SIC 2514

This industry category includes establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing metal furniture of a type commonly used in dwellings.

NAICS Code(s)

337124 (Metal Household Furniture)

Industry Snapshot

Although most people think of wrought-iron lawn chairs and tables when they think of metal household furniture, the offerings are considerably more varied. In addition to lawn items, metal furniture includes kitchen and dining room tables and chairs, cabinets, hostess carts, beds, folding cots, folding card tables, and children's furniture such as play yards and high chairs.

Total shipments of metal furniture in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, totaled $2.77 billion. Approximately 420 companies manufactured metal household furniture in the United States, employing some 22,000 people.

Background and Development

Metal furniture dates back almost as far as the use of wrought iron. Society had witnessed an extraordinary increase in the use of metal furniture by the end of the eighteenth century. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, both English and American craftsmen began constructing Windsor-style chairs in wrought iron. In 1851 at the Great Exhibition in London, England, the American Chair Co. of New York exhibited a metal-framed, sprung, revolving chair, one of several styles with frames made largely of cast iron, steel, or a combination of the two. By the 1890s, metal beds had become one of the most popular-selling furniture items in America.

With the development of steel and other innovations in metal production by American manufacturing companies during the 1920s and early 1930s, major impacts on furniture design were felt. The abundance of ready steel made it a popular and reasonably cheap material for furniture. One of the most dramatic new processes, discovered in the early 1920s by an American inventor named Mannesman, produced seamless tubular steel. This new material had the combined advantages of being light, strong, and modern.

The role that bent metal furniture played in the design culture of the 1920s and 1930s has never been equaled by any other material or at any other time in design history. The designs seemed to encompass an era. The development of modern tubular steel furniture can be seen in terms of the technical accomplishments of modern industrialization with its improved methods of steel production, metal plating, and welding—all of which helped to disseminate the new furniture to a wider market. But above all of this is the fact that steel furniture came from the world of modern art and architecture and its preoccupation with the idea and image of the machine.

For that reason the major drawback to metal furniture was that its look appealed to a small, sophisticated market that enjoyed what was, at the time, called the Modern style of design. For that same reason, there remained for several years a great deal of resistance to its use in the home, with many feeling that it was too impersonal for domestic use, but perfectly suitable for hospitals and offices. The 1933 Chicago World's Fair exhibited a large number of pieces of tubular steel furniture. Seen as a symbol for modern life, the use of steel was advertised at the fair as, "natural, therefore that the modern spirit should express itself in striking, radically different kinds of furniture—and that furniture should be of steel, for this is the age of steel, and steel sounds the keynote of practicability, energy, and strength which dominates our modern life." By the mid-1930s tubular steel furnishing was being more easily accepted into domestic use, with steel items coming out of American factories in ever-increasing, large numbers.

Companies, such as the Chicago and Grand Rapids Co. of Michigan, immediately began producing large quantities of tubular steel furniture. American industrial designer Donald Deskey designed a line of metal furniture that was mass-produced around 1930 by the Ypsilanti Reed Furniture Co. A 1930 ad for the company pointed out that Ypsilanti Reed had pioneered steel furniture in America, "and in less than two years has assumed outstanding leadership in style and quality in this singular furniture."

By 1933 the Howell Co. of Geneva, Illinois, began mass-producing tubular steel furniture, including the best-selling "Beta," a chrome-plated, tubular steel and upholstered chair, as well as other innovative chair forms, such as the "S" chairs, with their bent metal frames, that were produced and sold in high volume throughout the 1930s.

Famous industrial designer Gilbert Rohde was among the first American innovators who worked with bent metal to create innovative furniture designs. His earliest tubular steel design was manufactured by the Troy Sunshade Co. of Troy, Ohio, in 1931. Because the company had additional offices in Amsterdam and Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Rohde's designs were sold in Europe as well.

The Kroehler Manufacturing Co. of Chicago, Illinois, also employed Rohde, who designed furniture not only from tubular steel, but from stainless steel, aluminum, and chrome. Rohde's pieces were advertised by the company as "functional and modern" with "a hygienic quality (no nooks and crannies to conceal dirt) that reduced dusting to a minimum while retaining their luster without the drudgery of polishing."

By 1930 Rohde moved on to take over design leadership for the Herman Miller Furniture Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan. With Rohde at its helm, the company began an extensive program to produce modern furnishings, most of which incorporated the use of bent metal elements in many of their designs. In fact, throughout the decade leading up to World War II, the Herman Miller Co. continued to increasingly produce bent metal furnishings designed by Rohde.

Although metal furniture was seen as innovative by the American public, many American designers, such as Rohde, owed a great debt to their European counterparts during the decades between the two world wars. Many progressive European publications published designs for tubular steel furniture. In fact, some of the most copied modern tubular steel furniture designs belonged to Marcel Breuer, the avant-garde designer, and were originally created while he was at the Bauhaus, the German experimental design school, as early as 1925.

With the dissemination of European tubular steel designs to a wider world market and manufacturers producing their own interpretations of bent metal furniture, the originality and inventiveness of design had largely ended by the early years of the 1940s.

After World War II, profound changes in design and manufacturing moved the center of progressive development of metal furniture from Europe to the United States. Charles and Ray Eames, a husband and wife team of industrial designers, helped to develop new, and even more innovative, metal furniture designs for the Herman Miller Co. in the 1940s and 1950s.

Research into new materials such as molded plywood, and the use of light metal alloys (especially aluminum and magnesium, which were developed during the war) provided an entire new range of possibilities for postwar furniture.

The American furniture manufacturer, Knoll International, produced such innovative designs as the 1952 metal "Grid" chair by the artist/designer Harry Bertoia, as well as several other metal pieces. And, in the 1960s, Knoll produced the internationally acclaimed architect/designer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's last body of furniture designs of tubular and flat steel.

But by the end of the 1950s, metal was being used less and less frequently for innovative furniture designs. The Herman Miller Co. and Knoll International continued to manufacture bent and tubular steel "design classics" from the 1930s, but with new and even more innovative materials, such as plastics, arriving on the scene, metal furniture was relegated to experimental, one-of-a-kind and limited edition pieces by artist/designers who did not look for mass production or wide audience acceptance.

Because metal was the symbol of the machine age, it was quite natural for metal furniture's high point to coincide with the era of the "machine age," that of the 1930s. The bent metal furniture designed and manufactured during that period was never equaled again. Throughout the 1990s metal furniture was still prevalent in schools and hospitals, but rather scarce for home furnishings. With the popularity of daybeds and futons in the mid-1990s, certain metals had a slight resurgence in the furniture industry.

Metal chairs and tables are still being produced in the United States today. Some of the newer 1990s forms of furniture were geared toward works of art rather than functional pieces of furniture. The trend toward home offices, which took off in the mid-1990s, was changing the scope and design of furniture across the board. A growing number of people were starting home-based businesses; many others were keeping their corporate jobs while "teleworking," spending part or all of their work time at home while hooked up to the company computer network. Particularly for those whose home offices consisted of a corner in their living rooms, durable and attractive household furniture, particularly pieces that could serve more than one function, would gain popularity.

This would likely mean that companies such as Steelcase Inc., Herman Miller, and Knoll, which had focused on office furniture, would gain more of a foothold in the household furniture business. Many pieces of furniture already blurred the lines between office and household. An attractive metal bookcase, for example, could be equally at home in a family room or an office. Steelcase, Herman Miller, and Knoll were all formidable companies. Steelcase had 1999 sales of $2.74 billion and Herman Miller had 1999 sales of $1.76 billion. Knoll's figures, for 1998, were $948.7 million.

Industry experts expected the furniture industry overall to experience slow growth in the first two to three years of the twenty-first century. Economists speaking at the 1999 annual Economic Outlook Conference of the American Furniture Manufacturers Association noted that the anticipated slowdown in housing starts and existing home sales would mean fewer furniture purchases. The economic slowdown in the United States that began in 2000 and lasted in 2003 did prompt consumers to slow spending dramatically. However, historically low interest rates helped offset this decline by boosting housing starts and home sales significantly, which helped bolster furniture sales.

Further Reading

McIntosh, Jay. "Economists Predict Slower Sales Growth in 2000." Furniture Today, 2 January 2000.

United States Census Bureau. Manufacturing—Industry Series, 1999.

United States Census Bureau. "Statistics for Industries and Industry Groups: 2000." Annual Survey of Manufacturers. February 2002. Available from .

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