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.
Furniture Highlights (October 1 2014) Highlights from the Grand Rapids Public Museum's collection of over 2,000 pieces of furniture.
Robert W. Irwin Furniture Company Irwin, Robert W. Co.
1919 - 1953
Grand Rapids, Michigan
SEE ALSO Phoenix Furniture Co.; Royal Furniture Co. 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 group of invertors from Cincinnati.
1953: Company closes and discontinues production. Rights to the Irwin name sold to Sterling, Inc., of New York City. PERSONNEL
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 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-panted 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. PRODUCTS
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 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 hand work 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. OTHER SOURCES
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.
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.