Get to know Grand Rapids (and the world)

Furnishing the World 2

Today’s Olli life-long learning class on Furniture City was a little less interesting than last week.

It was mostly looking at pictures of the furniture factories and chair designs (which was still pretty neat.)

Still there was the focus on “Where do you go for furniture? Grand Rapids.”

This will mostly be a least of neat things I learned today. 

  • Companies came and went in high quantities through Grand Rapids. 
  • The market was opposite as it is today; labor was cheap and material were expensive.
  • Buildings were solidly built. The professor had watched the demolition of an old furniture factory over the weekend: “It’s fun to watch a wrecking wall just bounce off the building.”
  • The furniture fairs every year were like a modern ArtPrize, brining people all over the country to Grand Rapids. There was no real logical reason for GR to be an international destination. It was the result of a lot of innovative people. 
  • “If you’re gonna run with the wolves, don’t trip,” the professor said, explaining how Grand Rapids was able to stay ahead of its neighbor, Chicago. 
  • Grand Rapids was the hot bed of furniture activity for more than 50 years. It seems relatively short, but in comparison, it’s longer than Detroit had the auto industry all to itself.
  • Grand Rapids went “bonkers” for bicycles in the 1890s, much like it is now. The professor uses that to point to the fact you don’t need to wear spandex to bike.
  • The city really was an international juggernaut. Recently Berkey & Gay furniture was found in auctions in London.
  • Eventually Grand Rapids turned into a design center, much like Detroit and the auto industry. David Wolcott Kendall, the namesake to Kendall School of Art & Design, was a leader in the design transformation.
  • Charles Sligh also was a leader in design, but he wanted to reach a broader market. His factory eventually was the largest in the country, with 1,500 workers. And even with a workforce that large, Sligh was a leader in workman’s comp. Important, since there was a famous saying, “Furniture workers with all ten fingers probably aren’t very good furniture workers.”
  • Unfortunately, the Great Depression obliterated the household furniture industry in Grand Rapids. It moved to the office furniture industry, with companies such as Steelcase.
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