The Baker Furniture Study Collection
by Richard Vettese
The Baker Furniture Study Collection was assembled by Hollis S. Baker, head of the Baker Furniture Company of Grand Rapids from 1925 until his death in 1966. His main purpose was to establish a stylistically and historically diverse collection of furniture to be used for reference by his designers. Through the years, Hollis S. Baker visited antique shops, attended auctions and chatted with museum curators in cities where he found a museum. On occasion he would buy a piece that interested him because of its antiquity, unusual design or unique color. He collected many pieces for the way the woods were used, the color, and the patina that the wood had achieved. The original Baker collection numbered over 1,500 pieces of furniture.
Baker also added hundreds of measured drawings of specimens ordinarily seen only by collectors, 2,000 photographs, and plaster casts from a noted English cabinet shop no longer in existence. According to Alex Mitchell, director of product development for Baker Furniture, Hollis Baker always had his eye out for unique pieces of furniture, interesting uses of woods and shapes and forms. Mitchell said that the collection grew to become a wonderful library of furniture styles throughout the last couple of centuries. It was an immediate reference, rather than a photograph. It was very rare that a manufacturer would have such a collection and few in the industry had a museum of this type. Baker made a decision in the 1930’s that his company would specialize in quality reproductions of European, and primarily English furniture. He had decided to make the most expensive furniture during the Great Depression. The pieces that Baker collected were the inspiration for the Baker reproductions.
The collection was housed in the Baker Museum for Furniture Research, originally in Grand Rapids at the Keeler and Exhibitors Buildings, and later at the Baker factory in Holland, Michigan, established in 1941. The Museum was a great design source. "At its heights, the Baker Holland factory employed 450 and was the flagship plant for one of the most respected furniture companies in the world," said Hollis M. Baker, whose family sold the company in 1965. In 1983, Hollis M. Baker donated over 300 pieces of furniture from the original Baker Museum Collection to the Grand Rapids Art Museum. This gift eventually became the Baker Furniture Study Collection. One of the Museum’s curators at that time, Paul Richelson, said that in the Collection, there was an eye to design, and an eccentric creativity and element of documentation in the language of furniture and in the individual details in the collection.
Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Baker Company in 1990, the Art Museum presented an exhibit of over 150 pieces from the Collection. The exhibit featured European, American, and Asian furniture from the 16th through the 20th century. One of the most striking pieces in that show was a modern oval commode created by American architect Charles Pfister. The piece combined the sense of fine tradition, which had always been part of the Baker style, with a beautiful and subtle use of woods. Many chairs were in the exhibit including an 18th century Chinese Chippendale mahogany side chair, a Louise Philippe bright green bench, and a unique 18th century English Sedan chair used by footmen to carry passengers to their appointments.
GIFT TO ART MUSEUM
One of the stipulations of the original collection gift to the Grand Rapids Art Museum in 1983, consisting of 336 pieces of furniture, allowed for the sale of up to one half of the collection to create a conservation fund for the balance of remaining items, many of which were in need of extensive repair and restoration. This led to a decision in 1998 to separate the furniture into two groups. A primary group of 197 furniture works was selected to eliminate redundancy and to create a balanced spectrum of styles and furniture types. These selected items constitute the Baker Furniture Study Collection of the Grand Rapids Art Museum, and were to be exhibited in a dedicated gallery at the Kendall College of Art and Design for study and use by professional designers and design students. The gallery would be available to visitors on request and at a special web site.
The remaining 139-sorted items of the Baker Study Collection were offered for sale by the museum at a Sotheby’s auction. They bear the original Baker inventory numbers. From the proceeds of that sale, the Art Museum would establish the Baker Endowment Fund to maintain, conserve, and enhance the Baker Study Collection of the Grand Rapids Art Museum. The selection of items to be sold was determined by outside experts. The collection of 139 Baker Furniture pieces was auctioned by Sotheby’s in Chicago on October 18, 1999. Most of the 139 Lots in the collection were sold raising a total of nearly $400,000.
A few of the items sold for more than $10,000 each including Lot 91, an Austrian Neoclassical wood and plaster figural clock from Vienna at $17,250. This clock was pictured on the Sotheby’s Centuries of Style Catalog from 1999.
COLLECTION MOVES TO KENDALL COLLEGE
In 2002, a few years after the 1999 Auction, most of the remaining collection was moved to Kendall College. This was all part of the collection that was in a storage room for years on the 3rd floor of the old Art Museum. The Director believed that it would better fit the mission of Kendall, and the process of moving it there began in earnest. The College had completed a $1.9 million renovation of the fifth and seventh floors. Then the nearly 200 pieces of the original Baker Furniture Study Collection were put on exhibit for Kendall furniture design students on the renovated fifth floor. It is a hands-on collection that allows students to study the pieces up close, opening drawers and turning them over to see how they are assembled. Later that year, Hollis M. Baker visited the exhibit of furniture pieces that had been assembled by his father. Baker said he liked the way the furniture was displayed, packed tightly and not classified by style. “The history of the furniture is secondary to the way the students will use it,” he said as he walked around the collection. “I remember so many of them, they are like children.”
The Baker collection at Kendall is an eclectic mix from the 17th through 20th centuries, English, French, Italian, Oriental and Modern. The collection was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars according to Max Shangle, program chair for furniture design at that time. “There is not really a single significant object, but there might be one small component of each piece that students can study,” he said. “It might be a Queen Anne leg or type of carving on a chair.” He called the Collection, “irreplaceable. I want it to be like a treasure box that the students can open.”
Compiled by Richard Vettese, Grand Rapids Historical Commission, October 2012
This article was compiled from information available in the following sources:
Baker collection finds a home at Kendall: Grand Rapids Press, November 1, 2002, p. A-12.
Baker loss hits Holland hard: Grand Rapids Press, December 11, 2003, p. B-7.
Baker’s collection of historic furniture reflects grace, beauty: Grand Rapids Press, July 8, 1990, p. E-5.
Centuries of Style, Furniture, Decoration and Fine Art: Sotheby’s Auction Catalog, Chicago, October 18 and 19, 1999.
Collection details the language of furniture: Grand Rapids Press, May 25, 1990, p. B1-B2.
A tradition of excellence: Wood & Wood Products, May 1995, v100 n6, p 31 (5).
Also, please check for further information on the Baker Furniture Company in the Grand Rapids Public Library Archival Finding Aids:
Collection Number 206: Baker Furniture Company
Collection Number 232: Grand Rapids Public Library Furniture Trade Catalogs
Collection Number 233: Grand Rapids Public Library Furniture Industry