Many people know Grand Rapids best as home to the innovative ArtPrize competition, but the city became renowned worldwide for another type of artistry during its heyday as The Furniture City during last half of the 1800s.
Tim's father grew up in Grand Rapids and was friends with one of the Forslunds, a family that had a furniture company there from 1933 until 1989. We have a dining room set and a few other pieces of Forslund furniture. This is how I first learned of Grand Rapids' furniture.
The Furniture City story has its roots in Michigan's nineteenth-century logging industry. Grand Rapids became a logging center because of its location near Lake Michigan and a ready lumber supply that included oak, maple, basswood, walnut, ash, beech and pine.
The historical marker in front of the Grand Rapids Public Museum outlines a brief history of the city's nineteenth-century furniture industry. The museum's Furniture City exhibit more completely explores the history of furniture manufacturing in western Michigan and includes more than 120 pieces of Grand Rapids-made furniture, plus re-creations of an early furniture factory and a 1920s-era showroom at the city's Furniture Market.
William Haldane became Grand Rapids' first cabinet maker in 1837. Haldane's shop and other early businesses creating handmade wooden furniture were the start of an industry that would draw customers to western Michigan from all over the world and see Grand Rapids lead the United States in furniture production from 1870 until the mid-1930s.
The craftsmanship evident in a display of Grand Rapids furniture at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876 attracted the attention of many high-profile fans and furniture buyers.
The success in Philadelphia led Grand Rapids furniture makers to stage their own furniture mart in 1878. By 1881, the popular furniture marts drew buyers from around the world and the twice-yearly furniture marts continued until the 1960s.
Grand Rapids furniture manufacturers gained fame for innovative manufacturing processes and equipment, as well as inventive marketing. They were among the first to issue furniture catalogs featuring photographs and colorful drawings.
Plentiful jobs and decent wages attracted skilled European craftsmen, carvers and furniture designers to Grand Rapids. By 1890, a large number of Dutch, German, Polish, Lithuanian and other northern European immigrants worked and lived in the city.
The logging industry faltered during the early 1900s, and a diminishing supply of local wood required furniture makers to rely on imported wood.
An economic slump meant increasingly poor wages for furniture workers, coupled with extremely long hours and deteriorating working conditions.
A marker erected by the Labor Heritage Society of West Michigan and sculpture near the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum tells the story of a strike in April 1911, when more than 6,000 workers walked out of the furniture factories.
Workers demanded shorter (nine-hour) work days, wage increases and an end to piecework pay.
The four-month strike ended as funds ran out for union-provided strike pay and influential Christian Reformed Church leaders forbid their members from joining unions.
The strike experience and weakening of the industry in Grand Rapids led the manufacturers to grant many of the demands within a fairly short time, while some companies never recovered from losses during the strike and closed or moved.
Grand Rapids' prominence in the fine wood furniture industry faded, but the market for commercial and institutional furniture expanded. Metal office furniture increasingly replaced wood pieces by the mid-1930s.
In 1886, the Grand Rapids School Furniture Company formed, evolving into the American Seating Company and the world's largest producer of public and institutional seating.
In 1912, Steelcase had 34 employees. By the end of the twentieth century, Steelcase became the world's largest office furniture company with more than 19,000 employees.
World War II stunted the metal furniture industry's growth, but a post-war construction boom, aggressive marketing and cheaper prices for metal furniture versus wood furniture prices spurred the industry's growth.
The city's large number of office furniture companies led to Grand Rapids' new identity as the nation's office furniture capital.
Want to learn more? Check out Grand Rapids: Furniture City by Norma Lewis, Grand Rapids Furniture: The Story of America's Furniture City by Christian G. Carron, or It Happened in Michigan: Remarkable Events That Shaped History by Colleen Burcar (which includes a short chapter on the 1911 furniture strike).
© Dominique King 2012 All rights reserved