It may seem like ancient history, but not more than twenty years ago locally and regionally made furniture was the standard fare for families across the country. North Carolina was considered by many as the Furniture Capital of the World, and several regional furniture hubs thrived in places like New York, New England, and beyond. Quality and craftsmanship were the cornerstones of the industry — a high bar held high by customers that brought furniture into their homes with the expectation that the pieces would outlast their use for them, often finding their way passed on between family and friends or sold though secondary markets locally.
And then came the imports. In the late 90’s and early 00’s, China and a selection of its neighbors gained an appetite for the American furniture market. They were able to produce furniture in larger quantities under less regulation while paying their workers far less than the domestic standard. It was a recipe for landing products on our shores at more attractive prices than the domestic alternatives. While some of China’s actions were criminal, the value-conscious American Consumer had an appetite for a bargain and gladly took the bait. With price suddenly on center stage and consumers responding in lock step, many manufacturers reacted by answering the call to compete on price. We now know how that story ended — the domestic furniture industry was turned on its head, with hundreds of manufacturers closing their doors. Many that survived did so by offshoring their production, choosing to cook with the same ingredients as the rest of the imports in an attempt to compete.
Somewhere along the way in those battles for the American consumer, the consumers themselves were forgotten. Although, to be completely fair, even the consumer lost sight of what ‘value’ meant to them. In the race to the bottom, the idea of quality and craftsmanship having a role in the value equation was cast aside. Entire new market channels were born, including “fast furniture” — furniture made in such haste from materials of such poor integrity that the products themselves are intended not to last longer than a few seasons in a customer’s home.
Health and safety were cast aside too. Technology produced some clever methods to create the materials required to manufacture at astonishingly low prices. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen before, cost efficiency can be dangerous. Remember lead, asbestos, and MBTE? Those advancements worked miracles in their day. In the furniture world, formaldehyde was one of the miracle workers. The chemical worked wonders to create the adhesive resins and binders used to turn wood chips, powders, and particles into the sheet goods used to construct the furniture. This, combined with the host of other volatile organic compounds found in the finishes used to coat the furniture created a fantastic cocktail, packed and sealed tight in the shipping containers to make their westward voyage.
Unfortunately, this story isn’t some fairy tale or verse from a chapter of our history books. It’s happening today. The imported furniture market is as strong as ever, and the health, safety, and quality of the furniture offered through many merchants, in stores and online, is frustrating at best.
But that’s not the whole story. Our stores and homes may be under a bit of an occupation by an overseas empire, but domestic furniture manufacturing has not been defeated, and our heritage of quality and craftsmanship has not been forgotten. In fact, a number of manufacturers have persisted, staying true their roots and growing their legacy on the same path they started.
Oak Designs, the predecessor company to Revolution Furnishings, was one of those companies that refused to give up. A typical Yankee growth story, in the late 80’s, a New England family with roots in home building started making bedroom furniture for their local community. What started in a garage quickly grew to a small manufacturing facility in Nashua, New Hampshire. Back then, as it is now, word of mouth was a powerful marketing tool and there was no better ad campaign than to craft high-quality yet affordable furniture that customers couldn’t wait to tell their friends about. By 2001, when our current 40,000 SF factory was built in Manchester, New Hampshire, distribution had grown to over a hundred stores.
When the imports arrived, Oak Designs refused to follow the path that lead so many to a place of defeat. The company chose to change nothing — to keep producing furniture with integrity, and to prepare for the storm ahead. And then came a bit of Yankee ingenuity: the founders decided to diversify the product offering to play a game the imports couldn’t play – giving birth to Cedar Crest Cabinetry, offering custom made cabinetry to homeowners and contractors throughout the local community.
This continued until 2015, when it came time for the founders to pass the generational torch to open the next chapter for the company. The timing was perfect for Greg and Megan Bettencourt, an engineer and dietitian with backgrounds in family business. Greg had grown up in a home that often chose to build their own furniture rather than buy it – usually believing the best way to get exactly what you were looking for was simply to build it yourself. Megan had always had a particular care for a holistic approach healthy living, whether it be in her dedication to active lifestyles, a focus on the impact our environment plays in our health, or her academic and clinical focus in her work as a dietitian.
In 2015, having married a few years prior, Megan and Greg were looking to settle down in a place they could call home. The luxury of time that had afforded Greg the ability to craft furniture on his own was no longer available, and for Megan the task of furnishing a home through conventional retail channels proved frustrating – poor quality and questionable materials as far as the car could drive or the finger could scroll.
Finding Oak Designs was a gift of circumstance. Hidden in plain sight in Manchester, New Hampshire was a company crafting exactly the type of product that they had been looking for. It seemed like the best kept secret around – a story that Megan and Greg passionately wanted to tell the local community.
And thus began the life of Revolution Furnishings. We have great pride for our New England roots, and even more pride in what we are trying to accomplish – to tell our story to those willing to listen, and to push back against the tide of frustration brought upon us by the status quo in the furniture industry today. The book hasn’t been written yet, but it’s our hope that looking back years from now, our chapter will say we able to play a small part in the revolution that brought the American consumer back to a place where they took pride in their purchases; choosing to re-frame quality, health, and local craftsmanship in their definition of value.