Sunday, January 21, 2007

The last fine furniture factory in Grand Rapids...

Kindel Furniture Factory- South Side

... had a change in management last Friday.

GRAND RAPIDS -- When workers trudged into Kindel Furniture Co. through blowing snow Friday, they did not know the company's Indiana owners were about to evict longtime executives Bob Fogarty and his daughter, Paula Fogarty Scott.

Key members of the Fisher family, who have owned Kindel since 1964, flew in early Friday to oust the Fogarty family. Leading the mission was 91-year-old patriarch John Fisher.

"This morning we disengaged the Fogartys from the organization," Fisher said. "We have a great product and make great furniture. The problem is, we haven't been selling it."

That they do. It is some of the most beautiful furniture in the world... but I'm a little biased. You see, I used to work there as an artist.

Such a cliche'. I'm from Grand Rapids, and I worked in a furniture factory. But you know what? Pretty soon there won't be anyone left who can say that. Grand Rapids, the "Furniture City", will pass into history.

Kindel is the last one standing.

From the front office to the shipping dock, employees were shocked to hear the Fogartys were out after nearly 30 years. As the last manufacturer of residential furniture in Grand Rapids, the business employs 130, including hand carvers, decorators and skilled craftsmen at its only plant at 100 Garden St. SE.

"I was surprised," said Will Davis, for 18 years a packer at the plant. "I hope God just helps us keep going."

The good news: the company is staying open and staying put, said the interim president and chief executive, John Smith.

I'm very glad that they are holding on for now, but I don't give them long.

This furniture is as labor intensive as it is beautiful- you can't imagine the hours of work, the many hands it must pass through, the attention to detail- that goes into every single piece.

But, as with everything else in this country, every bit of fine craftsmanship, from cars to glass to furniture to clothes to whatever, they can do it cheaper somewhere else.

High-end furniture makers have gone through a "tremendous amount of upheaval" as they compete with ever-more sophisticated Asian manufacturers, said Art Raymond, of the North Carolina consulting firm A.G. Raymond & Co.

"It's getting to be much more difficult for the high end of the market because the Chinese have collapsed the price points," he said. "Some of the quality pieces are now available for 25 percent to 30 percent less money than they were just a few years ago."

Raymond said more than 275 domestic furniture plants have closed since January 2000, eliminating about 60,000 jobs.

Owners have pledged to keep the Kindel plant open and have infused money into the factory at 100 Garden St. SE.

Still, the removal of President Paula Fogarty and her father, Chairman Robert Fogarty, who were with the company for 30 years, sent shockwaves through the Grand Rapids furniture community.

In a statement to The Press, Paula Fogarty said they had a "different philosophy about the direction of the company.

"We wish all the employees of Kindel Furniture all of the best for their hard work and dedication of American craftsmanship that we have been proud to serve as a family since 1978," she said.

This must have shocked the employees at Kindel- I know it shocked me.

(EDIT 1/23: I have a bunch of people crawling on this blog over this post, and it has started to freak me out a bit. I have removed my personal obsevations about the Fogartys because a) I don't really care about them all that much and b) they really weren't the point of this post. The point is that Kindel makes beautiful furniture right here in my town, and I want that to go on. If removing the Fogartys helps in that goal, then I'm glad to see them go.)

But back to a Grand Rapids heritage- I hope Kindel will survive. I was proud to work on pieces that went to the White House, to the Smithsonian, to a castle in Ireland. Proud to be part of the history of this area, even if it was pretty late in the game and only for a relatively brief time. Factory life wasn't for me, even as an artist- but I am concerned for the people of Kindel, long-time craftsmen and women with a talent that is going to be obsolete if the factory should happen to close.

Good people, all. Best of luck to them, and best of luck to all those American workers that are still out there making beautiful products.

We are watching the death of tradition, slowly but surely. Breaks my heart.

Kindel Furniture Factory Stack