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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

Furniture City Exhibition Mural

Furniture City Exhibition Mural

Ed Wong-Ligda - 1993

The mural, which is 11 ft. x 30 ft., has been separated into its five sections below the main photograph for easier viewing. The individual sections are ordered from right to left as they are in the mural. The mural’s allegorical representations, written below by the artist Ed Wong-Ligda, describe each of the five parts.

The mural is an allegory of the history of furniture making and social change in Western Michigan, created as the introduction to a permanent history exhibition at the Grand Rapids Public Museum that explores the same subject. It is composed of five sections, each representing a group of people significant to the industry within a specific time period and incorporating important artifacts displayed throughout the exhibition.

Reading right to left, following the continuous timeline of the Grand River, each figure represents a category or kind of person, not actual historical figures. Triangular shaped items recur throughout the mural reflecting shifts within the community. The composition itself is made up of multiple triangles over-laid by two opposing fan structures. The apexes of the fans are the dog and the Furniture City Goddess.

Part 1 - Mid-1800s

The first group, (mid-1800s) represents those early settlers who established Grand Rapids as a center of commerce. The first three groups are lit from the right symbolizing the ties that traditional wooden furniture manufacturing has with the past.

Referencing the Christianity of many early pioneers, the nuclear family in the foreground is grouped in an adoration scene common to the traditions of early Christian art. They form a tight knit circular composition, with each family member looking at and caring about each other. The mother is seated in Deacon Haldane’s mythical Windsor armchair, long thought to be the first chair made in Grand Rapids. The hand extending the wrapped present represents the gift of life and the promise of a vital and rewarding future. Behind the arm a curtain opens on the first act of Grand Rapids.

The standing figure depicts and early craftsman. He is a virtuous, stern, hard working man depicted with his carving tools in one hand and his Dutch Bible in the other. An angel who is whispering furniture into his ear is providing divine inspiration.

Behind the figures to the right is a scene of the early settlement on the banks of the Grand River with an American Indian encampment on long gone Grand River islands. Dawn rises behind the towers of the earliest extant church structure in Grand Rapids, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. An architectural trefoil from St. Mark’s, representing the Trinity, floats to the right of the angel’s hand. Next to the trefoil is DaVinci’s Renaissance man denoting the furniture industry’s secular design links to a romantic but rational past. A few logs float down the river signaling the beginning of the harvesting of Michigan’s forests and the industrialization of the Grand River. On the near side of the river, Native Americans observe the rise of the sun to the east as their way of life begins to change.

Between the angel and the craftsman, the river becomes jammed with logs signaling the height of the wood based furniture industry in Grand Rapids while foreshadowing its decline. To the immediate left of the first group, downtown Grand Rapids takes shape with its commercial buildings and factories. The heavy smoke of progress pours into the air, clouding the future, while logs on the river dwindle down to just a few as Michigan becomes stripped of its forests.

Part 2 - Late 1800s to Turn of the Century

The second group of figures depicts artisans from the late 1800s to the turn of the century. The man in the foreground is a carver working on a chair leg, the woman is a decorator painting a commode, and the standing man is designing, or drawing into existence a Berkey & Gay bedstead slated for a prize winning exhibition at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. He is the first figure looking left towards the future. The chair in the foreground is a Renaissance Revival parlor chair also exhibited in Philadelphia. Behind them the city becomes denser and darker as the furniture industry hits its height, then declines.

Part 3 - Furniture Markets of the 1920s

The third group interprets the Furniture Markets of the 1920’s. The woman holding the Furniture City flag is the Furniture Goddess, a popular advertising figure of the time. To her right floats the triangular Grand Rapids Made trademark of the Furniture Manufacturer’s Association. In contrast to her is the maid standing just to the left. The maid, not an idealized icon, but a low wageworker serving the industry, looks towards future generations for hope. The man in the butler’s uniform, a personification of the Market, serves up furniture on a reflective silver tray to a newly arrived buyer. Although the seated figure carefully studies the miniature examples of traditional wood furniture presented to him, he unwittingly introduces the future by sitting on an American Seating metal folding chair.

The dog, from one of the hunting lodges where important clients were sometimes entertained, represents the traditional values of obedience and predictability. He is fixated on the furniture samples rather that the tray of hors d’oeuvres held by the maid, instinctively realizing the universal appeal of Grand Rapids furniture. To the rear left of this grouping, a curtain signals the end of an era and the beginning of a second act.

Part 4 - Work Force of the 1940s and 1950s

The fourth group pictures a more diverse work force from the forties and fifties. They are painted in brighter and lighter colors, and are the first group to be lit from the left, symbolizing the future. Three workers excited about the future are set around a Steelcase Multiple Fifteen desk. An Eames molded plywood chair by Herman Miller, Inc. is being touted to them by a slightly more contemporary man. The girl leaning on the desk holds a toy school bus representing integration. She pays respect to her ancestors by looking back. The cat represents a shift in acceptable social behavior from obedience and predictability to independence and capriciousness. In the foreground is a metal wastebasket, the first product of the Metal Office Furniture Co., filled with discarded details of traditional wood furniture. The background shows an increasingly modern downtown centered around the McKay Tower. In the sky to the right are three gliders manufactured in Grand Rapids during World War II by furniture companies that retooled for the war effort.

Part 5 - Industry from the 1970s - 1990s

The fifth group represents the industry from the seventies through the nineties. Both the man and the woman are designers who look towards the future with anticipation and anxiety. The woman seeks direction for a vital future while the angle suggest in American Sign Language that she “create/innovate.” The man, woman, and child are a reconfiguration of the family that appeared at the beginning of the mural except they now no longer look to each other. Together, they each go their own way. Above them is an ergonomics icon, the contemporary ideal proportional transformation of DaVinci’s Renaissance man. Sitting below the icon is the Steelcase pyramid or Corporate Design Center, bringing the landscape full circle back to a rural setting where the mural began. The third curtain, more chaotic in its folds than the first two, suggests the existence of a third act, yet to be written.

By Ed Wong-Ligda, 1994



Full Details

TitleFurniture City Exhibition Mural
CreatorEd Wong-Ligda

This image was reproduced with permission from the Grand Rapids Public Museum. Photographs may not be reused without permission and must credit the "Collections of the Grand Rapids Public Museum." For rights and reproduction information contact: Grand Rapids Public Museum, Collections Department, 272 Pearl Street NW, Grand Rapids, MI 49504: Phone 616-929-1809.

Location In PhotoGrand Rapids, MI
CollectionPermanent Collection, 1995.10
InstitutionGrand Rapids Public Museum
Physical Storage LocationGrand Rapids Public Museum Archives
Locationlocation on map

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