7 Makers of Various Sizes and Ages Weigh In on the Challenges and Rewards of Working in the U.S.A.

We asked Floyd, Pendleton, Heath, and more.
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In 2018, Floyd unveiled its first sofa. 

In 2018, Floyd unveiled its first sofa. 

Floyd, Detroit, Michigan - Est. 2014 

Direct-to-doorstep furniture wunderkinds 

Shipping: Manufacturing in the U.S. allows us to offer things like same-day shipping. If we were to outsource, the product would spend at least six to eight weeks on water. When you think about the footprint of shipping a large, heavy product like a sofa across the world, the wasted cost and the environmental impact are immense. 

Tariffs: Policies that are meant to protect manufacturing can sometimes be detrimental. Before our bed frames are built in Virginia, we have to import a particular kind of birch that is difficult to source in the States. Even though the difference isn’t huge, the tariffs that were recently implemented did impact how we have to price our product.

Crowdfunding: We launched on Kickstarter, so we were immediately accountable to our backers. Later, when we decided to design a sofa, we sent out a survey to our customer base and received 1,400 responses in the first 24 hours. We were able to integrate a lot of insights about what people wanted in terms of comfort, material, and color into that design.

—Alex O'Dell, Cofounder and COO 

David Weeks's Lapa pendant comes in three colors.

David Weeks's Lapa pendant comes in three colors.

Davids Weeks Studio, New York, New York - Est. 1996 

Independent downtown design studio 

Small Business: When you build something from scratch, there’s this weird moment when you realize, if I walk away, this would just be gone—it would be like dust. Until you reach a certain scale and there is significant equity and several partners, a business is actually very ephemeral.

Competition: All the retail is going to Amazon, so manufacturing is one of the few opportunities left to create something. In the past, everyone used to think they had to compete with IKEA. In the end, there’s no point. The best thing to do is just to find your own market.

Knockoffs: You want to be bitter about it, but to go after anybody takes an incredible amount of effort. In the end, you’ll spend more time dealing with legal issues than making. For me, the reason I got into this industry was not to spend my time in court, but to come up with new ideas.

—David Weeks, owner 

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The Go Chair was designed by Ross Lovegrove.

The Go Chair was designed by Ross Lovegrove.

Bernhardt Design, Lenoir, North Carolina - Est. 1983

Supply Chain: There are so many furniture parts that you can no longer source in America. That supply chain is gone, so you have to go offshore. But an even bigger challenge is finding people, particularly talented craftspeople. When so much manufacturing left the U.S. 20 years ago, many young people saw their parents lose their careers, so the idea of working in manufacturing became undesirable. This generation has opted to do almost anything else. So the problem is, you have an aging workforce and no one coming in behind it.

Instincts: You have to do what you think is right. You can’t be looking over your shoulder at what everybody else is doing or trying to anticipate what the consumer is going to want next. If it doesn’t feel right and if it isn’t what you stand for, you can waste a lot of energy in the process. If you do good work, people will find you.

—Jerry Helling, President

The Cumberland chair is one of Thos. Moser's bestsellers.  

The Cumberland chair is one of Thos. Moser's bestsellers.  

Thos. Moser, Freeport, Maine - Est. 1972

New England woodworking revivalists

Word-of-mouth: Our customers-in-residence programs allow people to come to Maine and participate in the making of their piece. Repeat business and referral work is probably our single largest market segment. Our customers’ living rooms are some of the best showrooms we could possibly create.

Digital: The online world is the ultimate equalizer, since it is easy from 10 feet away to make any table look beautiful. We want to use our online platform as a place for people to read stories—the idea of knowing not only where your furniture came from, but also who made it for you.

Craftsmanship: Some of the best woodworkers we have, and I’m sure this applies to many other companies, live woodworking. When they go home on the weekend, what do you think they do? They do woodworking. It’s part of their DNA.

—Aaron Moser, President and CEO

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Heath's winter collection includes an array of multi-stem and bud vases.

Heath's winter collection includes an array of multi-stem and bud vases.

Heath, San Francisco, California - Est 1948

Champions of handcrafted ceramics

Scaling: When we first bought the business 15 years ago, it was hard to find people who were interested in working for us, let alone who had the right experience. It still remains challenging. This does limit the size of our operation. If there are only six people who are good at something, then why would I hire someone who isn’t good, just to have a bigger business?

Knockoffs: Initially it was hard to resist reacting, but when we stepped back we realized our only competition should be ourselves. You need to push and make yourself better and make your product better, because that is what will make you original and keep you ahead of the game. You need to keep on striving for your own level of greatness.

E-commerce: Online, we try to replicate what makes our products feel special in stores. Although nothing can take the place of picking up a bowl and feeling its heft, we try to mimic that simple, expressive feeling on our website.

—Robin Petravic, Co-owner

The three-piece place setting in turquoise is a Fiesta classic. 

The three-piece place setting in turquoise is a Fiesta classic. 

Fiesta, Newell, West Virginia - Est. 1936

Purveyor of collector-favorite tableware

Outsourcing: So many companies have left the U.S., and there’s only one reason for that: It’s cheaper to make products somewhere else. But we’ve always been committed to keeping jobs in our community. In the late 1970s, when many jobs left the upper Ohio River Valley, we chose to stay and keep the doors open for the people who work here. It’s as simple as that.

Brick and Mortar: Dishware is a very personal product, so it’s important for us to maintain stores. Pictures say a lot, but when it comes to dishware, you need to be able to pick it up and hold it.

Community: There is a Fiesta collectors group that meets annually. Every other year they come to tour our plant in West Virginia, and they hold a convention that revolves around the brand. They always give us wonderful feedback. They share ideas on how to decorate with Fiesta and post pictures on social media. People love taking pictures of their tablescapes. They’ll set their tables with different Fiesta colors and vintage tablecloths. It’s remarkable how creative they are.

—Liz McIlvain, President, Homer Laughlin China Co.

The Glacier National Park Blanket was first sold by Pendleton in the early 1900s . 

The Glacier National Park Blanket was first sold by Pendleton in the early 1900s . 

Pendleton, Portland, Oregon - Est. 1863

Spinners of iconic Americana

Efficiency: Having a mill in the U.S. means we can turn things around quickly. We just finished a blanket project that we took from concept to delivery in three weeks. We wouldn’t have been able to do it if our mill was in Asia.

Brick and Mortar: Online retail has increased our focus on stores. They’re not as important as they used to be for storing inventory, but they need to be better than they were before at telling stories. There’s a lot to be said for somebody who is walking down the street and looks in the window and decides to come through the door.

Data: We have emotional reactions to products, just like consumers do. But as business managers, we need to watch the data as well. We just marked the 10th anniversary of the Lehman collapse. That was the beginning of a big challenge for us and others. Following the numbers became paramount.

—John Bishop, President and CEO  

Dora Vanette
Dora Vanette is a part time lecturer at Parsons The New School for Design.


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