Timberlake Takes Action to Bring Furniture Manufacturing Back to North Carolina

Bob Timberlake's successful campaign to keep the production of his primary collection in the United States will help bring 200 woodworking jobs back to Lexington, NC.

By Hannah Miller
Pictured (top photo) is a bedroom suite from the World of Bob Timberlake collection, which is manufactured in North Carolina. Shown below is a bedroom suite from Timberlake's new Salt Aire collection, which is manufactured offshore.

When Lexington Home Brands sought to have its highly popular World of Bob Timberlake brand made offshore, nationally known artist and designer Bob Timberlake balked.

"We weren't going to do it offshore. We weren't. We weren't. We weren't," says Timberlake, age 69. "At the last (High Point) furniture market, I said, â??Don't ask me anymore.'"

But Lexington, which has sold more than $1 billion wholesale of the Timberlake brand during its 15 year collaboration with the famed artist, was adamant about getting out of manufacturing while continuing sales, Timberlake claims. In December, Lexington closed Plant #2, which was manufacturing the brand in Timberlake's hometown of Lexington, NC, thereby putting a reported 360 people out of work.

But then, in what Timberlake describes as a "win-win-win" situation, Lexington joined with Timberlake and local lumber and timber company, Kepley-Frank Hardwood, to form Linwood Furniture Inc. (LFI). Under the new partnership, Plant #2 reopened in March, started hiring the first of an expected 200 workers, and resumed production of the Timberlake furniture brand in the United States. Lexington Home Brands will continue to market and sell the product line, as well as a lower-price segment of the Timberlake line, Salt Aire, which is being produced offshore.

Wood & Wood Products: Why did you say "no" to offshore manufacturing of the World of Bob Timberlake collection?

Bob Timberlake: The main reason is because I know the folks around here. I'm kin to half of them and my wife (Kay) is kin to the other half. I grew up with them. I eat breakfast with them and I didn't want them to lose their jobs. And we wanted the quality and craftsmanship to continue being the best it could be. We don't take our relationships lightly - whether it's licensees, our customers or the people who work with us.

W&WP: Lexington's a small city where people know each other and many of them have been intimately associated with the furniture business. In fact, I understand that four generations of your wife's family have been Lexington Home Brands employees. Why are they important to Timberlake furniture?

Timberlake: [There's] pride on the part of the folks that have been making the furniture the last 15 years - I think that is why [the Timberlake line] was successful from the beginning. It's not just a piece of furniture that people are making and throwing off the line on the other end. It's something personal and they treat it that way.

The craftsmanship shows, the quality shows. All those things that used to be of value, they're still of value to me. I don't do hardly anything that's fleeting, that's not going to be here tomorrow. I always have done things that are going to be long-term.

W&WP: Did you worry that offshore work wouldn't be up to your standards?

Timberlake Brings Function to Art

Despite Bob Timberlake's international career as an artist and furniture designer, he has never strayed far from his roots.

Raised in the Lexington, NC, area, where both he and his wife trace their families back to the 1740s, he attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After graduation, he returned to the area to work in several family businesses before a Life magazine article on Andrew Wyeth turned his life around.

Convinced that art was where his future lay, in 1970 he started painting scenes of the rural countryside around him; realistic depictions that would later be exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the United States.

Yet, despite his fame, he never forgot his love of woodworking. "I had an interest in furniture even way back. I won my first national artistic award [the 1952 Ford Motor Co. industrial arts award] for a piece of furniture I built and painted," Timberlake says. "We are still today using designs from that chest in our furniture. It was a Pennsylvania Dutch dowry chest, large, 5 feet long, 30 inches high and about 30 inches deep, and hand-painted all over."

Timberlake credits Fred Carver, a master craftsman, for his influence in making the World of Bob Timberlake collection a success. "The furniture, the finishes, his love for cherry, his love for wood in general...a lot of it rubbed off, but not as much as I had wished. He lived long enough to see the fruition (the huge success of the Timberlake line)."

In addition to his success in the furniture industry, Timberlake has also designed four U.S. postage stamps and licensed home textiles and accessories, outdoor gear and log homes. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan honored him for his work with Keep America Beautiful and the American Forestry Assn. lauded him for "Enhancing Public Appreciation of America's Natural Resources through Art." His efforts on behalf of North Carolina charities are well-known, including the donation of a print release, "Jonquils," that along with other limited-edition reproductions, raised $2 million for cancer research at Duke Medical Center.

Although Timberlake continues to preside over Bob Timberlake Inc. from his home in Lexington, the day-to-day operations have been turned over to his son Dan.

Timberlake: I didn't think they could do the quality and the craftsmanship [I require for the World of Bob Timberlake collection] offshore. I didn't think they could use the cherry and the quality wood we've been using.

We have a lot of people who know what our furniture is, who have seen and touched it, lived with it and used it. I'm told we have a niche in the furniture world, that our furniture is different and special. Everybody I know in the industry has told me that.

W&WP: How do you feel about the choice of Plant #2 for resuming the line?

Timberlake: The plant was the perfect place for it to be made. They've got the finishes there and the equipment is already in place. They've got the patterns there and they've got the people.

W&WP: What was the reaction to reopening Plant #2, which started operation in March with 27 people and is expected to grow to 200?

Timberlake: The response since we made this announcement has been absolutely humongous. Not just employees, the whole community, the whole area, everybody from [U.S. Senator] Elizabeth Dole to the [person] waiting on me at the restaurant is happy and excited about it.

W&WP: How about the reaction of North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley, who in January gave you North Carolina's highest civilian honor, induction into The Order of the Long Leaf Pine?

Timberlake: I think he's very pleased.

W&WP: We've been talking all along about the original Bob Timberlake line, which started out as primarily cherry in 1990, but has had additions and subtractions as the years have gone by. You and Lexington Home Brands have another line on the market, introduced at last fall's High Point show. It's Salt Aire, from your Coastal collection, which is made overseas and sells at lower price points. How would you distinguish between the two collections?

Timberlake: Bob Timberlake is the main line, the most important and the most prominent line that we have.

Salt Aire [also] has been a huge hit. It's [manufactured] offshore; that's why it's priced differently. It's sort of a trade out. We negotiated all that, too.

W&WP: You were quoted in newspapers as saying you hoped your action "serves as a small diverting of that big ol' boat leaving offshore. Maybe it will knock it off path just a little bit." Do you think you will have any influence on any other players in the furniture industry?

Timberlake: I have no idea whether it will change anything at all. I would be glad for anybody to walk along beside us.

We're just trying to look after our people and our furniture - the quality of our furniture. We're trying our best to do that in our own backyard and to do what we think is right.


Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.