When architect Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned to design the Wisconsin headquarters for S. C. Johnson Wax in 1937, he also designed forty different pieces of furniture. He used the same shapes, colors, and materials in both the furniture and the architecture. This unity of the whole office environment was revolutionary at the time.
To custom-produce the furniture, Wright selected the metal Office Furniture Company (Steelcase) in Grand Rapids. It arranged for other local manufacturers to assist, including Stow & Davis and American Seating.
This desk is featured on the cover and page 103 of Grand Rapids Furniture: The Story of America's Furniture City by Christian G. Carron, accession number 2020.1.33.
Furniture City (1994 – 2013) Furniture City was one of the signature core exhibits installed at the Grand Rapids Public Museum's new Van Andel Museum Center when it opened in 1994. At approximately 10,000 square feet, the exhibit occupied a significant portion of the museum's second floor and contained hundreds of pieces of Grand Rapids Furniture. The exhibition was accompanied by the authoritative book on the subject, "Grand Rapids Furniture", by GRPM curator Christian Carron. The Furniture City exhibit told a comprehensive story of the Furniture Industry in Grand Rapids, from its origins in the years after the Civil War, up to the present day with office and fixed seating manufacturers like Steelcase and American Seating. The exhibition was significantly reduced in size in 2013 to make room for a new gallery, and was finally closed in 2019.
Artifact GR (2012 – 2013) Artifact GR was a project which invited members of the community into the archives of the Grand Rapids Public Museum, and asked them to write about their experiences. The resulting submissions were cataloged in an interactive website (www.artifactgr.org) and in a published book (http://www.blurb.com/b/4400444-the-artifact-projectsoftcover).
Furniture Highlights (October 1 2014) Highlights from the Grand Rapids Public Museum's collection of over 2,000 pieces of furniture.
Virtual History Scavenger Hunt (June 2020) Use this scavenger hunt to explore artifacts and specimens in the GRPM’s Digital Collections. This scavenger hunt will help you explore key parts of history at several levels - our city, our state, our country, and our world!
Steelcase, Incorporated Steelcase, Inc.
1954 - present
Grand Rapids, Michigan
See Also: Macey Furniture Company; Stow & Davis Furniture Company; Grand Rapids Fancy Furniture Company; Terrell Manufacturing Company; Turnstone (Listed below) COMPANY HISTORY
1912: Founded as the Metal Office Furniture Company. First products are made on contract for Macey Furniture Company.
ca. 1917: Metal Office severs ties to Macey Furniture Company.
ca. 1920-1930: Terrell Manufacturing Company of Grand Rapids enters a cooperative venture in which it makes cabinets, lockers, and shelving to complement Metal office furniture lines.
1922: Metal Office begins its independent dealer network, the first in the contract furniture industry.
1936: Metal Office acquires Doehler Manufacturing of New York.
1940: Metal Office acquires Grand Rapids Fancy Furniture Company.
1954: Company name changes to its popular trademark, Steelcase, Inc.
1964: Steelcase acquires Attwood Corporation, of Lowell, Michigan.
1965: Steelcase sales exceed all others in the office furniture industry.
1973: Joint venture agreement creates Steelcase Japan Ltd. in Osaka.
1974: Joint venture agreement creates Steelcase Strafor in Strasbourg, France; Steelcase Wood Furniture is formed in Fletcher, North Carolina.
1978: Vecta of Grand Prairie, Texas joins Steelcase Design Partnership.
1980: Steelcase Strafor acquires Polschroeder GmbHG of Dortmund, Germany.
1985: Steelcase acquires Stow & Davis, Inc. of Grand Rapids.
1986: Steelcase acquires Hedberg Data Systems, Inc. of East Windsor, Connecticut.
1987: Metro Furniture of San Francisco, California and Brayton International of High Point, North Carolina join Steelcase Design Partnership.
1988: Design Tex of Woodside, New York and Atelier International of Plainview, new York join Steelcase Design Partnership.
1989: Steelcase acquires Revest of Atlanta, Georgia, Steelcase Strafor acquires: A.F. Sistemas of Madrid; Gordon Russell of London; and Eurosteel of Lisbon and Casablanca. The Corporate Development Center, also known as the “Steelcase Pyramid,” opens in suburban Kent County.
1990: Details formed as part of Steelcase Design Partnership in New York.
1991: Stow Davis joins Steelcase Design Partnership.
1992: Health Design of High Point, North Carolina joins Steelcase Design Partnership.
1993: Joint venture agreements formed with Steelcase Jeraisy Ltd. In Saudi Arabia and Steelcase Modernform Company in Bangkok, Thailand; Steelcase acquires Anderson Desk, Inc. of City of Commerce, California; Steelcase forms Steelcase Healthcare and Turnstone in Grand Rapids, and Continuum in High Point.
1994: Steelcase forms Steelcase on the Road in Grand Rapids.
1995: Joint venture agreement formed with Godrej and Boyce in Bombay, India.
1996: Joint venture agreement formed with Steelcase OCA in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
1997: Steelcase announces the first public sale of its stocks. PERSONNEL
For its first two years, the list of officers for the Metal Office Furniture Company included Alexander Hompe, president, and Fred Tobey, vice-president of the Macey Furniture Company of Grand Rapids. Other founding officers were Peter M. Wege (who had already received several patents for metalworking as an executive of the Safe Cabinet Company of Marietta, Ohio), and Walter Idema, the son of a prominent local banker. After only two years, Hompe left the board of directors and was replaced as president by Peter Wege, who remained active until his death in 1947. David Hunting came to work at Metal Office in 1914, and served on its board from 1920 until 1994. Wege’s knowledge of metalworking, Idema’s financial abilities, and Hunting’s salesmanship provided a team to steer the company for many decades.
In 1961, Wendell David was hired as president from outside the company. He was succeeded as president in 1966 by Robert Pew, who came to work for Steelcase in 1952. Pew assumed the position of chairman in 1974, and CEO in 1980. Frank Merlotti, another long-term employee, became president in 1980 and CEO in 1988, while Pew still retains the position of chairman at the time of this writing . Merlotti retired as president and CEO in 1990, and was replaced by furniture industry outsider Jerry Myers, who resigned in 1994. Myers was replaced as president and CEO by Steelcase insider James P. Hackett.
In 1997, Steelcase employed 8,200 people in ten manufacturing plants in the greater Grand Rapids area and more than 19,000 worldwide. PRODUCTS
The Metal Office Furniture Company’s first products were free-standing fireproof metal safes and metal filing cases. These were initially produced on contract for the Macey Furniture Company of Grand Rapids. In 1914, the “Victor” fireproof steel wastebasket was developed. The Victor line was expanded after World War I to include metal desktop accessories.
In 1915, the small, young company was awarded the huge contract to furnish the renovated federal Customs House Tower in Boston. For this order, Metal Office introduced its first fireproof metal “601” desks. During World War I, Metal Office manufactured grained metal “Liberty Bond” boxes. In 1919, the company added steel filing cabinets to its catalog of office furniture. Even though interest in metal furniture was growing for its fireproof qualities, clients still preferred the look of wood. Consequently, Metal Office purchased wood grain roller printing machines from Grand Rapids Panel Company and used them to give their metal furniture the appearance of oak or mahogany.
During the early 1920s, Metal Office redesigned the “601” desks to include a linoleum or “lino-topped” writing surface. In that same period joint manufacturing began between Terrell and Metal Office. Terrell made all the storage cabinets, shelving, and lockers offered with the “601” line. In 1926, Metal Office introduced its “servidor” for hotel room doors, which allowed mail or laundry to be delivered to a guest room through one door on the outside, then accessed through a second door on the inside without breach of security or privacy.
In the early 1930s, Metal Office made beds and other residential furniture for Doehler Manufacturing of New York. In 1937, the Metal Office was awarded the contract to produce the now-famous custom desks and chairs designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright for the headquarters of S. C. Johnson & Company of Racine, Wisconsin. The wooden desk tops were sub-contracted to Stow & Davis, and the tubular steel components were sub-contracted to American Seating, both of Grand Rapids. Metal Office created the sheet metal components, finished them in “Cherokee” red [a color developed by Wright], and completed final assembly. In 1939, Metal Office began production of its first line of chairs.
In 1941, Metal office discontinued production of its metal roll-top desk, a popular model since 1914. Use of metal for civilian production was curtailed, but was more than replaced by orders from the U.S. Navy for shipboard furniture, including metal office furnishings, officer’s chairs, and even bunk beds and military chaplain’s pulpits. In fact, the Japanese surrender on the U.S.S. Missouri was signed atop a Steelcase mess table.
After World War II, Metal Office applied what it had learned from the military, namely the use of standard sizes and interchangeable parts, in its “Multiple 15” desk series. The company also introduced a civilian version of the military “C” chair line, which remained in constant production until 1979. Images of large open, office “pools,” filled with rows of workers at Multiple 15 desks and C chairs, came to epitomize the post-war corporate world.
In the early 1950s, the grey “Multiple 15” line got a new look with mist green desert sage, autumn haze, and blond tan: colors inspired by the desert, known as “Sunshine Styling.” In 1952, the line was expanded with “Convertibles,” a system of flexible work surfaces, cabinets and tables. The design of the “Flightline” series introduced in 1956 was inspired by the look of new aerospace technology. The “1300 Line” introduced in 1959 and the “2200 Line” which succeeded it in the early 1960s were completely rectilinear, with polished steel frames, laminate writing surfaces, and convertible extension. Special furniture for data processing, called “Datacase,” went into production in 1961.
Beginning in the early 1960s, several lines moved closer to the notion of the open office environment. “Convertiwalls” featured steel or textured glass panels that slid into slotted uprights, which were wired for phones and electricity. “Mobiles,” introduced in 1967, featured flexible storage cabinets and wall panels that could be arranged as room dividers, creating an open office system. This series was replaced in 1972 by “movable Walls,” Steelcase’s first office system that hung work surfaces and storage units from hinged panels. It was followed in 1973 by another panel-based system, “Series 9000,” which has become the best-selling office furniture system ever. “Context” systems furniture, introduced in 1989, replace cubicles which curving shapes and work stations that flow one into the next.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Steelcase seating was ergonomically designed. The “ConCentrix” chair, which went into production in 1980, was the first chair specifically designed for the worker in an electronic office. The ”Sensor” chair, introduced in 1986, was the industry’s first to come in three distinct sizes. The 1994 “Rapport” chair featured an adjustable lumbar support pillow and fingertip ergonomic controls.
In 1997, Steelcase offered the most extensive line of products in the contract furniture industry with more than 70,000 different models of furniture, including six lines of systems furniture, thirty-four lines of seating, fourteen lines of desks, six lines of bookcases, ten lines of filing cabinets, and eight lines of task lighting. OTHER SOURCES
Steelcase, Inc. maintains its own archive of catalogs, photos, and other materials. Steelcase published its periodical for Steelcase users, called Steelcase Circle, beginning in 1953. Much of the information in this section is from an illustrated anniversary history entitled Steelcase The First 75 Years, researched by Grand Rapids city historian Gordon Olson, in 1987. MARKS AND LABELS
The first safes produced by Metal Office for Macey were marked with an ellipse surrounding the words “MACEY/Inter-Inter/SAFE”. The “Victor” trademark appears in fanciful script on the company’s early wastebaskets. The trade name “Steelcase” first made its appearance on Metal Office Furniture Company files in 1920. The name typically appeared on a rectangular tag which read ”STEELCASE” in block letters over “Business Equipment” in italics. Items labeled “Terrell” were made by Terrell Manufacturing between circa 1920 and 1930. After 1930, Terrell became a Metal Office trademark for shelving, cabinets, and lockers. In 1925, the Steelcase name began to be placed on desks. Through the 1950s and 1960s, a variety of stylized “S” designs were used as company trademarks. Steelcase adopted its “spectrum logo,” with the name Steelcase in a rainbow of colors, in 1978.
Grand Rapids Fancy Furniture Company
1898 – 1939
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Manufacturer of oak and mahogany benches, bookcases, cabinets, desks, and tables in Mission and revival styles.
Acquired in 1940 by Metal Office Furniture Co. (Steelcase, Inc.)
Terrell Manufacturing Company 1908 – 1930
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Manufacturer of metal office furniture.
After World War I Terrell entered into a cooperative manufacturing and sale agreement managed by the Metal Office Furniture Co. (Steelcase), in which it manufactured shelving, cupboards, storage cabinets, and lockers to complement Metal Office’s “601 Series” desks and “Victor” accessories, and sanitary household food storage cabinets. While Terrell ceased to be a separate company in 1930, Steelcase continued to make shelving and cabinets in the same factory and with the Terrell name through much of the 1930s.
Turnstone, a Steelcase Company
1993 – present
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Designers and marketers of a line of furniture manufactured by Steelcase for small business and home offices. The company strategy was to sell through some existing dealers, as well as by catalog and “800” number.
The source, with permission of the author, is Grand Rapids Furniture: The Story of America’s Furniture City by Christian G. Carron, published by the Grand Rapids Public Museum. 1998.
Transcriber: Rebecca Smith-Hoffman