Inside the Gender Gap in the American Furniture Industry

The old cliché of males produce while females consume is alive and well.

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.

Categories: Furniture

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