SIC 2531

This category primarily encompasses establishments engaged in manufacturing furniture for public use in schools, theaters, assembly halls, churches, and libraries. Examples of such furniture include bleacher and stadium seating, church pews, library chairs and tables, and blackboards. The public building and related furniture category also includes seating for public conveyances such as automobiles, aircraft, and passenger trains. This category does not include manufacturers of stone furniture, which are classified under SIC 3281: Cut Stone and Stone Products, nor does it include those that manufacture concrete furniture, which can be found under SIC 3272: Concrete Products, Except Block and Brick.

NAICS Code(s)

337127 (Institutional Furniture Manufacturing)

Industry Snapshot

An estimated 500 establishments were involved in the production of manufactured goods falling under the category of public building and related furniture in the United States. The total value of shipments generated by the industry amounted to 5.13 billion in 2000. The companies that comprised this category differed greatly in structure, marketing strategy, and fiscal health, due to the variegated nature of the classification. Nearly half were smaller firms with fewer than 20 employees on the payroll, while roughly 10 percent were corporate subsidiaries. The majority of companies in the industry were "single establishment companies," which were not part of a larger parent corporation.

The variety of products manufactured by the public building and related furniture industry defies a general description of industry outlook. A smaller and less profitable segment of the industry involved the manufacture of church furniture, while providers of automobile seats to car manufacturers were more visible and fiscally sound. While early in the twentieth century much of the public seating furniture was made of wood, the incorporation of new technologies such as plastic radically altered manufacturing processes in this category. Throughout the 1990s, many companies were compelled to remarket their products to meet changing demands and a tougher economic situation. Increasingly stringent government regulations in regard to consumer safety and access for the disabled also forced periodic changes in the industry.

Organization and Structure

Most companies in the public building and related furniture industry were comprised of divisions responsible for different steps of the manufacturing process, including research and development, executive decision making, manufacturing, marketing strategy, and customer support. Many of the products manufactured in the industry were marketed to other companies or institutions, rather than the general public. Automobile seats, for example, were sold to firms specializing in seat frames and exteriors, which, in turn, sold the completed seating units to automobile manufacturers. Manufacturers commonly advertised in trade journals, such as Automotive News, Library Journal, and other publications aimed at executives, buyers, and other upper-level personnel.

During the economic recession of the early 1990s, many public building and related furniture manufacturers focused on customer satisfaction and product reliability as part of their plan to survive in the industry. This represented a particular challenge, as many public building and related furniture manufacturers marketed their products to other companies, rather than the ultimate consumer, making it difficult to gauge product satisfaction.

Background and Development

Many of the firms engaged in manufacturing public building and related furniture date back to the late nineteenth century. During this period, the Industrial Revolution and the urbanization of America played a key role in the development and growth of the industry, as a variety of new demands for public-use furniture developed. For example, when educational reform in the United States led to the replacement of the one-room schoolhouse with large school buildings in consolidated districts, the subsequent demand for school desks and blackboards was filled by newly formed firms in the industry. Furthermore, newly prosperous industrial magnates founded and endowed hundreds of colleges and universities, necessitating the development of firms that could manufacture and ship seats and desks all over the country. U.S. Steel founder Andrew Carnegie funded the construction of over 2,800 public libraries across the country, and a new niche in the market arose to meet the demand for librarians' desks as well as patron table sand chairs.

The Industrial Revolution was also responsible for major shifts in population from rural regions to larger urban centers and, later, suburban communities. The shift in demographics was compounded by waves of immigrants from Europe, necessitating the construction of new and larger churches to serve the needs of evolving communities. A demand for more interior furniture, such as church pews, accompanied the exponential growth of churches.

The increased popularity of leisure and entertainment activities in the United States also played a key role in the genesis of the public building and related furniture industry. The development of organized community and collegiate sports, such as baseball and football, necessitated the construction of stadiums and arenas able to seat spectators. Moreover, as plays and motion pictures gained popularity, theaters were built in all but the most rural of American cities, and many competed to provide patrons with the most luxurious interiors, including plush seating.

Perhaps most importantly, the development of new technology in the transportation industry augmented the public building and related furniture industry. The growth of a network of railroads in America gave rise to the popularity of passenger rail travel. Companies evolved to provide comfortable seating for the new long-distance traveler. The invention of the automobile and its rapid rise as a major form of transportation necessitated the evolution of a parallel supplier industry for interior automotive equipment, including seats. During the 1950s and 1960s, the increasing affordability of passenger air travel fueled a great demand for new aircraft, with cabin accouterments and furnishings.

Current Conditions

The late 1990s was a period of growth for the public building and related furniture industry. The value of shipments grew from $4.55 billion in 1997 to $5.21 billion in 1999, before dropping to $5.13 billion in 2000. The number of employees in this field jumped from 40,442 in 1997 to 42,826 in 1999, before dropping to 40,846 in 2000.

The largest and most competitive companies in this industry were automobile and airline seat manufacturers, which had to possess the working capital and financial solvency to meet the high costs of developing specialty seats built to withstand accidents. Such companies had to invest large sums in research and development, attract well-qualified engineers for product design, and have the promotional budgets to capture greater market share.

The automobile seating industry was innovating more towards comfort and technology. Johnson Controls, Inc., for example, had a Comfort Engineering Center that developed more comfortable seats and tested the durability of the comfort features. The future of automobile seating will be smart seats that adjust according to a passenger's height, weight, and preferred seating position. Active seats will incorporate technology that adjusts according to road conditions—maximizing passenger comfort.

Industry Leaders

The companies that manufactured public building and related furniture were as diversified as their products. In the automotive industry, the main suppliers of car seats were Johnson Controls and Douglas and Lomason Co. Johnson Controls, founded in 1900 and headquartered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was a major manufacturer of automobile seats, but was best known as a provider of electronic control systems that regulated heating, cooling, and security for commercial buildings. Total sales for the auto segment were $12.1 billion in 1999 while total company sales were $16.1 billion. The international company employed 70,000. In 1991 Johnson Controls purchased Lahnwerk GmbH, a German company that supplied seat components and metal seat frames to the European auto industry. Two years later Johnson Controls acquired a similar Mexican firm, Grupo Summa. The company's 50 manufacturing plants involved in automotive seating were located in Michigan, Tennessee, and California, as well as in Portugal and Austria. More than 22.0 million vehicles carried Johnson interior equipment in 1999. Johnson Controls Automotive Division was the world's largest auto seating supplier for the major car companies. In October 1996 the company acquired Prince Automotive, which had been a smaller, yet still viable competitor.

The other large supplier of seats to the American automotive industry, Douglas and Lomason Co., a suburban Detroit, Michigan, firm, was founded in 1902. Douglas and Lomason primarily manufactured stamping and conveyer equipment for the industry.

Airline seats were an integral part of this industry as a whole. According to early 1990 statistics a row of seats in first class cost approximately $10,000 while a row of seating in coach cost $5,000. Aircraft cabin seating was the largest segment in this industry. The largest market share was held by BE Aerospace, Weber Aircraft Inc., and Burns Aerospace Corp. BEAerospace, with over 5,600 employees, was the largest integrated supplier of aircraft cabin accessories, selling approximately 25 percent of the seat market according to early 1990 figures. Headquartered in Florida, the company was founded in 1987 and expanded in 1992 when it acquired the Connecticut-based aircraft cabin seat company PTC Aerospace. With other acquisitions of cabin supplier firms that produced such components as galley appliances and video monitors, BE Aerospace's sales went from nearly $233 million in 1996 to $701 million in 1999, providing the airline industry with all cabin products except for lighting fixtures and lavatories. Over 40 percent of the company's sales came from aircraft seats. Although demand for new aircraft declined in the early 1990s, BE Aerospace remained a strong leader in the field. Second in sales of aircraft cabin seats was the California-based firm of Weber Aircraft, controlling 19 percent of the market and employing 800. Burns Aerospace Corp., a subsidiary of Eagle Industries Inc., employed 700 and posted sales of $80 million, representing 16 percent of the market.

The largest supplier of library furniture in the 1990s was Gaylord Brothers, a Syracuse, New York, firm dating back to the end of the nineteenth century. Gaylord was started by two brothers, bank clerks, who developed a gummed parchment that they marketed to libraries for use in repairing books. When the business turned a profit in 1909, the Gaylord brothers quit the bank and developed their company into a full-service provider for American libraries. Their products included book shelving systems, magazine display units, storage facilities, librarians' desks, and patron chairs and tables. Gaylord Brothers, which became a subsidiary of the Croydon Co., marketed its products by catalog. By 1997 the company boasted over 11,000 different items in its product line.


In the public building and related furniture industry, the majority of jobs were concentrated in the actual manufacturing process. In 2000 the total number of jobs was 40,826 for the industry, with production workers accounting for 29,723 positions in that figure. The average hourly wage for production workers in the industry was $12.32.

America and the World

In the public building and related furniture industry, seating for public conveyances such as automobiles and airline cabins represented the most common export. The costs for importing other types of furniture, such as classroom or stadium seating, proved prohibitive for many foreign manufacturers who already had successful domestic furniture industries. American automotive seat suppliers such as Johnson Controls faced domestic competition from Japanese firms such as Atoma and Toyo Seat USA, and made acquisitions to expand into a lucrative foreign automobile market.

Research and Technology

Government regulations prompted the development of new technologies in the public building and related furniture industry, particularly in automotive and airline seat manufacturing. Minimum criteria for car seats, set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, stipulated that seats not have parts that might injure drivers or passengers on impact and that the seat withstand the force of a crash up to a specified gravitational force, requiring seat frames made of particularly resilient material attached firmly to the car floor.

Auto-seat manufacturers were also concerned with the seat's overall performance in terms of comfort, durability, and appearance. As changing demographic patterns engendered longer commuting times for many consumers, the average time spent sitting in a car seat increased. In response, researchers measured the amount of lumbar support various types of seat cushions provided, developing two methods used in the suspension of automotive seats. The most common type of seat consisted of foam block, a combination of a polyurethane cushion and springs, while another featured a light platform supported by a system of springs.

Governmental regulations, issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board, also affected the industry. Due to the potential for extremely high impact crashes in air travel, regulations on aircraft cabin seat construction were more stringent than for any other area of the public building and related furniture industry. Initially, the industry resisted modifications of cabin seating, complaining that heavier anchoring components used to bolt seats to the floor added too much weight to the aircraft. The development of new technology and materials in the 1980s, however, allowed for seats that could withstand up to 9 g in gravitational force. In 1988 the FAA ruled that all newly certified aircraft be outfitted with such seats, and proposed that all seats aboard U.S. aircraft meet a 16 g requirement by 1995. In accordance, most seat manufacturers, including Weber, switched production to the 16 g seats by 1990.

The fabric used in aircraft cabin seats was also regulated, ensuring cushions that were fire retardant and able to serve as floatation devices. Furthermore, regulatory officials continued to monitor the number and placement of seats on a given aircraft, a procedure that directly affected the profits of both the airline industry and the public building and related furniture industry. Some innovations in airline seating expected to be developed at the start of the twenty-first century included seats featuring attached shoulder harnesses, as well as seats that could rotate the passenger's legs upward and out of danger in the event of a crash.

Further Reading

Cole, David. "A New Way to Differentiate." Inside Source, Winter 1999. Available from .

Johnson Controls Inc. "Johnson Controls Annual Report 1996." Available from .

——. "Johnson Controls Reports Record 1999 Results." 19 October 1999. Available from .

——. "Seating and Interiors." 5 January 2000. Available from .

Lazich, Robert S. Market Share Reporter. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 1997.

Vasilash, Gary S. "Where Comfort Is an Engineering Discipline." Automotive Manufacturing & Production, January 1999.

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

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