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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

Designers of Furniture, Past and Present

by Arthur Kirkpatrick

“There are more new patterns in furniture developed, more ideas born in the Grand Rapids furniture industry annually, than in all of Europe combined,” according to Mr. Arthur Kirkpatrick, of Kirkpatrick & Kirkpatrick, furniture designers and conductors of the Grand Rapids School of Designing, fifth floor, Houseman building.

“I chanced to hear this remark made by a foreign visitor at one of the semi-annual furniture exhibitions here,” Mr. Kirkpatrick declared. “It may or may not be an exaggeration; it serves, however, to remind us of the importance of the designers and the part they play in formulating the product that has made this market famous. It also reminds us of the places filled by the early designers.

“Some of our greatest designers were so retiring in their habits and natures, so unassuming and quiet of character, that they were not known or observed even by their closest neighbors. In fact, the profession is very little understood by the general public, because in the merchandising of furniture, it is the finished product that is on display, and those connected with the selling of the merchandise come in contact with the public and thus it happens that the cub-salesman is more in the limelight than the ablest designer.

“The nature of the work demands a quiet and unassuming character, a dreamer who can put his dreams on record through the medium of a picture or pencil sketch. By dreams, I do not mean a mere collection of idle fancies, because the designer’s vocation or profession calls for an intense mental concentration.

“Human progress implies change, and this change is the manifestation of the spirit of the times. Reflecting this spirit, the ever changing of patterns and design of furniture makes the style of furniture a kaleidoscope of passing events recording the whims and fancies of the American taste. This the designer must necessarily sense and meet as it is one of the requirements of his profession. Months before the first operation in the factory, mental sketches are transformed into pencil pictures. These, in turn, are made into detailed working plans, from which the factory workers can measure every piece of stock required in the construction of a piece of furniture. In some quiet corner, at a sketch board or drawing table, often when the bulk of humanity are sleeping, this man [or woman] of new ideas is writing of coming added comforts for the home.

 “It is for this reason that when the history of the industry is written, the designer is often overlooked. It is the concrete dream itself, the finished product, the manufacturer who guides his forces, and the salesman who presents the products that are chiefly noted and recorded. Little or no material can be found in the history of the Grand Rapids industry that may throw light upon the life’s work of our early designers. We had to make inquiry among friends and scholars of the present for knowledge of the master designers of the early days of the Grand Rapids furniture industry.

David Wolcott Kendall, one of the early school of designers, was born October 11, 1851. He was a student, a musician, wood carver, artist and inventor. He came to Grand Rapids from Indianapolis in 1877. As a designer he served the William A. Berkey Furniture Company, the Phoenix Furniture Company and Berkey & Gay. His business sagacity and acumen became evident, and eventually he was made general manager of the Phoenix. Mr. Kendall is given credit for the development of antique oak, the sixteenth century, the canary, the cremona, and the malachite finishes, and many other features commonly employed in the modern method of furniture construction. He died February 16, 1910, in Mexico City, while on a tour of inspection and study of architecture and ornament of the prehistoric Incas, Toltec, and Mayan tribes of Yucatan and Central America. He also went to Egypt to study Egyptian ornament and hieroglyphics. Shortly before his death in Mexico he sent a rough pencil sketch of a settee to the factory, which was carefully detailed by William Balbach, his chief assistant.

John Edward Brower, another of the early designers, was born in Chicago, December 12, 1862. Before coming to Grand Rapids in 1890, was head designer for John A. Colby. His first connection with the local industry was with the Grand Rapids Chair Company for which concern he designed some very creditable furniture in the Mission Style. He received his early training in Chicago, where he was in the employ of the Tobey Furniture Company for a season. In 1892 he entered into a partnership with Philip J. Klingman and the late Charles P. Limbert under the firm name of Klingman, Limbert & Brower. Brower’s versatility and thorough mastery of style soon made his creations much sought after by the trade. He was preeminently at the head of his profession for years. His ability to create whole lines carrying the keynote of a single motif throughout has never been duplicated. Others may have mastered a style, but Brower created original designs, modulating in turn from Byzantine, Empire, a free Louis XV, Mission, Arts and Crafts, and later his own conception of the modern school. Up to the time of his death, May 21, 1915, his designs never lost their attractiveness, individuality, and punch.

M. Margentine, a Frenchman, gained most of his training in furniture design in England where he worked for fifteen years before coming to Grand Rapids to join the Berkey & Gay Furniture Company, for whom he worked for several years. He later resigned to attend the Paris Exposition. Later he returned to Berkey & Gay and worked for that concern until his death.

“Among the best known of the early designers of the local industry is William Holt, whose early training was received in Philadelphia, and from the “Pennsylvania Museum Schools.” Later this training was supplemented by European study and travel. He came here at the age of twenty-five years and was a designer for Berkey & Gay. Later he joined the Grand Rapids Chair Company. He recall with great pleasures his association with John Mowatt, an imposing figure in the firmament of the local industry. Mr. Holt related an interesting incident that happened during one of his visits to Paris. He met D.W. Kendall just after the police had deprived him of his notebook of sketches. Kendall’s opinion of the French in general and the Paris police in particular was very forcefully expressed. Mr. Holt is still actively engaged, and designs furniture, special fixtures, and interiors for Grand Rapids clients.

Charles H. Radcliffe was born in Wiscasset, Maine, in 1831. His first connection with the local industry was made through George W. Gay, whom he met in Easton, Pennsylvania in 1876, and the following year he moved his family to Grand Rapids and was employed by the Nelson, Matter & Company. He worked for that company for fifteen years and then opened a studio of his own doing commercial designing until his death.

William Kimerly was born in Grand Rapids September 19, 1872. He received his early training here. He first became connected with the furniture industry as a wood carver, when he was fifteen years old, and gained a thorough knowledge of construction, decoration and periods. He was a designer for many years for the Murphy Chair Company, Detroit, and is now operating a freelance studio in Grand Rapids. It has been said of him that he designed more good furniture for his weight and age than any other designer who ever dimmed his eyesight over drawing board and specifications.

C.B. Chatfield studied architecture in the east, specializing in pen and ink sketches and color. As a young man he entered the employ of a local architect. Later he met D.W. Kendall, of the Phoenix Furniture Company, and accepted a position as Mr. Kendall’s assistant with whom he worked for two years. With the exception of one year when he reverted to straight architecture, he has been intimately identified with the furniture designing profession and at the present time conducts a studio in Grand Rapids.

Otto Jiranek was born in Austria where he received a military education and training and served as a lieutenant in the Austrian cavalry. He came to America in 1894 and began in New York City as an illustrator. Later he came to Grand Rapids and worked for a company making uniforms and regalia, illustrating their catalogs. He became interested in furniture design through William Holt. He worked for Clarence R. Hills, and later opened an office where he was successfully engaged until his death, as the result of an accident in January 1926.

Henry J. New was born in New Jersey and was allowed by special permission to enter college at the age of seventeen years. He was early associated with architecture and illustrated for leading architectural periodicals in Boston and New York. He staunchly believes that training in architecture is a splendid foundation for artistic furniture designing. Mr. New entered the employ of the old Nelson, Matter & Company in 1892 and remained there for many years. He has lately identified himself with a very high-class upholstered line and his artistic creations are manifest.

Riccardo Iamucci, one the early designers of this city, has been an inspiration to young men interested in the advancement of the arts. While not a practical designer, he was a master of ornament and had a keen conception of the proper relations of decorations and structure. He came from Italy and opened a school of art where he taught many of the younger designers of that time the foundation of drafting, modeling, and ornamentation.

Alexander W. Hompe is credited with being the first of the designers in the local industry to break away from the then existing composite designs. He inaugurated period designs for the Royal Furniture Co. His early training was in architecture, and his first connection with the furniture industry was with John Colby & Sons of Chicago.

“Just where to draw the line between the ‘Old Timer’ and the more modern designer is difficult and even some very interesting history of the early designers is not available because of their quiet lives. About twenty-five years ago Clarence R. Hills was an active free lance. Charles O. Nash, of the Michigan Chair Company, came here twenty-three years ago. J. Stuart Clingman, a son of George Clingman, of the Tobey Furniture Company, Chicago, now a designer for the Robert W. Irwin Company came to Grand Rapids at the request of A. W. Hompe, present vice-president of the Grand Rapids Furniture Company, and has been a decided success at his profession. E. Berkey Jones designed for the William A. Berkey Furniture Company; Frank O. Moran, deceased, John D. Raab, retired, and Edgar R. Somes, still active, might be classed as comparatively ‘Old Timers.’

Louis Hahn, T. Adolphus Rowley, and Willard Borneman were with Berkey & Gay and the Oriel in 1882.

Many of the early designers were followed by their sons, who in turn made notable history and strides in the furniture industry, as in the case of James Tillotson, Sr., whose son followed him, Jack M. Brower and Leo A. Jiranek, who are successfully following the profession of their fathers. A. H. Hompe, Ralph H. Widdicomb, Fred E. Hill, D. Robertson Smith, and William A. Balbach are among those younger designers who are making their mark in the making of good furniture.

“As fades the shadow of night in the coming of a new day, so fades the past in the ever new methods of equipment and machinery, change of finish and other advancements in the making of furniture. It is the furniture designer that is ever the same, forming ideas, sketching and putting into workable models in advance of coming exhibitions. These are the same quiet characters as those who preceded them in the profession.

Excerpted from The Daily Artisan, January 3, 1928, Page 8.




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