Metal Household Furniture

SIC 2514

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This industry category includes establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing metal furniture of a type commonly used in dwellings.

Industry Snapshot

Although most people may picture wrought-iron lawn chairs and tables when they think of metal household furniture, the industry's offerings are considerably more varied. In addition to lawn items, metal furniture includes kitchen and dining room tables and chairs, cabinets, hostess carts, beds, folding cots, folding card tables, and children's furniture such as play yards and high chairs.

Approximately 330 establishments operated in this segment in the United States in 2007 with approximately 11,933 employees, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About 74 percent of employees in the industry were production workers. Dun and Bradstreet's 2009 Industry Reports showed that annual sales in the metal household furniture manufacturing industry reached $833.5 million in 2008. California accounted for the largest percentage of sales (27 percent) with $222.6 million. Rhode Island was second in terms of revenue with $132.6 million. Rounding out the top five were Florida ($64.8 million), Illinois ($52.0 million), and Indiana ($45.4 million).

Background and Development

Metal furniture dates back almost as far as the use of wrought iron. There was an extraordinary increase in the use of metal furniture by the end of the eighteenth century. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, English and U.S. craftsmen began constructing Windsor-style chairs in wrought iron. In 1851 at the Great Exhibition in London, England, the American Chair Co. of New York exhibited a metal-framed, sprung, revolving chair, one of several styles with frames made largely of cast iron, steel, or a combination of the two. By the 1890s, metal beds had become one of the most popular-selling furniture items in the United States.

The developments in steel and other innovations in metal production in the 1920s and early 1930s used by U.S. manufacturers had major impacts on furniture design. The abundance of ready steel made it a popular and reasonably inexpensive material for furniture. One of the most dramatic processes, discovered in the early 1920s by a U.S. inventor named Mannesman, produced seamless tubular steel. The new material had the combined advantages of being light, strong, and modern.

The role that bent metal furniture played in the design culture of the 1920s and 1930s has never been equaled by any other material or at any other time in design history. The designs seemed to encompass an era. The development of modern tubular steel furniture is visible in terms of the technical accomplishments of modern industrialization with improved methods of steel production, metal plating, and welding, all of which helped to disseminate the new furniture to a wider market. More importantly, however, steel furniture came from the world of modern art and architecture and its preoccupation with the idea and image of the machine.

That basis for design meant that the major drawback to metal furniture was that its look appealed to a small, sophisticated market that enjoyed what was, at the time, called the Modern style of design. For that same reason, for several years there was a great deal of resistance to its use in the home, with many feeling that it was too impersonal for domestic use, but perfectly suitable for hospitals and offices. The 1933 Chicago World's Fair exhibited a large number of pieces of tubular steel furniture. Steel was advertised at the fair as symbolic of a life that was modern and natural. Steel was demonstrated to be practical and strong, just as life had to be in the 1930s, so steel furniture was the perfect way to express those characteristics. By the mid-1930s tubular steel furnishing was being more easily accepted into domestic use, with steel items coming out of U.S. factories in large, ever-increasing numbers.

Companies such as the Chicago and Grand Rapids Co. of Michigan immediately began producing large quantities of tubular steel furniture. U.S. industrial designer Donald Deskey designed a line of metal furniture that was mass-produced around 1930 by the Ypsilanti Reed Furniture Co. A 1930 ad for the company pointed out that Ypsilanti Reed had not only pioneered steel furniture in the United States, but also was a leader in style and quality.

By 1933 the Howell Co. of Geneva, Illinois, began mass producing tubular steel furniture, including the best-selling "Beta," a chrome-plated, tubular steel and upholstered chair, as well as other innovative chair forms, such as the "S" chairs, with their bent metal frames, that were produced and sold in high volume throughout the 1930s.

Famous industrial designer Gilbert Rohde was among the first U.S. innovators who worked with bent metal to create innovative furniture designs. His earliest tubular steel design was manufactured by the Troy Sunshade Co. of Troy, Ohio, in 1931. Because the company had additional offices in Amsterdam and Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Rohde's designs were sold in Europe as well.

The Kroehler Manufacturing Co. of Chicago, Illinois, also employed Rohde, who designed furniture not only from tubular steel, but also from stainless steel, aluminum, and chrome. Rohde's pieces were advertised by the company as "functional and modern" with "a hygienic quality (no nooks and crannies to conceal dirt) that reduced dusting to a minimum while retaining their luster without the drudgery of polishing."

By 1930 Rohde moved on to take over design leadership for the Herman Miller Furniture Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan. With Rohde at its helm, the company began an extensive program to produce modern furnishings, most of which incorporated the use of bent metal elements in many of their designs. In fact, throughout the decade leading up to World War II, the Herman Miller Co. continued to increasingly produce bent metal furnishings designed by Rohde.

Although metal furniture was considered innovative by the U.S. public, many U.S. designers, such as Rohde, owed a great debt to their European counterparts during the decades between the two world wars. Progressive European publications published designs for tubular steel furniture. In fact, some of the most copied modern tubular steel furniture designs belonged to Marcel Breuer, the avant-garde designer, and were originally created while he was at the Bauhaus, the German experimental design school, as early as 1925.

As European tubular steel designs were distributed to a wider world market and manufacturers produced their own interpretations of bent metal furniture, the originality and inventiveness of design had largely ended by the early years of the 1940s. After World War II, profound changes in design and manufacturing moved the center of progressive development of metal furniture from Europe to the United States. Charles and Ray Eames, a husband-and-wife team of industrial designers, helped to develop new, even more innovative, metal furniture designs for the Herman Miller Co. in the 1940s and 1950s.

Research into new materials such as molded plywood, and the use of light metal alloys (especially aluminum and magnesium, which were developed during the war) provided an entire new range of possibilities for postwar furniture.

U.S. furniture manufacturer Knoll International produced innovative designs such as the 1952 metal "Grid" chair by the artist/designer Harry Bertoia, as well as several other metal pieces. In the 1960s, Knoll produced internationally acclaimed architect/designer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's last body of furniture designs of tubular and flat steel.

By the end of the 1950s, metal was being used less frequently for innovative furniture designs. Herman Miller Co. and Knoll International continued to manufacture bent and tubular steel "design classics" from the 1930s, but with more innovative materials, such as plastics, arriving on the scene, metal furniture was relegated to experimental, one-of-a-kind and limited edition pieces by artist/designers who did not look for mass production or wide audience acceptance.

Because metal was the symbol of the machine age, it was quite natural for metal furniture's high point to coincide with the era of the "machine age," of the 1930s. The bent metal furniture designed and manufactured during that period was never equaled. During the 1990s, metal furniture continued to be prevalent in schools and hospitals, but was scarce for home furnishings. With the popularity of daybeds and futons in the mid-1990s, certain metals had a slight resurgence in the furniture industry.

The trend of home offices, which took off in the mid-1990s, changed the scope and design of furniture across the board. A growing number of people started home-based businesses. Many others kept their corporate jobs while telecommuting, or spending part or all of their work time at home while hooked up to the company computer network. For those whose home offices consisted of a corner in the living room, durable and attractive household furniture, particularly pieces that could serve more than one function, gained popularity.

The economic slowdown in the United States that began in 2000 brought a decrease in both new home construction and existing home sales. The furniture industry was indirectly affected by this housing slump. However, historically low interest rates helped offset this decline by boosting housing starts and home sales significantly, which helped bolster furniture sales.

By the mid-2000s, household metal furniture represented 5.8 percent of the U.S. furniture market. However, 56.5 percent of the metal furniture market in the United States constituted imported goods. Most of it was imported from Canada, China, and Taiwan, while Canada and Mexico remained the top export destinations for U.S. metal furniture shipments. The U.S. balance of trade in metal household furniture, however, remained a negative $900 million.

Competition from foreign manufacturers continued to plague the U.S. metal furniture industry in the mid- to late 2000s. The American Home Furnishings Alliance indicated that 57.2 percent of all metal and other household furniture (not including wood, upholstered, and bedding) sold in the United States in 2006 was imported. With imports at 43.9 percent for the entire household furniture industry, the domestic metal segment suffered higher than average losses to foreign-based competition.

Increasing costs for metal also contributed to the financial difficulties of U.S. furniture manufacturers. Faced with low-cost imports, however, they were unable to raise prices for their products and typically experienced shrinking profit margins. "Because we have competition from overseas, we have increased prices only 8 percent in the last three years," said Victor Sawan, president of Wesley Allen, in Furniture Today. "That doesn't even begin to cover the cost of steel."

Some in the industry believed customization might be a remedy for U.S. metal furniture manufacturers. Consumers may be willing to pay more for a one-of-a-kind piece than one that is churned out on an assembly line. Another strategy was to invest in computer-controlled equipment that helped trim costs, improve productivity, and shorten lead time to customer delivery.

Current Conditions

According to a report by U.S. Supplier Relations LLC, revenues in the metal household furniture manufacturing industry in the United States reached $2.1 billion in 2008. Imports came from 68 countries and were valued at $2.9 billion. Although exports in this category were shipped to 127 countries, total value was only $112.7 million.

The furniture industry in general struggled during the slow economic times of the late 2000s. In an October 2009 Furniture World Today article, Britt Beemer of the firm America's Research Group commented, "With more consumers out of work and even more fearing their job security, Americans are delaying big ticket purchases such as furniture." Figures from Furniture Today showed that, after peaking in 2006 and 2007, furniture store sales in the United States decreased in 2008 to $56.9 billion, and the trade journal forecast sales would be down to $53.2 billion in 2010. However, some industry experts looked for a recovery in the industry in the early part of the 2000's second decade.

Industry Leaders

Significant companies in this industry included Steelcase Inc. of Grand Rapids, Michigan, with $3.2 billion in 2009 sales and 13,00 employees; Herman Miller Inc. of Zeeland, Michigan, with $1.6 billion in revenues and 5,229 employees in 2009; and Knoll, Inc. of East Greenville, Pennsylvania, with $1.1 billion in sales and 3,838 employees in 2009. Although these companies were known traditionally for their office furniture, they increased their business in the household furniture sector when more people began to telecommute and steel furniture became more acceptable as household fixtures. Many pieces of furniture already blurred the lines between office and household. An attractive metal bookcase, for example, could be equally at home in a family room or an office.

© COPYRIGHT 2018 The Gale Group, Inc. This material is published under license from the publisher through the Gale Group, Farmington Hills, Michigan. All inquiries regarding rights should be directed to the Gale Group. For permission to reuse this article, contact the Copyright Clearance Center.

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