Archival Collections ➔ Archival Collection #022 - Register Of Blueprints and Papers: Phoenix Furniture Co., Robert W. Irwin Co., J.D. Raab and Stow and Davis Furniture Co.
Archive Collection #022 - Register of Blueprints and Papers: Phoenix Furniture Co., Robert W. Irwin Co., J.D. Raab and Stow and Davis Furniture Co. as well as surrounding buildings from ca. 1919 to ca. 1985 contains 174 black and white photographs, photo enlargements, 19 color photographs, negatives for the photographs, 246 blueprints, and business records as they relate to the Phoenix Furniture Factory demolition.Many of the blueprint drawings are schematic drawings (i.e. lighting, steam heating, etc.) while others are drawings of additions to buildings or renovations to be done.
This collection contains its information almost entirely on blueprints. There are 205 prints representing Stow and Davis for the years 1951-1985, twenty eight prints representing Robert W. Irwin Co. for the years 1919-1920, two prints representing the Phoenix Furniture Co. for 1920, eight prints for J. D. Raab for the years 1919-1923, two prints representing the Furniture Manufactures Warehouse Co. for 1940, and three miscellaneous drawings with no date. The collection measures 3.5 cubic feet with a date range from 1919-1988.
This collection comes from the site of 25 Summer St. N.W. in Grand Rapids, a furniture factory that was home to several different companies over a 100 years period. The site was built by William A. Berkey when he retired from Berkey Brothers and Gay Furniture Company and established a new company, Phoenix Furniture Company. In 1920 , Robert W. Irwin purchased the plant and formed the Robert W. Irwin Furniture Co. In 1953 the plant was sold to the Stow and Davis Furniture Co. At this time, Stow and Davis was undergoing changed in the direction of their company. Steelcase purchased Stow and Davis in 1985, and in 1987 they donated the factory site to Grand Valley State University.
A full listing of the contents of this collection can be found in the Finding Aid that is attached to the media section of this catalog entry.
Phoenix Furniture Company COMPANY HISTORY
1868: William A. Berkey becomes assignee for the property of cabinetmakers Atkins and Soule.
1872: Berkey combines residuals of Atkins & Soule with $200,000 new capital to form Phoenix Furniture Co.
1873 and 1875: Phoenix opens south, then north portions of its new four-story brick “model” factory at West Fulton and Summer Streets.
1876: Wareroom opens in New York City.
1883: Phoenix more than doubles its production space with the construction of a large addition.
1911: Phoenix acquired by Robert W. Irwin, Alexander Hompe, and Ralph Tietsort.
1919: Robert W. Irwin buys out Hompe and Tietsort and consolidates Phoenix and Royal Furniture Companies into the Robert W. Irwin Co. Phoenix products continue to be labeled with the Phoenix name.
1926: Expansions are added to the north and west of the existing plant.
1953: Robert W. Irwin Co. closes; manufacturing complex is occupied for storage temporarily.
Late 1950s: Complex becomes home to Stow & Davis, Inc.
1987: Manufacturing complex donated to Grand Valley State University by Steelcase and Stow & Davis.
1988: GVSU razes Phoenix factory complex; Grand Rapids Public Museum salvages a 2000-square-foot section of the 1873 building.
1994: Factory section is reconstructed in the Van Andel Museum Center of The Grand Rapids Public Museum.
The Phoenix Furniture Co. “rose from the ashes” of the Atkins & Soule partnership, with the help of its first president William A. Berkey, and a large investment of new capital. Berkey ran the company until 1879, when controlling interest was sold to J.W. Converse, a capitalist from Boston. Converse employed his friend and in-law from Massachusetts, Robert W. Merrill, to help manage the plant, which he did until 1912. In 1911 ownership of the company changed again, to Robert W. Irwin, who in 1919 consolidated Phoenix and the Royal Furniture Co. into the Robert W. Irwin Co. Because of the prominent reputation of Phoenix, pieces made in its plants were advertised and labeled as “Phoenix Furniture, by the Robert W. Irwin Co.”
Born and trained as a furniture designer in Rochester, New York, David Wolcott Kendall first made his mark as a designer for the Wooton Desk Co. in Indiana. In 1879 John Strahan, superintendent, and designer for the Phoenix factory hired Kendall from an architecture firm in Chicago to work as a draftsman at Phoenix. But his talents were soon recognized and he was allowed to execute his own designs for the company. He left Phoenix for Berkey & Gay between 1883 and 1886 and formed the short-lived company of Kendall, Beardsley & Dey in Detroit in 1886. During this time Asa Lyon produced designs for Phoenix. Kendall returned to Phoenix as chief designer in 1888. At the time of his death in 1910, Kendall was not only a chief designer but also an officer of the company and general manager of the factory.
Kendall traveled extensively throughout the Americas, Europe, and Asia, to collect artifacts and books as inspirations for his own designs. Kendall outfitted an entire chemistry laboratory at the Phoenix factory, in which he experimented with new finish colors for oak. In 1928 Kendall’s widow founded the Kendall Memorial School of Art, now Kendall College of Art and Design, with funds from his estate.
J. Stuart Clingman designed special order furniture for the Tobey Furniture Co. in Chicago before becoming Royal Furniture’s assistant designer under chief designer Alexander Hompe in 1903. Clingman made his mark in the modernization of forms by Hepplewhite and Sheraton. He remained with Robert W. Irwin Co. as a designer and officer after the company’s consolidation.
In 1917 William Millington became a designer for Phoenix. Millington was a native of England and received his training from the Royal College of Arts. Like many of Grand Rapids’ top designers of that period, Millington worked at Waring & Gillow in Lancaster and W. & J. Sloane in New York before coming to Grand Rapids.
An 1873 article in the Grand Rapids Daily Eagle described Phoenix’s stock of furniture as “walnut and ash bedroom suits; parlor and divan suits; folding and reclining chairs; marble and wood top center tables; sideboards; pier and looking-glasses; couches covered in terry and Brussels carpet; hair, cotton, wool, palm leaf, husk, and excelsior mattresses . . . and office desks, tables, and chairs.” Phoenix was the only one of the “big three” Grand Rapids manufacturers (the other two were Nelson, Matter, and Berkey & Gay) in the 1870s to manufacture and upholster its own parlor furniture. Much of the company’s 1870s production was probably shipped “in the white” (unfinished), to be finished by the retailer upon arrival.
In the 1880s the firm’s products were listed as the finest grades of chamber suites, folding bedsteads, chiffoniers, ladies’ desks, bookcases, sideboards, dining tables, hall stands, and every kind of furniture in mahogany, walnut, ash, oak, maple, and cherry. David Kendall’s designs in the mid-1880s included pieces that combined shallow stylized sunflower carving, reminiscent of Eastlake, with busy jig-sawed architectural elements of late Victorian architecture. Phoenix began making “ebonized” furniture in the early 1880s and produced substantial amounts until its popularity waned in the 1890s.
Phoenix opened its special order department in 1884, to produce furniture on contract for hotels, offices, city halls, statehouses, and federal building. Grand Rapids’ elegant city hall opened in 1889, with furniture designed by Kendall and manufactured by Phoenix.
Catalogs from the mid-1890s show a whole series of hexagonal tabourets with concave and convex sides, and Moorish cutouts and stenciling. Many of Kendall’s designs incorporated exotic decoration, with Celtic, Byzantine, Japanese, Moorish, and Arabic origins. Though factory-produced for a mass market, some rested on the cutting edge of fantasy and were contemporary with such avant-garde designers as Carlos Bugatti and Charles Rohlfs.
Phoenix furniture from the 1890s through the first part of the 20th century also bears the innovative finishes developed by Kendall and widely copied by manufacturers and craftsmen across the country. One colorful tale relates that Kendall developed his “antique oak” stain after noticing how tobacco juice spits onto oak floorboards in the factory brought out the wood grain and gave it a pleasing darkened tone. Some of his other fumed and stained finishes transformed oak into hues of green (malachite), grey-black (Flemish), tan (Cremona), and canary yellow. It has even been suggested by a number of sources that Kendall’s finishes were responsible for popularizing oak as a cabinetmaking wood, at a time when oak was readily available and other hardwoods were becoming cost-prohibitive.
Phoenix’s most successful line was undoubtedly its oak and cane McKinley Chairs, designed by Kendall in 1894. The chairs were so named because one was owned and used by President McKinley. Though the arm and seat rails incorporated delicately exotic Moorish arches, the use of oak, square spindles, and broad armrests, and absence of carved decoration have caused many researchers to anoint the McKinley chair as one of the first examples of the American Mission style. In his The City Built on Wood, historian Frank Ransom states that “the design for the McKinley Chair was supposedly achieved by having persons of varying size sit in snowbanks, then transferring the curves left by the impression of the bodies onto the drawing board.” Within a few years of its introduction, other manufacturers in Grand Rapids and elsewhere introduced their own versions of the McKinley chair, causing Kendall to patent the design in 1897. It remained in production into the early 1910s.
Some of Kendall’s first designs for Phoenix were massive pieces in Jacobean, William and Mary, and other early English styles, as were some of his last. His many visits to cathedrals, castles, and museums in Europe reportedly made Phoenix one of the leaders in the development of “Period Furniture”. A 1911 Grand Rapids Herald article about Phoenix’s products, published not long after Kendall’s death, claimed that some of its Colonial and Empire pieces were almost exact copies of actual antiques from those periods. Ads from the 1910s show a high-end bedroom, dining room, and living room furniture in various period styles, including Elizabethan, Jacobean, Adam, Sheraton, and Louis XIV, made from oak, walnut, mahogany, imitation mahogany, and satinwood. One distinctive form produced in many styles by Phoenix during the mid-1910s was an approximately 8-foot-long sideboard, with cellaret pedestals on either end topped by urn-shaped knife boxes.
The Grand Rapids Public Museum owns a small collection of original drawings created for Phoenix by David W. Kendall. Many of the artifacts collected in Kendall’s world travels were donated by his widow to the Public Museum and the Kendall College of Art and Design. Kendall College also owns his original photos and designs drawings. An informative article on the designer, entitled “Progressive Designs in Grand Rapids,” by Jane Perkins Claney and Robert Edwards, appeared in the September-October, 1983 issue of Tiller Magazine. Preservation architect Richard Frank, prior to its demolition, by Grand Valley State University, completed a detailed adaptive reuse study of the Phoenix factory complex in 1988. A series of Phoenix catalogs from the 1890s are in the collections of the Grand Rapids Public Library.
MARKS AND LABELS
During the 1870s Phoenix sometimes tacked rectangular paper shipping tags to the backs of furniture, with the recipient’s name hand-written on the top portion, and “FROM/PHOENIX FURNITURE CO./Grand Rapids, Mich”. Printed on the bottom. A rectangular metal plate with chamfered corners was used to mark furniture during the 1890s. It was textured to resemble hammer marks, and read, “Manufactured by/PHOENIX FURNITURE CO/GRAND RAPIDS Mich”.
Ads from the 1910s often depict a Phoenix bird taking flight from a blazing fire. Even though Phoenix became part of the Robert W. Irwin Co. in 1920, ads continued to show lines from the “Phoenix Furniture Company” until at least 1926. Around this time, the wording in ads and on a new, more rectangular logo of the phoenix bird rising from the flames changed to “PHOENIX FURNITURE/MADE BY/ROBERT W. IRWIN CO”.
Robert W. Irwin Furniture Company COMPANY HISTORY
1900: Robert W. Irwin purchases a controlling interest in Royal Furniture Co. from Alexander Hompe and Ralph Tietsort.
1911: Irwin, Hompe, and Tietsort acquire Phoenix Furniture Co.
1919: Irwin buys Hompe’s and Tietsort’s shares in Royal and Phoenix. Royal and Phoenix are merged to form the Robert W. Irwin Co.
1931: Irwin purchases prestigious manufacturer Cooper – Williams, Inc. of Boston.
1951: Company is purchased by a group of investors from Cincinnati.
1953: Company closes and discontinues production. Rights to the Irwin name sold to Sterling, Inc., of New York City.
At the age of only 23, Robert W. Irwin rose from office clerk to plant superintendent of the Grand Rapids School Furniture Co. In 1900, he and several associates purchased the Royal Furniture Co. He was instrumental in the founding of Irwin Seating Co. in 1905. Irwin was an active figure in business circles on both the local and national levels. In 1914, while still just the secretary of the Royal Furniture Co. and vice-president of Grand Rapids National City Bank, he was elected president of the Furniture Manufacturers and Fixture Manufacturers Association of the U.S. In the 1930s, he headed a national drive to eliminate elements of Roosevelt’s “New Deal” legislation relating to price-fixing and production control. His views were often published in trade journals as well as leading business periodicals such as Forbes Magazine, on everything from the history of the furniture industry, to the Red Cross, to selling life insurance. Having no direct heirs to inherit the company, Irwin sold his interest in the firm in 1951. He continued with the company as an unpaid advisor until its closure in 1953.
J. Stuart Clingman started as an assistant designer at Royal in 1903 and stayed on after Royal became a part of Irwin in 1919. Clingman specialized in the “modernization” of designs by Sheraton and Hepplewhite. He eventually became head of design for Irwin, and also served on the board of Directors as secretary and vice-president. Clingman stayed with the company until its sale in 1951.
Trained in architecture at Cooper Union in New York, William Hoffmann came to Grand Rapids in 1921 to work for Robert W. Irwin after designing furniture for several years at W. & J. Sloane in New York. He created designs for both the Phoenix and Royal lines until he opened his own design studio circa 1933.
Frank J. Davidhazy was recruited to come from New York to Grand Rapids and head the Phoenix plant’s decorative painting department in 1920. At its height, the department employed thirty-five men and women, and hand-painted decoration became one of the signatures of Irwin furniture. Davidhazy created the decorative painting designs, which were copied by the other painters. Davidhazy worked for the company, and so eventually did his son Frank C. Davidhazy, until it closed in 1953.
An ad in a 1927 Grand Rapids Press, Market Edition, depicts a highly carved Georgian dining suite from the “Royal Division,” with Oriental lacquer decoration on the doors of the china cabinet. In 1928 a special “Phoenix suite,” with hand decoration by Davidhazy, was issued in commemoration of the 100th Grand Rapids Furniture Market. Both plants produced a high-quality living room, dining room, and bedroom suites, and occasional pieces in a large range of woods and period revival styles. In the 1930s many suites featured striking matches of veneers in French walnut, rosewood, mahogany, aspen, satinwood, and curly maple, with hand-painted, raised lacquer, or carved accents. Styles included Modern/Art Deco, Biedermeier, Georgian, Duncan Phyfe, and most 18th-century French and English influences.
In 1940 Irwin introduced its competitively priced, apartment-scaled “Pendleton” line, a departure from its tradition of larger, high-end suites. Pendleton pieces used less expensive woods and less handwork in Georgian, Regency, and Federal styles. An entire coordinated line of Pendleton carpets, lamps, and fabrics was introduced at the same time. But the line was not particularly well received by consumers, and the conversion of Irwin’s factories for wartime production brought an end to the line.
The Grand Rapids Public Museum owns a large collection of tools, sample panels, papers, and oral interviews from the Davidhazys, relating to the Phoenix factory’s decorating department and general factory operations. The Museum has a variety of Irwin catalogs, and also owns the contents of a scrapbook about Mr. Robert W. Irwin, maintained by his personal secretary.
MARKS AND LABELS
The Phoenix and Royal companies operated under their own distinct logos from 1920 through 1925; new versions were designed in 1926. Pieces from the Royal plant bore a metal tag with a bust of George Washington in relief, and “ROYAL FURNITURE/MADE BY/ROBERT W. IRWIN CO.” Pieces made in the Phoenix plant were give a rectangular metal tag with a relief of the Phoenix bird rising from the fire, and “PHOENIX FURNITURE/MADE BY/ROBERT W. IRWIN CO.”
A 1928 ad in Good Furniture Magazine shows a new circular logo with “ROBERT W. IRWIN COMPANY/GRAND RAPIDS” in the outer circle, which surrounds a shield topped by the Phoenix bird rising from the ashes. A sash across the shield reads “PHOENIX”; above the sash is a set of calipers, and below is a cabinet clamp. In 1931 the company discontinued the Royal name, calling those lines “Custom” instead. All other lines were placed under the “Phoenix” name.
At some point in the 1930s, Irwin adopted another new trademark, which it continued to use until it closed in 1953. Seen as a brass tag on pieces of furniture, the logo consisted of an eye shape surrounding the name “IRWIN”. In 1940, when the company launched its “Pendleton” line, a special logo was used, with the Irwin eye shape, topped with the name “Pendleton” in script.
1880: Founded as the Stow and Haight Furniture Company
1885: George A. Davis purchases Thomas Haight’s interest in Stow & Haight; name changes to Stow & Davis.
1928: Company acquires Grand Rapids Desk Co.
1936: Company recapitalizes and reorganized.
1953 – ca. 1962: Stow & Davis organizes “Executive Furniture guild,” with exclusive dealerships offering a complete line of decorator services along the lines of the Grand Rapids Furniture Makers Guild.
ca. 1955: Stow & Davis adds former Phoenix furniture factory to its downtown campus.
1985: Steelcase, Inc. acquires Stow & Davis Furniture Co.
1988: Stow & Davis opens million-plus-square-foot plant in Kentwood, Michigan; closes downtown Grand Rapids plants.
1991: Stow & Davis acquires Interior Woodworking Corp. of New Paris, Indiana, and Wigand Corp. of Colorado Springs, Colorado and Avon Lakes, Ohio.
1992: Kentwood plant and wooden office furniture lines are placed under the Steelcase Wood Division name. Upholstered lines, architectural woodwork and custom furniture for offices, hotels, and homes remains under the name Stow/Davis. Headquarters remain in Grand Rapids, but production moves to newly acquired plants in Indiana, Colorado, and Ohio.
The company was originally formed by the partnership of Russell Stow and Thomas Haight. Stow, who also served as mayor of Grand Rapids, returned in 1907. Haight sold his share to George Davis in 1885. Davis remained an officer of the company until 1922. Edgar W. Hunting became an officer of the company in 1896. The firm was reorganized in 1936 by Peter J. Wege, Walter Idema, and David D. Hunting, all of whom also played an important role in the establishment of Steelcase, Inc. Also involved in the 1936 reorganization was Robert Bennett, who served as president into the 1960s, and expanded the company’s offerings in the area of total interior decoration planning.
Edgar R. Somes, a prominent Grand Rapids designer, created some designs for Stow & Davis circa 1900 – 1901. Arthur E. Teal, who also served as a designer for Stickley Brothers, designed for Stow & Davis in 1918 and 1919. Giacomo “Jack” Buzzitta began working for Stow & Davis in 1936, and became the first full-time product designer on staff of an office furniture manufacturer. In addition to his role as head designer, which he held until his retirement in 1975, he also produced some of the miniature sales samples that were carried by company salesmen. George Reinoehl designed the 1960s walnut and chrome “Predictor” line. Interior designer Alexis Yermakov was commissioned in the late 1960s to create the “Electa Series”. Don T. Chadwick designed Stow & Davis’ award winning “Series 1000” line of occasional tables, sofas, and chairs, which was introduced in 1973.
The company began as a manufacturer of kitchen and dining extension tables. In 1889 the company produced its first custom and production boardroom tables, a product which remained one of the company’s specialties for more than a century. By the 1890s Stow & Davis offered a large range of library, office, and dining tables, including oak pedestal tables. A 1907 article in The Grand Rapids Furniture Record described Stow & Davis as the “largest exclusive table house making medium and high grade dining and office tables.”
A 1911 article from the Grand Rapids Herald states that no hand carvers were employed at the factory, because of the “remarkable simplicity” of its machine-made tables. Circa 1916 advertisements promoted Stow & Davis’s ability to produce suites of bank furniture for major clients. They generally included large Adam or Colonial Revival style boardroom tables, wood and leather executive and swivel chairs, and traditional wooden desks in oak or “dull” mahogany.
In 1928 Stow & Davis introduced the first wood and steel framework desk in the wood furniture industry. This method of construction was soon incorporated into all its bank and office furniture suites. Lines with names like Grand Rapids, Kent, Nottingham, Colonial, Baronial, Georgian, Adam, Jacobean, Gothic, and Florentine were make of walnut, mahogany, and oak during the 1920s and ‘30s, in traditional period revival styles.
Developed in the late 1930s, the Harwood, Croyden, Rapide, Metro, Beacon, and Moderne, and Progression lines, and successive versions produced in the 1950s and ‘60s known as Progression II and III, featured wooden case pieces in walnut of blonde satin finish and leather chairs or sectional seating. All of these lines were characterized by Art Moderne lines, curved tops, rounded corners, and streamlined hardware. The related Nordic suite was made with bleached or gray-silver mahogany veneers. During World War II Stow & Davis manufactured functional wooden desks, chairs, and even bunk beds for naval vessels.
The Custom Executive, Predictor, Sigma and Transition office groups of the 1950s and ‘60s consisted of International Modern style free-standing desks, credenzas, conference tables, and occasional pieces of wood with exposed steel frames, chrome hardware, and leather or fabric upholstered seating. The American Colonial, Italian Classic, Kent, York, Georgian, and Sherwood lines continued the offering of more conservative mahogany or walnut executive furniture, with historical English or Italian influences.
The biomorphic “Bubble Chair,” produced between 1965 and 1970, had a rounded nylon upholstered form on a chrome or aluminum pedestal base. The “Electa Series” was introduced circa 1968, and featured freestanding pieces with rigid International Modern chromed steel frames, which supported interchangeable panels of walnut, textured vinyl, or smoked glass. Harty desks, design by M.F. Harty circa 1974, featured massive slabs of rounded walnut floating atop a base of mirror chrome steel. The “Triangle” chair, designed by Robert DeFuccio and produced from 1975 to 1985, won numerous awards for its continuous triangular frame of bent plywood.
The “Free-Dimensional” furniture and wall system, and related “Cube Desk” series, were designed by Warren H. Snodgrass, and introduced in 1974. Finished in a combination of wood veneers, plastic laminates, metals, and fabrics, these were the first open office plan lines offered by Stow & Davis.
The Grand Rapids Public Museum has a large archival collection, which includes catalogs, furniture plates, awards, upholstery samples, and other materials relating to Stow & Davis, as well as many pieces of Stow & Davis furniture and sales-sample miniatures. The Public Museum also owns The Jack Buzzitta Archival Collection, which includes many plates, design drawings, and interior photos of bank and corporate installations by their most notable designer.
MARKS AND LABELS
In the 1910s the company name was printed in upper-case block letters, with the ends of the first and last “S” extending above and below the name, containing “GRAND RAPIDS” and “MICHIGAN”. During the 1930s and early 1940s the name was adapted to italicized upper-case block letters, with the ends of each “S” still extending above and below the name. After World War II the “S” and “D” were printed in script, and the lines above and below the name ceased to be connected to the letters. Pieces manufactured between 1953 and 1962 may carry the trademark of the Executive Furniture Guild of America, with the emblem of an eagle surrounded by the words “Prestige, Character and Integrity”. Stow & Davis’s logo from the 1950s until 1985 was a streamlined upper-case “S” attached to a “D”. After Steelcase’s acquisition of Stow/Davis in 1985, all Steelcase wood products were sold under the Stow/Davis or Stow & Davis name. In 1992 the ampersand was dropped from the name.
Grand Rapids Desk Company
1893 – ca. 1956
Grand Rapids and Muskegon, Michigan
Manufacturer of office furniture, roll-top and pedestal desks in Golden Oak, mahogany and mission oak. COMPANY HISTORY
1893 – 1898: Company operates in Grand Rapids, Michigan
1898: Moves to Muskegon, Michigan after factory burns in Grand Rapids.
1907: Purchased and operated by Browne – Morse Co. of Muskegon.
1928: Purchased by Stow & Davis Co. of Grand Rapids and operates until circa 1956.