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High Point - Oct. 20: Buy American

October 22, 2009

Buy American is a battle cry heard recently at some of the latest trade shows: In Table Top, Lester Gribetz, former co-chair of Bloomigdale’s and now president/ceo of Lenox, is openly committed to American-made and American designers and intent on putting his company’s emphasis there.

In High Point, a whiff of the old patriotic pride could be perceived, and the subject came up in several high-end furniture showrooms. 

If by chance you are thinking that this hints at outsourcing in reverse, you would be smoking something that’s illegal. That’s just not going to happen for two reasons. Labor cost is the most obvious and continuing obstacle to domestic production, and what started outsourcing in the first place. The other: manufacturers long ago sold off their equipment and closed many of their factories. They have therefore largely lost the ability of having anything made in this country.

The few facilities that remain, tend to be owned by high-end furniture producers who still maintain and prefer them for final finishing and customization after elaborately carved or inlaid pieces arrive from far away shores, mostly China, India and Vietnam, but increasingly, also from South America.

Among American producers who still maintain limited facilities and American workers are Habersham, E.J.Victor, Hickory Chair, Century, Henredon, Baker, Stickley, and others.

With virtually limitless customization now widely available, a quick turnaround and timely delivery of pieces that are specified and delivered as variations of original samples are essential. By concentrating on special effects and meticulous execution of changes, what’s left of American production is less of the assembly line as it is of the increasingly rare but more appreciated skill of quality craftsmanship.

I, on the other hand, believe that Buy American will mean something entirely different going forward. Namely, that before long we might see another re-invention of American design by American designers, and that they will be the ones to bring renewed attention to the uniqueness of the American lifestyle. Mercifully, these future American designs will not be a rehash of Country, or worse, Early American - but will be expressions of American contemporary life in all its glory - indoors and out. 

A faint American heartbeat could be felt here: A good example is Thom Filicia’s architecturally informed furniture collection for Vanguard, which he describes as "American Renaissance" Another Thomas, O’Brien that is, synthesizes influences from around the world and translates them into unmistakably contemporary American forms. Daryl Carter is a designer who is very much influenced by traditional American forerunners as recently seen at Thomasville and in a magazine feature celebrating his compelling country house near Washington D.C. He again re-interprets those influences in today’s terms. And I know of at least one American iconic designer who plans to return to his root success: American Design.

My bet is that there will be more where these come from. My advice: Keep your eye on American design.