A Century of Style

Heywood-Wakefield's modern furniture combines solid hardwood with sleek but simple lines.

BY HARRIET SCHOENTHAL, IFDA, ASID


 


Streamlined Moderne furniture was the first so-called modern furniture produced for the mass market. Introduced in the late 1930s, the hardwood collection took the country by storm.

 In the period between the two world wars, Americans held an unwavering belief that they were experiencing an age of unqualified "progress." Nowhere was this belief more evident than in the world of design. The 1925 Paris Exposition and the 1933-34 Chicago World's Fair made lasting impressions on all art disciplines, including furniture design.

During this period, Heywood-Wakefield, a conservative New England furniture company founded in 1826 by five Heywood brothers, made its mark on America. Already into its second century of existence, the Gardner, MA, firm, which initially imported chairs from the Old World by clipper ship, changed course and ventured into the untested waters of modern furniture.

For exhibition at the Chicago World's Fair, Heywood took a giant step forward by seeking out famed industrial designer Russel Wright to develop a line of modern furniture. Although this new look in furniture design was widely acclaimed, the looming Depression suppressed demand. As the economy worsened, Heywood withdrew the line but maintained its faith in the future of modern design.

In 1937, the company introduced a new and very modern collection designed by Leo Jiranek which featured all solid wood construction -- a first for Haywood-Wakefield. The wood was northern hardrock maple, and rounded corners, wood pulls and a svelte silhouette highlighted the designs. Known as Streamlined Moderne, this collection took the country by storm and made Heywood-Wakefield a household name. It was the first complete line of 20th century modern furniture produced for the mass market.

Leading the Industry

Christopher Kennedy, a Massachusetts researcher and dealer in 20th century modern designs, said the first finishes were Bleached and Amber, with Wheat being introduced in the fall of 1937. In 1939, Champagne was added. It became a standard finish for Streamlined Moderne. Also, in the late 1930s, production was expanded to include northeastern yellow birch.

These designs continued to flourish, and Heywood-Wakefield's position in the marketplace as a leading producer of modern furniture was established. Capable of making a quality product on a large-scale, production-line basis, and supporting it with a national advertising campaign in such leading women's publications as McCall's and Ladies Home Journal, Heywood-Wakefield enjoyed a position of unprecedented leadership in the industry.

With a rising economy and the positive acceptance of its solid wood construction, the company followed up with its colonial-inspired Old Colony Collection. Other prominent designers, among whom were Count Alexis de Sakhnoffsky and Alfons Back, were engaged.

'Yankee Creativity'

During World War II, furniture took a back seat to the production of solid wood rifle handles. "Yankee creativity triumphed over adversity," Kennedy said in a 1992 article published for the Manhattan Antiques & Collectibles Expo. "The Japanese had bombed the East Indian shipping port of Macassa into ruins, thus eliminating the rattan that Heywood-Wakefield used for its summer furniture. The company decided to adapt and use native New England close-grained ash, and thus the Ashcraft Group was born," Kennedy wrote.

In the late 1950s, designer John VanKoert designed Wintergarden, a solid ash collection. This unique collection looked to the future, pre-dating by 40 years the garden look currently in vogue. These designs also took full advantage of Heywood's extraordinary steam-bending techniques and facilities.

Moving into the early 1960s, the company expanded its Old Colony Collection to incorporate Publick House, a solid maple grouping finished in a rich, warm brown. Spearheaded by designer Joseph Carr, long part of Heywood's design team, the collection was extensive and featured an innkeeper's chair, settles and other unusual pieces that reflected the hospitality of the famous New England Publick House Inn.

The late 1960s brought the Cliff House Collection, named for the famous San Francisco hotel. Cliff House was constructed of solid cherry, also in a deep warm brown finish. The new designs included a "square-round" table, pier mirror and captain's chairs, all streamlined and reminiscent of earlier collections but with a definite late-20th century look.

A Company Reborn

Business fell off after the 1960s, labor disputes took their toll and by 1979, the antiquated factory was shut down. The last two Heywood descendants, brothers John and George Heywood, bowed out and Heywood-Wakefield, the nation's oldest continuously operating company, closed its doors. But both the name and the designs that defined the 20th century were destined to live on.

Reborn with the acquisition of the Heywood-Wakefield name and logo by the South Beach Furniture Co., Miami, in 1994, the original Streamlined Moderne designs were re-introduced that same year at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York City. The classic designs are now being produced in solid birch.

Avidly sought in antique shops throughout the United States, the original pieces go for sums far exceeding their prices in earlier years. Regardless of the condition of the finish, the pieces are treasured and treated with royal respect. Solid wood construction provides the added value, as the furniture can always be sanded, refinished and restored to mint condition.

Editor's note: Harriet Schoenthal has been president of Harriet Schoenthal Inc., a Manhattan advertising, marketing and public relations firm for 25 years and currently represents the Hardwood Manufacturers Assn.

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