivational speaker, and possibly the most powerful man in this town. A man who has no connection to furniture.
That’s the manifestation of a simple fact: Here, in a place that calls itself the furniture capital of the world, the furniture industry has coequals. In High Point, there’s higher education and healthcare, and everyone knows it. Even when market brings millions of dollars to town twice a year, many people in High Point only worry about the traffic. And how that traffic might delay their commute to work in some other city.
This is not furniture’s golden age in North Carolina. That was the 1980s, when the industry gave jobs to some 90,000 people. Then the ’90s brought free trade, and free trade brought fierce competition. Foreign competitors built things cheaper and of comparable quality. To stay alive, companies here looked for a narrow niche in which to make money. They trimmed their workforce, their output, and their impact.
Green spent the better part of four decades building his own furniture company, Classic Gallery, and then sold it in 2006 to a competitor in Hong Kong. It was a cash sale that Green could live comfortably with. Then the company failed within two years, and his former employees lost their jobs.
His clients lost their partner in production and then started calling him because they had projects and knew of no one else who could do them.
In 2010, Green came out of retirement to launch The Best of Everything and hired back a handful of his former colleagues. He now custom upholsters furniture for select clients for specific spaces. Green’s work is in hotel lobbies and every Abercrombie and Fitch clothing store.
He wants his work positioned in highly visible spots where people will admire it. His thinking is that as more people see it, more people will call. Then there will be more work to go around and more money coming in. Then business will grow and his building will expand. Then other businesses will grow and need to expand. Then he’ll need more workers, and everyone else will, too.
People just need to see what we can make, he says. Because when they do — when they see our next Gainsborough chair — they’ll want us. Then we’ll work to give the world something beautiful and parade it down Main Street to celebrate the fact that it’s ours.
Jeffrey Turner is the assistant editor of Our State magazine. His most recent story was “Make Your Choice” (June 2012).