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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

Tom S. Handley, Furniture Designer

Tom Satterthwaite Handley was born in Manchester, England, in 1874. He attended Orange College, the Manchester School of Art, the Manchester Technical School, and received his practical training in making furniture at the plant of Waring & Gillow, who had factories all over England and dotted about the British Empire.

In 1900 Handley landed in New York on a Friday with $50 in his pocket. He found a job on Saturday with W. & J. Sloane and on Monday he began to work. He was 28 years old.

Handley remained in New York a year and found the city not to his liking. He left there for the W. A. French factory at St. Paul, Minnesota. He managed the plant and did all the designing. After a few years, in 1905, he came to Grand Rapids as a designer for the Berkey & Gay Furniture Company. He stayed with Berkey & Gay for two years and then set himself up as a commercial designer. He developed a clientele that included upwards of twenty furniture factories and fixed his name among the notables of the furniture industry. In 1908, with Charles Johnson, Handley established the Johnson Furniture Company for the purpose of manufacturing bedroom and dining room furniture. “Handley knows the mechanical end of the business is in safe hands,” said the Furniture World in June of 1922. “He concerns himself with preparing the designs and opening up new business. The company has its aggregation of salesmen, but when the opening of a new territory is considered, Handley takes the job himself. In the matter of designers the company has a distinct advantage over its competitors. The business genius and the perfect mechanic are essential, but when designs enter into the scheme of things, the best they are able to do is to tell the designer what they want. Handley does his own designing. The Handley-Johnson combination apparently is a perfectly apportioned combination.

“That sketches the career of Tom S. Handley in the game of making furniture. He was a pleasure-loving youth, but chose his pursuit in life and was content to start from the beginning, down at the lowest rung of the ladder, a finisher, an upholsterer, a cabinet maker, a designer, and finally a keen salesman and an owner of a factory until he is looked upon as one of the big lights in the industry.

He is artistic without being temperamental. He declares that his five years of work in the factory have repaid him a thousand fold. He maps out a course before he starts and is willing to go the whole way, passing up nothing, a European thoroughness that might be added in many instances as a valuable attribute to the Yankee. Handley, however, is thoroughly American. He knows the two nations equally well and concedes America’s superiority by and large”

Tom Handley’s work was the type that never will die. He worked with beautiful woods, and popularized marquetry work in this country, as no other designer did. The use of rare woods in panels delighted him and many of his pieces of marquetry design have never been equaled. Carving, too, was a favorite medium of decoration of Handley. Many of the pieces, which are the product of his designs, are beautifully carved with floral decorations and other naturalistic motifs.

Tom Handley died December 18, 1926

Excerpted from Furniture World and Furniture Buyer & Decorator, 1936, pages 127-128.

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