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Jamestown Sterling captures the spirit.

How savvy designer and a thoughtful furniture manufacturer determined what the public wants, needs and will buy as a new century approaches.

"As Americans contemplate life in the 21st century, they are rediscovering the simple furniture stylings popular at the beginning of the 20th century," said Edmund Fritz, president of Jamestown Sterling, Jamestown, N.Y. Likewise, Jamestown Sterling also has captured the spirit of those simpler times. The company recently entered into an agreement with Roycroft Associates to produce copies of the sturdy oak furniture built at Roycroft from 1898 until 1925.

Roycroft was one of the utopian Arts & Craft communities that flourished at the turn of the century. It was founded in 1895 in East Aurora, N.Y., by Elbert Hubbard and at one time employed 500 artisans in its print shop and bindery, furniture, blacksmith, glass, copper and leather shops.

A writer and homely philosopher, Hubbard was a leader in the American A&C Movement along with furniture makers Gustav Stickley and Frank Lloyd Wright, although Hubbard was better known for his "Message to Garcia" than for furniture. His "Message" was: work responsibly, take initiative and don't make excuses. Hubbard envisioned happy craftsmen joining mind, body and spirit in creating well-made products for all people to enjoy.

Through his publications and lectures, Hubbard emphasized self-reliance and individualism and "taught the public reasons to change to a lifestyle appropriate for the new 20th century." A growing middle class, weary of Victorian excesses, was said to be yearning for a natural, honest lifestyle. A&C craftsmen satistied those goals with unpretentious designs and simple, sturdy oak furniture.

Why Roycroft? Why now?

That was then. And of course, this is light years later. But what this is leading up to is how a prominent designer and a furniture. manufacturer, who is also somewhat of a philosopher, tackled the task of deciding what the public wants, needs and will buy as another new century - and a new millennium - approach.

In April, Jamestown Sterling launched its newest furniture venture, "Spirit of Roycroft," at the International Home Furnishings Market in High Point, N.C. Fifteen bedroom and occasional pieces were the first licensing of Roycroft furniture reproductions, or what Roycroft curator Robert Rust calls "inspired-by" editions. Dining tables and chairs will be introduced in October.

Steve Hodges of Steve Hodges Design, and new president of the American Society of Furniture Designers, was a key person in Jamestown's decision to replicate Roycroft furniture. Hodges said designers must bring more to a meeting with a manufacturer than an ability to draw well. A merchandising rationale and an awareness of the national mindset also enter into the determination process. "We must have a pretty good idea of what's going on in the world - an ability to gauge (or predict) public mood," he said.

When Hodges and Ed Fritz of Jamestown discussed production of a new line of furniture, they talked about social trends, including how young married couples furnished their homes. Hodges and Fritz believe that young people constitute a "lifestyle" market and it is this market for which they are, designing.

Lifestyles express values

Fritz, who seems to share Hubbard's holistic philosophy, added, "I try to take a bifocal approach to product development. First, from the top of my glasses, I try to read broad cultural changes. What is really happening across the nation? I'm after more than just fashion news. I want to know what significant sociological movements are occurring.

"The 1980s marked the essential end to a series of excesses," he continued, "including the age of greed. National priorities have changed. The adage, |Less is more,' is back in force. We're finding this to be true in terms of architecture, fashion and in a number of other areas. People want simplicity, credibility and are looking for integrity in their lives.

"I believe that when it comes to choosing furniture, people tend to latch on to what they are feeling culturally," Fritz said. Lifestyles express values. "People want their homes to truly reflect them and what they are feeling," he added.

Reliving the past

"The industry had a recent brief flirtation with Victorian ornamentation - with all its carvings, embellishment and romance," Fritz said. "Now, just as it did in the late 1800s, the infatuation with Victoriana has given way to a desire for unpretentiousness."

Fritz said he likes to talk with young people, to ask about the buying habits of younger consumers and to listen to them talk. "I have heard the younger, double income families say they buy Jamestown because it has a cleaner look, is not overly commercial and because ot the quality they perceive as being built in. Now they have indicated they want something a little different, more interesting, with the character to blend with their family hand-me-downs and the antiques they search out on weekends.

"This is a market looking tor new frontiers," Fritz said. "They want the kind of experience the Arts & Crafts Movement represents - the honest craftsman building sturdy, solid wood furniture.

"This goes deeper than nostalgia," Fritz continued. "It is a genuine interest in reliving the past." Family traditions and furniture destined to become heirlooms have become increasingly important to this affluent market.

|It had better be right'

Returning to his "bifocal" analogy, Fritz said the first task is to listen to what is happening. Hear what people are saying. Bounce ideas back at them. Test the waters. The second task is to look closely at the furniture industry and the competition. See what others are doing, he said. "If what I'm doing is different, it had better be right culturally.

"But I'm not the only one who thinks this is an interesting direction to take," Fritz said. "The time is right to pursue this (line of thinking) - that consumers appreciate and want to return to simple, basic values. We think this furniture represents that mood.

"We want to find our place in the resurging A&C Movement. We don't intend to duplicate historical pieces as much as to become part of what is happening."

It is natural, Fritz said, to want to restore the spirit of the turn of century. "That is somewhat the spirit of the 1990s. I'm not talking about reproduction. To capture a spirit is to relive it. Arts & Crafts has always been out there, always flashing across the sky in the manner of a comet. Now it is a single star shining brightly," he continued. "Not everyone can see it, but it is clearer now."

Scaled down and affordable

Both Jamestown and the Roycroft Associates loved the idea of reproducing Roycroft, according to Hodges. But the principals were slightly apprehensive about each other. "There was a lot of dancing around each other until they realized they all had the same goal. They wanted to see it done right but not so pure that it wouldn't be right for today."

For commercial production, the solid oak furniture has been scaled down and is more affordable to a wider audience. Eliminating the quarter-sawn oak of the originals and using verdigris-finished brass hardware instead of hand-wrought iron and hammered copper were cost-effective changes, Fritz said.

The Spirit of Roycroft has kept the straight-line look and spare styling of the originals, Hodges said, adding that it still meets a description set down decades ago

- "It takes two men to lift, a child can't hurt it and it will last a hundred years."

The new line includes slatted, lodge and quatretoil-metal-trimmed bedsteads; swinging, hanging and metal-trimmed mirrors; single, double and triple dressers; chiffonier; wardrobe; entertainment center; and night stands. Case goods have 3/4 end panels and fitted drawers with birch backs, sides and bottoms, locks and wood-on-wood glides. A number of pieces have the Macmurdo foot typical of the originals.

A Morris chair, a hall seat with storage drawer and a four-foot-square ottoman that can double as a cocktail table are also part of the collection. Finishes are dark Aurora Brown and lighter Stone House.

The spirit lingers on

Jamestown's solid wood product line already contains a number of historical collections including Scarborough, English country in oak; Chautauqua, a romantic turn-of-the-century look in cherry; pure American Shaker in cherry; and elegant Newport cherry. All emphasize American designs and many pieces are based on 18th century antiques.

Drawing on a design source from the early 1900s was a natural move for the company which has been in business since 1926. And pre-licensing meetings between Fritz and Roycroft curators Bob Rust and Kitty Turgeon were facilitated by Jamestown's location, only 60 miles from East Aurora - where the spirit of Elbert Hubbard lingers on.

The Depression put the Roycrofters out of business in the late 1930s, but a renaissance began in the 1970s, particularly during the Bicentennial when attention was focused on history. Roycroft is now a National Historic Landmark of 14 multiple-use buildings, the only A&C complex still intact. The Roycroft Inn is undergoing a $5 million restoration and supporters visualize the complex eventually becoming "the Williamsburg of the A&C era."
COPYRIGHT 1992 Vance Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:furniture company based in Jamestown, New York
Author:Garet, Barbara
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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