A Casual History Primer
Michael J. Knell -- Casual Living, December 21, 2012
Last month, the casual World was focused on new ideas, new introductions and new beginnings. Like no other time during the year, the outdoor industry's collective senses were piqued by the latest installments in a rich history of products and processes defining outdoor leisure. Here, we look back to the origins of our industry, where we come from and how that defines us in the modern world.
The classic Kantan collection, designed in 1956 by Tadao Inouye means “simplicity” in Japanese and the original design, noted for its minimalist appeal, was offered with a tubular aluminum frame paired with vinyl lace strap. This innovative collection was so popular the Department of Commerce chose Kantan to be a part of the U.S. exhibit at the Industrial World’s Fair held in Tokyo, Japan in 1959, and in 1960, Alcoa Aluminum used the original version of Kantan to illustrate outstanding design. Fast forward to today, Kantan II has been reinvented with a streamlined brass frame and Brown Jordan’s new resilient Suncloth straps that subtly stretch and conform to the body to provide exceptional comfort and secure support. Kantan II represents Brown Jordan’s extraordinary history of material and design innovation, as evidenced in the ICFA Design Excellence award won by the Kantan II lounge chair at this year’s International Casual Furniture show. – Steve Elton, chief brand offi cer, Brown Jordan
1920s - BARLOW TYRIE SETS SAIL
In a converted barn down an alleyway in central London, Fredrick Barlow and Victor Tyrie came together to launch Barlow Tyrie. The year was 1920 and the partners, who had met while employees of Castle's Ship breakers (ship salvaging company), pooled their talents to form an entity focused on creating garden benches of salvaged teak for well-to-do Londoners. Tyrie was a government trained cabinet maker. Barlow, whose background was in accounting, was also a part of the company's design and marketing department and credited with creating product illustrations for the company's first brochures.
"Our target market has changed little over the years," said Charles Hessler, executive VP, Barlow Tyrie USA, Moorestown, N.J. "We still produce outdoor furnishings for those that can appreciate, and afford, well-made furniture." Upon Barlow's death in 1955, Tyrie became sole owner and led the company until the 1970s when he contemplated retirement. At that time, Tyrie asked his son, Peter, to assist in shutting down the company. "Ironically, as he began to streamline the product offerings, the company began to grow and prosper," Hessler said. "Needless to say, Peter did not close the company, but instead continued to expand it, outgrowing factory space." Today, Barlow Tyrie owns a 100,000- sq.-ft. manufacturing facility built in the early 1980s as well as manages a large factory in Indonesia.
Barlow Tyrie's fall introductions included a product mix that branched out into different materials and more contemporary designs. Its history, however, continues to be a part of its present. "We still manufacture designs from our earliest years, such as the Rothesay teak seats, which were, in fact, featured in the 1922 catalog," Hessler said.
1930s - WOODARD GOES HEAVY METAL
Although the Woodard story stretches back to wooden furniture production begun in 1866, it was in 1930 when Lee Woodard and his sons, Joe, Russ and Lyman, branched off to form Lee L. Woodard and Sons. At its birth, this company's focus was the design and manufacturer of metal furniture with Lee's first wrought iron chair introduced in 1934. A featured design element of early Woodard metal furniture was the "button" foot. In 1940, the Orleans Collection debuted. This collection proved to be Woodard's best seller for decades and ultimately was selected for the permanent collection at the Smithsonian Museum in the nation's capital.
Lee L. Woodard and Sons took a break from manufacturing furniture during World War II to produce equipment for the war effort. The company resumed production of metal furniture in 1946.
In the 1960s, the Owosso, Mich. company expanded local facilities as well as added manufacturing facilities in North Carolina. However, in 1969, with no apparent heirs, the company went through a merger with Wickes Corporation. Today, Woodard is a part of Litex, a Texas based importer of ceiling fans and lighting fixtures. "We are excited about the addition of the Woodard brand to our offerings," said Jean Liu, Litex president and CEO. "Today, Woodard continues the tradition of hand-crafted wrought iron furniture with the same quality craftsmanship implemented by its founder over 80 years ago."
1940s - BROWN JORDAN BEGINS
While some manufacturers took a break in casual furniture production during war times, for Robert Brown and Hubert Jordan it was a time of beginnings. "In 1945, Robert Brown conceived a bold idea: To develop elegant furniture products designed to live outdoors in any season," said Steve Elton, chief brand officer, Brown Jordan, El Monte, Calif. "Inspired by the climate and culture of Southern California, Brown forged a new path, developing unique products that quickly established Brown Jordan as a design innovator and ultimately defined an industry."
Over the years, the Brown Jordan brand has been known as an award winner and the source of many design firsts. Several examples include classic Walter California Lamb designs, the Florentine and Venetian collections, as well as the introduction of Brown Jordan's proprietary Parabolic mesh in the late 1990s.
At its inception, Brown Jordan's target market was the design community. Today, the company serves multiple market segments including retail, residential and hospitality. "The latest Brown Jordan products are being created to reach a broader consumer base," said Elton.
Barrel chairs from Homecrest Outdoor Living’s Vintage Wire Frame Collection that originally debuted in 1967. The company will celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2013 and is reintroducing the collection. It is stocking its inventory by buying back frames from consumers, refi nishing the steel, replacing the swivel kit, making new cushions, installing glides and re-selling it.
1950s - TROPITONE TAKES ON RETAIL
It was 1954 when the Tropitone brand was established as a commercial brand by Bert M. Baker in Sarasota, Fla. "It was the era when car travel was starting to boom in the USA," said Tanya Stevens, VP of marketing and service operations, Tropitone, Irvine, Calif. "As travelers became familiar with Tropitone brand products at hotels and motels, they began asking where they could buy such comfortable, stylish and high quality products for their homes."
Tropitone made the decision to fill that demand by offering products for sale at retail. The company history sites that the performance standards for an entire industry were changed by applying the rigorous product and service performance requirements of the highly-demanding commercial market to the residential market.
In 1970, a defining moment in the history of Tropitone was the establishment of operations in Orange County, Calif.. This move gave Tropitone the bicoastal manufacturing advantage it continues to enjoy today. "Over the past three decades, many casual furnishings companies chose to shutter North American facilities and outsource their manufacturing to China factories," Stevens said. "Tropitone steadfastly maintains its North American bicoastal manufacturing presence in order to meet the long-standing high performance requirements of its distribution partners and end-user customers."
1950s - 1960s MEADOWCRAFTMADE
Within the same decade that saw Tropitone emerge, Birmingham Ornamental Iron, founded by B.M. Meadow, moved the company from manufacturing fencing, rails and gates to enter the world of outdoor furnishings. By the later part of the decade, the company was ranked third in the United States in wrought iron furniture sales. In 1967, the company had grown to a work force of 259 and encompassed a collection of consolidated furniture and housewares makers. The popularity was attributed to offering a 10-year rust free guarantee, the availability of popular styles and colors and aggressive marketing efforts including product placements during the early years of television.
In 1985, the multiple manufacturing entities were incorporated as Meadowcraft. The company saw a surge in placements with distribution to specialty and mass merchants. The brand continued to grow throughout the next decades marked by expansions in multiple facilities. During the early years of the new millennium, Meadowcraft experienced continued highs as well as unfortunate lows. By 2009, following bankruptcy and closure, the assets of Meadowcraft were purchased by Wadley Holdings, LLC with a goal of embarking on a challenging re-launch.
"Today, Meadowcraftsells to specialty dealers, furniture stores, commercial entities as well as mass merchants," said Linda Hogeland, sales manager, Meadowcraft, Wadley, Ala. "Made in the USA products have become much more important to our dealers as well as their customers." Meadowcraft continues to sell its traditional mesh products with deep seating realizing growth that represents a significant percentage of the company's current yearly sales.
1960s - HOMECREST HITS HOME
Another entity that was conceived producing interior furnishings in the post war 1950s, but migrated in the next decade to the world of outdoor furnishing was Homecrest. In 1960, Al Engelmann and Mert Bottemiller took the company's foundation of metal furnishings and introduced the model #55, wire frame café chair and table set. "With the technology that Homecrest had in place producing sturdy electrically welded frames, baked on enamel finishes, and a reputation for comfort in the indoor market, a more extensive line of weather friendly outdoor furniture was introduced," said Marilou Heltemes, marketing executive, Homecrest, Wadena, Minn.
Although rooted in interior furnishings, across the years, Homecrest saw a shift in its primary market. "As time went on, sales shifted away from department stores and the outdoor specialty stores emmerged," Heltemes said. However, the core concept of the company remained consistent. Based on a patent for the swivel rocking mechanism attained by Mert Bottenmiller in the early 1950s, comfort was central to the company's development. To further define comfort and their brand, Homecrest expanded upon the swivel rocking mechanism adding contour to frames to ergonomically fit the body as well as blended fill cushions.
In 1983, Homecrest introduced to the market a new collection, "Cricket," that incorporated a double layer sling construction. The company's latest Kashton Collection continues to utilize this nearly 30-year-old sling technology. The company's history continues to influence its latest introductions. "Being introduced at the 2012 market is a retro-inspired New Bellaire collection in both deep seating and dining," Heltemes said. "This collection takes inspiration from the 1960s Homecrest B99 chair and the popular Eames Chair."
A PIECE OF THE CASUAL HISTORY
Overall, the casual industry is nearing a second century and overflowing with stories. At the heart of the past century, a small sampling of players emerged or hit their stride within the times that extended from the days of flappers to flower power. The stories encompass longevity and creativity, innovation and ideals that are far from the complete story, but definitely one that has left a mark on today's casual landscape.