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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with David R. Hayworth, February 6, 1997. Interview I-0099. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Transitions in the office furniture industry

Since the 1950s and 1960s, the office furniture business has become much more design-oriented, Hayworth believes. He discusses that transition and another: the demise of small furniture companies that could not both manufacture furniture and supervise its satisfactory installation via dealer networks.

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Oral History Interview with David R. Hayworth, February 6, 1997. Interview I-0099. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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There was another big name, more of a design-oriented company—Knoll International; very big manufacturer of—very high style expensive wood furniture. And into seating, too; Knoll Seating was expensive furniture, and the market that we were sort of big in—that we were not really competitive, you see what I mean? But like everybody else they saw the need to go down, and we were seeing the need to come up so you could give. . . The secret was to be able to offer a potential buyer a complete package. And another thing that was happening, Dorothy, as years were going along, and this is where Knoll Wood excelled; Knoll did not have a strong dealer organization throughout the country like we did. So because they didn't have that they chose to cultivate the design market and get a designer to specify their furniture on the job. At first that was not a real big factor but it became more and more, and that's when everybody in the industry, including us, realized that to get a big job you had to work with the specifier, designer—whatever you choose to call him—to specify what was going to go on a big job. You needed to cultivate him, explain why your product excelled "xyz's" product. The office furniture dealer, he said, 'Well, you're talking about 200,000 or 300,000 jobs'; the average office furniture dealer in the United States is small. As it used to be said, they're strictly mom and pop stores. Well, that's probably not so true today, but it certainly was back in the '50s when—and they couldn't handle that kind—they couldn't afford—they didn't have the finances, do you follow me? So it had to be specified through the design community. And then, of course, you sold the job direct. What you did, what we always did, you sold—but, say the job was in Kansas City; well, we couldn't send a crew out there and do all this installation once the job was manufactured and shipped; that's where the local dealer came in for the installation, and then got a specified commission for doing his work. In other words, we told him rather than he telling us, you see. That's how the industry changed so rapidly from what it was, how it was in the '50s. Which I think is very interesting, the progression; some of your questions that I was reading on how the industry changed or progressed, or whatever—that was a major change in our industry and a whole change in marketing. The type of products you made were more design-oriented, and we began to hire designers, professional designers to design lines and all that sort of thing, which was totally different from the '50s when you kind of made what you wanted to make because you could sell everything you made. But that wasn't true in the '70s and '80s; particularly the '80s. The total industry had turned upside down by the '80s. It was no resemblance to the way it was in the '50s or '60s.
Just to continue on, do you think that the—you're saying that the way manufacturers started dealing with the large jobs was—large, nationwide companies like Merrill Lynch or growing concerns like NCNB, who's now Nations Bank.
The dealers were changing also, perhaps? Or did manufacturers lead the change with the dealers, do you think?
Well, yes, I think the manufacturers did, and I think the dealers reluctantly rely on their ability to do a satisfactory installation. And where they—which was, well, I guess what I'm trying to say is by doing the installation successfully, to the satisfaction of the consumer, then they more than likely were able to get their contract for office supplies and all the printing needs and all that sort of thing. All large office furniture dealers offered that service, and the little small ones began to just disappear. And it was the bigger dealers who could handle these installations and supply them with all their office supply needs and that sort of thing that—they were the ones who survived and the small ones just gradually died out. So the retail office furniture dealer was changing just as dramatically as the manufacturer was. And some dealers just didn't, you know, just couldn't accept that and so were left by the wayside, because that's the only way it would work. A designer would never go to an office furniture dealer. They wanted to deal directly with the manufacturer. So an outfit like Knoll, which I mentioned earlier, which had gone to them in the first place—because they didn't have a dealer network, so they didn't have any problem. See, we had, our whole selling organization was set up around the retail office furniture dealer, so it wasn't as easy for us to say—you say to a dealer whom you'd been selling for years and years and years, well, we have to work for the designer. That was hard for the retailer to take, and a lot of them were really very reluctant to accept that and accept the change and understand how the industry was changing. And those, as I said, those retailers just were left running.