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The Gender Gap in the American Furniture Industry

The Gender Gap in the American Furniture Industry

As one of the few female leaders in the furniture industry, I am intimately aware of “The Gender Gap” therein. Until 2007, I served as leader of an old-line American luxury furniture brand. I supervised sales, marketing, design, and production. Along with a handful of female leaders--Rachel Kohler of Baker Furniture, Joan Karges Rogier of Karges Furniture, Mary Henkel of Henkel-Harris, and Aminy Audi of Stickley Furniture—I was among those who held a top position in American residential furniture manufacturing.

This fact has kept me wondering about the obvious: Does it make sense that a consumer base of 94% female continues to be served by a nearly all male designer/producer class? The industry, the media, as well as academia have ignored the question. As a result, there is no hard data documenting the state of the industry. With this blog I will attempt to fill this void by gathering feedback from the international design community. I intend to survey design schools, designers, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers as I go about researching the first book on the topic. Though my focus is the American residential furniture design community, I will frequently touch on the contract and international design communities as well. 

My initial research at design schools reveals that things may be changing. The number of female graduates from furniture design programs is on the rise; in fact in some cases it’s surpassing the number of male graduates. This is the good news. But wait! It seems that female graduates are having difficulty entering the industry. And when they do, they’re quickly disillusioned by the reality of the quirky promotional methods employed by male managers who favor insiders. Is this because design schools aren’t teaching students about the realities of how the industry works? Or should we blame this lack of education on the limited number of texts on the subject? Since 1957, when Kenneth R. Davis published Furniture Marketing, Product, Price, and Promotional Practices of Manufacturers only one book has been added to the academic reading list: Mike Dugan’s The Furniture Wars: How America Lost a Fifty Billion Dollar Industry of 2009. There are books on regional histories of the industry, including North Carolina, Grand Rapids, Boston, Philadelphia and even Texas. But most of these focus on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Yet, I feel that there’s plenty of room for improving the curricula by exploring how the industry really functions and the role of women in it.

To understand this Gender Gap, it’s important to dig into the context of the industry and its quirks. As the daughter of an industry titan—chapter six of The Furniture Wars is about my father and how he turned around the General Interiors companies. Having grown up in the business, I understand that what we have in America is an over-grown cottage industry that is notoriously closed to outsiders, both male and female. Even as an insider, I had a tough time! In the 1950’s, 75 percent of manufacturing operations were family owned. Today, the number is lower. But the behavior is entrenched in the familial foundation of the industry, which still functions as a large fraternity of who knows whom. 

The career tracks by which women ascend in the industry will be a critical area of my research. But I can say with confidence now, that among the women who have “broken the glass ceiling,” very few have C suite titles such as Vice President, President, or Chairman. More likely they are Directors of something or other. One exception is Rachel Kohler and her mostly female executive team in her McGuire division.

Young furniture designers get little recognition for their efforts. They often stand in the shadows of a brand, or are even more obscured behind licensors with star power:  Cindy Crawford, Paula Deen, Alexa Hampton, Bunny Williams, Mariette Himes Gomez among them. Clearly defined terminology can distinguish between furniture designer, product developer, licensor, and brand; and I will attempt to do that in this series of blogs.

Alexa Hampton, for instance, told me at the recent High Point furniture market, that she is NOT the furniture designer for her licensed collection with Hickory Chair.  She emphasized that she envisions the designs and helps specify materials, size and finish, but someone else executes shop drawings.  She always gives the Hickory Chair designers the credit they deserve. As we gain a better understanding of the terminology, and emphasize the importance of the actual furniture designers and what they do, perhaps we can inspire more females to stick with the industry.

In addition to men designing and building furniture for a female consumer, retail merchandising is primarily male dominated and often family owned. This Gender Gap was in evidence at the High Point market in a collection that was “designed” by a male sales person posing as a designer, but with no furniture design background.  He claimed that his designs were based on women’s couture clothing, like an upholstered leather chair with an asymmetrical zipper along the side, based on the back of an evening gown. Then there was his skirted wing chair that revealed one pseudo ball-and-claw foot from one slit, apparently inspired by another evening gown. Without doing his research, he naturally assumed that women want their furniture to look like their clothing; a false assumption, to say the least.

Stay tuned to this blog for profiles of female and male furniture designers, professors of design, and students as I gather data to fill the “Gender Gap” between the American residential furniture industry and its primary consumer.

Paula Scott Fogarty holds an M.A. in art history from Savannah College of Art and Design and served as a leader in the furniture industry for 20 years. In her many roles at Kindel Furniture, including president, she led the sales, marketing, design and operations teams and with them, developed the most successful programs for the company.  Paula also ran a successful marketing and communications firm, Paula Scott Unlimited, and is now a freelance writer on the arts and the role of women in the furniture industry. She is the past chair of the board of the David Walcott Kendall Memorial Foundation and president of the Irish Georgian Society Board of Directors. Paula lives in Savannah with her Jack Russell terrier, Charles. 

Read more from Paula S. Fogarty here.
 

Old to new | New to old
May 15, 2013 03:11 pm
 Posted by  Paula Scott

I look forward to comments from so many of my colleagues, associates, friends and new acquaintances. Every response will factor into the final product that will hopefully be a book for students and members of industry. With your help, perhaps we can all make a difference.

Thanks,
Paula Scott Fogarty

May 15, 2013 07:51 pm
 Posted by  furniture4evr

Dear Paula,

I am very excited about the subject of this blog. As a woman, of color in furniture design for the last 12 years, you can imagine how interesting things have been.

I look forward to your insights.

Shelley

May 16, 2013 01:39 pm
 Posted by  John Black

Paula
Enjoyed reading your opening blog and look forward to hearing and seeing more. As an industry "veteran," I have also found it puzzling the lack of women in upper management positions, much less on the design side.

While being a woman does not automatically qualify one for a leadership role, there is certainly room for improvement. Especially from the design and sales sides of our business.

I have found, with some of our clients, an increase in the number of women sales associates, which is very refreshing. They are often the ones more eager to learn, have and give great feedback and bring a higher level of energy.

I can only imagine how much better our business would be if more women were making the important decisions.

Good luck...
john

May 18, 2013 03:55 pm
 Posted by  christopher barson

Hi there, Paula! Congrats on your interesting blog. Christopher Barson here...
Regarding "The Gender Gap"...I've never studied the statistics on this subject. Therefore, my statements shall be limited to my experience. I've been producing custom renovation and custom interiors - both commercial and residential- since September of 1987. My work has been published globally. I've also designed custom furniture, and I have my own private label on custom upholstery.

I believe that the interior design/furniture design industry is a collaboration of both genders. A successful product is a result of talent. My definition for talent?
1) The ability to listen to - and assess - consumer needs.
2) The ability to create sensible trends; not follow trends.
3) The ability to understand and implement scale and original colors and proper finishes, no matter if the overall style is traditional, transitional or contemporary.
4)The ability to communicate properly with industry officials and the end user.
5) Business savy...
6) Personality, class and style.
7) Professionalism.

Some of the top furniture designers are male, and some of the top furniture designers are female; some of the top interior designers are male and some of the top interior designers are female.
Some of my clients are married couples, some are single professional males...However, I will say...MOST of my clients ARE single professional females.

I rarely pay attention to other designers work. I don't watch interior design television shows; I had my own interior design television show. My interiors and renovations are based on the client needs, whether they are male or female.

Perhaps there is a "Gender Gap" within the industry. I dunno...beats me. Whatever the case, I truly think it's talent - and the collaboration of many talented people -which dictates and tailors the industry...no matter what ones gender might be.

May 20, 2013 12:15 pm
 Posted by  Paula Scott

Dear Shelley,
I can only imagine your challenges and would be interested to know more about how you are meeting with them. Stay tuned for yet another obstacle in my next blog: a new layer of the even more closed male culture of the East that has landed at the top of the American residential furniture food chain.
All my very best wishes to you and thank you for your comment,
Paula

May 22, 2013 11:12 am
 Posted by  Paula Scott

Dear Christopher Barson,
Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I do agree that gender should not be an issue when it comes to great design or leadership, however, there is a noticeable lack of female professionals in residential furniture design and in the upper management levels of the industry.

The purpose of my research is to fill this observable vacancy with data that will more clearly define the gap. Stay tuned for my next blog which will begin with findings from the Harvard School of Business and the Bureau of Labor. Your primarily single female client statistic is fascinating, and I will incorporate this into my findings.

I have known your great interior design work for years and am honored that you are following my blog.

All the best for much success and keep saving the world, one room at a time!
Paula

May 24, 2013 11:23 pm
 Posted by  christopher barson

Hello again, Paula...Thank you for acknowledging my work...and I am happy to lend feedback for your site topic. Please note that my comments are based merely on experience. My comments do not express my views or opinions on either gender. I am merely making comments based on 27 years of experience.
From my experience, textile representatives are usually female. However, I select textiles labeled by male and female names... For instance, Pierre Frey or Nancy Corzine.

When I shop for fabrics at the showrooms, I get service mainly from females.
My design assistants have been both male and female. In fact, one of my design assistants, Alex Sanchez, appeared on HGTV's Design Star.

When it comes to producing renovations, I rarely find females in the construction zone. However, my faux finishers and drapery fabricators have typically been female.

When I order custom built-ins or custom case goods or custom upholstery, the product is manufactured mainly by males; however, the companies are typically managed and run by females.

When my furniture arrives at the furniture receiver, I usually deal with females to schedule and coordinate the delivery; however, the furniture is usually delivered by males.
I hope this info is helpful.

May 26, 2013 07:16 am
 Posted by  Paula Scott

Dear Christopher,
Thanks again for your helpful comments. Whereas my topic is confined to furniture design and manufacturing leadership, there are certainly women assuming major roles in other areas of decorative arts, such as textiles. Women clearly hold positions in areas of sales, coordination and visual merchandising, but rarely do they make it to the "C Suite" offices in manufacturing, and female furniture designers are fewer in number than males.

There are good organizations for women in the broader scheme of "home furnishings" that include a wide variety of occupations from interior designers to visual merchandisers and middle-managers in retail and manufacturing. One particularly good such organization is WithIt http://www.withit.org/

Please keep up your great work and thanks again for joining the conversation!
Paula

Oct 1, 2013 03:15 pm
 Posted by  Sara Lyke

Thank you for this blog. I am the director of WithIt, a women's leadership development group, for the home and furnishings industries. I would love to talk with you and invite you to meet with me. I think some good work could come from this. director@withit.org

Oct 31, 2013 04:46 pm
 Posted by  Paula Scott

Dear Sara,
I loved seeing you in High Point, and look forward to working with you. Although I have been away for a bit, I am back now, and picking up this important research. I am sending out hundreds of surveys that should reveal interesting statistics that have never been tabulated. I sent you an e mail today, so I look forward to joining the efforts of WithIt. I am impressed by the number of men who are involved with the organization. Keep up the good work!
All best wishes,
Paula

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