David j. brunn; drexel-heritage
AMERICAN FURNITURE HALL OF FAME
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
OCTOBER 14-15, 1988
HIGH POINT, NORTH CAROLINA
Robert A. Spelman, Interviewer
INTERVIEWER: We’re in Dave Brunn’s room in High Point at the Radisson Hotel. Mr. David Brunn, the former president of Drexel, is now retired. This is Bob Spelman. The date is October 14, 1988. Dave, do you want to start out with whatever you’d like to say?
BRUNN: You’ve asked me first about my childhood and family background.
INTERVIEWER: That’s correct.
BRUNN: I was born in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, but my family moved to New York City when I was age 6, in 1913. I was born in 1907. I guess I’m an “in” person now because I can claim that my father was an immigrant. So I’m in the class of Iacocca, Governor Cuomo and, of course, Mike Dukakis. Mike Dukakis’ father, as I’m sure you well know, became a doctor. My father became a Presbyterian minister. My father was of Italian background, although he was brought up in Trieste, which at that time, was under Austrian rule, later after the War became … It bounced back and forth.
INTERVIEWER: After World War I?
BRUNN: Yes. My father was a Waldensian. Not many people know about the Waldensians. They’re the Italian version of the Huguenots in France and defected from the Catholic Church to escape persecution. He arrived in New York as an immigrant in 1889.
INTERVIEWER: Could you tell us why he came to the United States?
BRUNN: Yes. The story of his trip to the United States is amusing. His father had a fairly successful business in Trieste. He and his brother got jobs as sales representatives for the English company that sold cutlery and hardware. They covered Hungary and Germany. In one little town in Hungary, they noticed a group of people collected around the central square. They asked, “What’s going on?” and were told, “Oh, one of the natives here has immigrated to America. He got rich and decided to come back and brag about it.” So they watched him and after the man talked, they realized he was almost an imbecile. They said, “If that stupid can go to America and come back rich, what are we doing here?” But they had very little money. They had enough though, so they managed to get to Hamburg and got on a ship and came to America. He was 18.
INTERVIEWER: What was your father’s first name?
BRUNN: My father’s first name was Joseph. His brother was James.
INTERVIEWER: The two of them decided to immigrate together. They were single?
BRUNN: They were single. James was older than my father. After a number of very rough years, working at a brickyard in Connecticut and then a paper box factory in New York, he began attending a church called The Broome Street Tabernacle. It was on the Lower East Side in Little Italy. It was a non-denominational Protestant church.
INTERVIEWER: It was on Broome Street in New York?
BRUNN: The Broome Street Tabernacle was run by a New York Protestant philanthropic association called the New York City Mission Society. It was well-endowed and its purpose was to supply churches to the areas in New York, the ghetto areas primarily, that were unable to finance churches on their own. One of the churches that they operated was this Broome Street Tabernacle. My dad became a member of that church, and there he got interested in becoming a minister. He attended a seminary at night. It was the New York Bible Society. And finally, he got ordained.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember what year?
BRUNN: It must have been about 1898. His name originally had one “n,” but how did it get the other “n”? Well, when he and his brother, James, arrived at Ellis Island, there was widespread bad publicity about Italians due to the Mafia activities which had broken out in New Orleans, Louisiana. One of the other immigrants said to him, “Do you speak German?” “Oh, sure. I was brought up in Trieste.” The immigrant advised, “Don’t let anybody know you’re Italian. Tell them you’re German. You’ll find things a lot easier.” So they added an “n” to their name to Germanize it. Not many people realize that in northern Italy, where my father’s family first came from, near the border of France, many of the Italians do not have names ending with vowels. Their names are similar to Brun, like Tron.
INTERVIEWER: Apparently, he didn’t have an Italian accent, or a very strong one. That’s the question, really. How could he pass as a German if he had an Italian accent?
BRUNN: He was fluent in German. After his ordination, the first offer from a church that he received was one in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. The main Presbyterian Church there ran a mission church. Hazleton is a coal-mining town. Many, many Italian immigrants became miners. A group of these Italian immigrants also became Protestants and attended this mission church. He conducted services in the two languages, a morning service in Italian, and an afternoon one in English, or vice versa. Then in 1914, the very church in New York that he had been a member of, The Broome Street Tabernacle, invited him to become its minister. So back we all came to New York.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us about your mother. Did he marry in New York, prior to moving to Hazleton?
BRUNN: Yes, he met Lucia DeAngelis, also of an Italian background, who was also a member (with her family) of The Broome Street Tabernacle. When he got this opportunity to go to Hazleton, Pennsylvania, they were married. Her family came from the Naples area in Italy.
INTERVIEWER: When did he go to Hazleton, immediately after ordination?
BRUNN: Yes, about 1900.
In 1914, after a 13-year ministry in Hazleton, he began his ministry at The Broome Street Tabernacle in New York. The church was originally built as a very prestigious church, but then when that whole section became Little Italy, the church was closed. I don’t remember what the original denomination was. It was bought by the New York City Mission Society to run as a mission church. The parish had an apartment built right in the church, on the top floor. That’s where my family grew up. There were five of us. A sad part of the story is that my mother died of pneumonia in 1912.
INTERVIEWER: That was about the time you came back to New York.
BRUNN: Yes, we came back in 1914.
INTERVIEWER: She died in New York?
BRUNN: No, she died while we were still living in Hazleton. Sad. My youngest brother was the baby, and he, too, died of pneumonia. Two years later, my dad remarried. He married Carrie Meyer. She was a school teacher in Hazleton, but also became quite active as a Sunday school teacher in our church.
INTERVIEWER: Now they had how many children?
BRUNN: At that time, there were six children, but one died after we first moved to New York. I was the next to the youngest. I grew up on the Lower East Side. It was a tough growing up. I was one of the few students in my class whose family spoke English at home. So I stood out. This meant that I had to fight my way, really, because I was a freak.
INTERVIEWER: Back home, did your father speak Italian?
BRUNN: No, we spoke English, English entirely. We might have spoken Italian had my mother lived. My stepmother could not speak Italian. My father was very aggressive about becoming an English-speaking American.
INTERVIEWER: That was the “in” thing at that time. That was the thing to do – anglicize the name?
BRUNN: Yes, I had kind of a hard time growing up there, in the public schools. Probably because of my family advantages, I did well in school. I gained a whole year. Then I went on to DeWitt Clinton High School, which was on the west side of New York City. There, I also stood out because, in my classes, I was the only non-Jewish student. It was interesting how aggressive people of Jewish background were to be sure their children had an education, more so than any of the other immigrant groups.
Now, my father’s minister’s income was very low. He was a very tough disciplinarian and tough on all of us on what he expected of us. First of all, he said, “I want good grades, and I want good deportment. You’ve got to get to college, and I can’t help you. You’ve got to get to college on your own.” Well, this wasn’t too difficult because in New York City, we did have non-tuition city colleges. One of my older sisters went to the city colleges, and the other to Pratt Institute, to study dietetics. My brother, Paul, decided he didn’t want to go to City College.
We did have an uncle who lived in Hanover, New Hampshire, where Dartmouth is. He entered Dartmouth and lived with my uncle there. He had one year at Dartmouth, but he found it very difficult, so he finally came back to New York, lived at home and went to Columbia and then to law school. My younger brother, Bob, followed me at Lafayette, and then went to MIT for a master’s degree. We all helped him. During our elementary and high school years, we took after-school jobs. New York allowed 14-year-olds to get working papers. I got the working papers and, after a couple of minor jobs, finally latched onto the job of delivering prescriptions for a drug store, which was in the prestigious Gramercy Park section of New York. I had that job all through high school. I worked long hours, from 3 to 8 o’clock every day and all day Saturday. They were very nice to me in the store. They had a room in the back and I could do my homework there. Years later, after I had a successful business career, I was always talked about. They bragged, “Oh, you know we had that Dave Brunn, who delivered prescriptions for us, now he is a vice president and member of the board of directors of W. & J. Sloane.”
They let me take the summers off to go to camp, and I finally got a junior counselor’s job. Between this and my after-school work at the drug store, paying all of $5 a week, I was able to save enough money so that I, too, decided to go away to college, rather than go to City College in New York. Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, was Presbyterian affiliated. Ministers’ sons were offered a scholarship of half off the tuition. Interestingly enough, the tuition at that time was $600 a year.
INTERVIEWER: Room and board?
BRUNN: No, no. That was extra.
INTERVIEWER: Tuition was $600.
BRUNN: The room I had to pay for. It wasn’t much, but board I earned as a waiter and a dishwasher in the cafeteria that the school ran. I showed that I had some business ability because I heard about eating clubs that various families ran. They fed 10 to 12 or 15 students at their homes near the campus, and I got involved with one of them. The person who was running it, the wife, was having a difficult time collecting the board money, as well as maintaining the 10 student boarders needed. So I made a deal with her. I said, “How much money do you want a week to feed 10 students?” She told me. I said, “Supposing I guarantee you that amount, I’ll pay you that amount weekly. You won’t have to worry about collecting it from all of these students. And I’ll make sure you keep getting the 10.” Well, it turned out to be a good deal because I made some money out of it.
BRUNN: So actually I wound up finishing college ahead, financially, even though I put myself through. I ran into a few tough times and I had to appeal for help from one of my sisters when I ran out of money.
INTERVIEWER: What were your college years?
BRUNN: My college years were from 1924 to 1928.
INTERVIEWER: Wow, you just got out at the wrong time, didn’t you?
BRUNN: I had graduated from college in 1928. I majored in English. I started out hoping to be a doctor, but I had a hard time with chemistry. After a month or two in chemistry class, I decided to pull out. Then I got interested in English, and developed some writing skills. I graduated cum laude with honors.
How did I get into the furniture business? It was an accident. Let me read to you excerpts from a column by Stanley Slom for Home Furnishings Daily. It [the column]]]] was called “The Forum.” When I retired in 1967, he wrote this column about me. He wrote, “Dave Brunn is going to do what? Did you catch that article in Home Furnishings Daily last week that Dave Brunn’s planning to retire this fall? I don’t mind a guy taking off for a couple of years to travel around and catch up on the sightseeing. But there’s something in the announcement that disturbed me. Dave is retiring from his position of president of Drexel Furniture Company and vice president and director of marketing for Drexel Enterprises, to devote more time to leisure, to his family, hobbies, travel and Writing,” which was capitalized. “There’s the rub. He’s going to start writing and putting us professionals out of business. He always wanted to be an advertising copywriter, and because of a slight stop-over in the furniture industry, he’s put it off until now. Well, that’s not exactly true, either. He was a writer at HFD for some time. Under the title of ‘On the Level,’ he wrote an unsigned column as a part of Drexel’s advertising program, in which he discussed various aspects of the entire furniture industry and, naturally, Drexel in particular.”
Slom picked out some aspects to quote, and a few that he thought were amusing and interesting. One was on Italian provincial furniture I had written. A history professor that we had enjoyed making the point that the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, Roman nor an empire. “It’s a curious furniture fact that one of our biggest-selling style categories is tagged with an equally incongruous name, for certainly this furniture is neither Italian nor provincial.” Going on, Stanley wrote, “Come on, Dave, knock it off. You stick to serious writing and I’ll handle the comics. So to get even, I’ll tell everyone that you are just between jobs in the furniture industry, waiting for that big break. To hear Dave tell it, he was hell-bent for an advertising profession when he graduated from college. Not knowing anyone on Madison Avenue, he went to see someone on Fifth Avenue that he did know, hoping for an introduction to someone in an agency. That someone on Fifth Avenue happened to be an executive of W. & J. Sloane, who told him things were pretty rough over on Madison Avenue and asked if he wouldn’t prefer staying on Fifth Avenue with Sloane. Dave made the one-block trip to Madison Avenue and soon was back on Fifth Avenue as an expediter in Sloane’s contract department,” my first job. “He hung around, went into selling, became a buyer, and wound up as vice president and general manager.”
Slom ended his column, “I started out to write a testimonial to Dave, one of the nicest guys you could hope to meet and one of the few furniture manufacturing executives I’ve known who was geared to retail selling and consumer needs, rather than just production. But I got jammed up. So wait awhile, Dave, and I’ll go think up some new clichés to describe you. But don’t you start writing before I give you the word.”
INTERVIEWER: The column was written by Stanley Slom.
BRUNN: It was called “The Forum.” My career at Sloanes lasted for 24 years. Maybe I should tell you the Sloane story
INTERVIEWER: Yes, tell me the year that you started.
BRUNN: I started in 1928 and ended my Sloane career in 1952. Now I will give you, for the AFHF archives, a very nice, handsome book Sloane published in 1950. W. & J. Sloane really has a fascinating story. It was founded in 1843 by William Sloane, who was a Scotsman. He had invented a new type of weaving for carpets. He couldn’t seem to get anywhere with it. This was in Kilmarnock, which was near Glasgow. He decided to come to America. He worked for a while with a carpet manufacturer. Then he borrowed some money, and he launched a carpeting and floor cloth shop at 245 Broadway. At that time, all of the retail stores were in the lower downtown area of the city. An article that was written about it, says, “This friendly little store prospered from the start. Washington Irving often dropped in to complain about the pens supplied for his writing checks.” Well, this little carpet store continued to grow. Years later, in 1876, a significant thing happened. It was the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. This was the first time that a major offering of a collection of Oriental rugs was made. When the exhibition closed, Sloanes took a gamble and bought the lot for some million dollars [amount]]]], and put them on display. They were the first Orientals ever offered in a retail store. In those days of plush and pomp, they sold like lollipops. Howard Smith-Coffin paid $75,000 for a Persian masterpiece.
INTERVIEWER: In those days, my goodness...
BRUNN: Can you imagine? Well, right after that, Sloanes decided to concentrate on Oriental rugs and sent buyers to Turkey, India, China and Persia. Their rugs were bought by the Vanderbilts, Astors, Morgans and so on. It wasn’t until 1891 that Sloanes expanded into the furniture business by opening an antique department. There was a major depression in 1893. The company did manage to survive that fairly well. Then the company decided to go into contract decorating, meaning non-residential furnishing and decorating. It was managed by William Sloane Coffin, who was one of the Sloane’s family...
INTERVIEWER: What was that name?
BRUNN: William Sloane Coffin. He has a son with the same name who made a name for himself as a minister and peace activist and so forth. Under William Sloane Coffin’s direction, the decision was made to build a furniture factory to manufacture reproductions of antiques. It was located in Flushing, New York, and later another was added in Oneida, New York. The contract decorating business became very big.
Now we come to the reason that I was offered a job. Sloane had been awarded the contract for $3.5 million for the furnishing of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, which was moving to a new location on Park Avenue in the ’50s. The job that I was given was a clerical one, working on the details that were involved in this whole furnishings contract. In 1910, the company’s business had grown so much that they decided they needed a much larger store.
So very courageously, they leased a site at 47th Street and Fifth Avenue, and built a 10-story store. Many thought they had made a bad mistake to move that far uptown.
INTERVIEWER: 47th and Fifth?
BRUNN: Yes, and as we all know, uptown Fifth Avenue became the most prestigious retail section, with stores like Tiffany’s and Sachs, Bergdorf Goodman, etc. Sloanes opened stores in San Francisco (that was sort of an accident, too). One of the Sloanes went out to San Francisco for a vacation and noticed that the Palace Hotel was just being built. He said, “Oh, boy. This is the carpet contract I’d like to get.” But he was told he couldn’t sell them carpets unless he had a license. So he opened a little store that later became our big San Francisco store. Then they bought a furniture store in Los Angeles and moved to a bigger headquarters in Beverly Hills. Sloanes also had a store in Washington, D.C. because Sloanes, through its factories, did a big business in government contracts, furnishing embassies, government offices, etc.
The company grew dramatically and survived the Depression fairly well. A company like Sloanes really wasn’t affected as badly during the Depression as the mass-market stores were because its clientele was primarily in the upper-income bracket. We survived, not easily. For example, I was laid off in 1932.
Now going back to my career, I started there in this job as a clerk. Then the company opened an office furniture department to go after the furnishing of offices, and obtained some plush contracts furnishing the executive quarters of the companies that located their main offices in New York. In 1929, I was an assistant in that department. My first job, by the way, was $25 a week. Two years later, I was down to $19.50. Ten percent pay cuts were common in the Depression years. Then in 1932, things got really very rough, so I was told to take the summer off and maybe I’d get a job when I came back. I had saved $500 so I took off on my first trip to Europe and did the grand tour. Imagine being able to do that for $500 for a two-month trip! I remember I booked steerage class on the ship over. It cost $70.
INTERVIEWER: What was the name of it?
BRUNN: The name of the ship was The De Grasse. Steerage was the lowest end, third class, four persons in a small cabin. When I came back in the fall of ’32, I was offered a sales job on straight commission, no drawing account.
As I mentioned earlier, Sloanes had furniture factories and decided that it would be helpful if they could increase the volume from those factories and increase the size of their production cuttings, if they could sell this furniture to stores in non-competing retail areas of the country.
So, in effect, this became my first involvement as a manufacturer. The job was to be a manufacturer’s rep, in effect, and to develop a sales volume through these stores. So I did. I opened accounts in Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Omaha, and St. Louis, calling on either major department stores or fine furniture stores. I was fairly successful and was able to make a living out of it. I had that job for, let’s see, until 1938. OK, 1938...
INTERVIEWER: Can you give me an idea approximately what kind of a dollar volume you were doing at that time, that was generated as a result of your opening those accounts?
BRUNN: I don’t really remember exactly. I got married in 1935.
INTERVIEWER: Now, you just slipped in something about getting married...
BRUNN: Yes, I got married in 1935.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us about that.
BRUNN: Well, I had met Margaret. Her brother was a college friend of mine and lived in Pennsylvania. I would spend weekends there. Then Margaret came to New York and got a job in New York. We began dating and married in July 1935. She made $40 a week and I was making about $50, I guess. So between the two of us, we were well off. The rent on our first apartment was $40!
INTERVIEWER: What was Margaret doing?
BRUNN: She worked in the office of a brokerage firm for cotton and woolen mills.
INTERVIEWER: So now we’re up to 1938.
BRUNN: Then, in 1938, I was offered a job in the retail furniture department as assistant buyer. From then on, I had very fast job growth. A few years later, I was named assistant general merchandise manager.
INTERVIEWER: This was 1940 now?
BRUNN: 1940. Then in 1941, I was 34 at the time, Mr. Sloane called me into his office and said, “Dave, we’d like you to run the store.” I said, “Me?” He said, “Yes.” So, I was named general manager of the store.
INTERVIEWER: This was the New York store?
BRUNN: Yes, the New York store. Then in 1945, I became a member of the board of directors. That was interesting because this was a very family, family, family company. At that time, they only had one other board member who was a non-member of the family. Now there were two of us.
INTERVIEWER: How big was the board?
BRUNN: About 10.
INTERVIEWER: And all of the members were in the business?
BRUNN: No, members were John Sloane and William Griswold, a nephew. John Sloane had three daughters and a sister. His sister married William Griswold, who had a son also named William Griswold. After Bill graduated from Yale and Harvard Business School, he came into the store and eventually was given the job of president, and John Sloane became chairman.
One of John Sloane’s daughters married Benjamin Coates. He came from a Philadelphia family. One of his other daughters, I might add parenthetically, married Cyrus Vance. He became Secretary of State in the Carter administration. I’ll tell you a little more about him later.
Now to go back to my own career. My job for 10 years, from ’42 to ’52, was managing the store. It was a period of great expansion. Our sales volume went up very considerably. I recall we were doing about $20 million yearly and we got up to $30 million.
There are three things that I feel I accomplished during my tenure there. They were these: We were the first store to open a “modern” department, featuring furniture of modern (versus traditional) styling, which had been growing in consumer appeal through the mid-’40s and ’50s. The department made a big impression and was very successful.
The other move we made in this period was to open suburban stores. We were the first furniture company to do this. Department stores had opened suburban stores, but none of the home furnishings stores had done so. We opened stores on Long Island, in Westchester and in Connecticut.
INTERVIEWER: What was the third thing?
BRUNN: The third thing we did was this: As I mentioned, we had our own factories. The job of operating the furniture department at Sloanes was to do the same thing I later did at Drexel, making the decisions on furniture designs for our factory to produce and sell to dealers. But I realized that, although this gave us exclusive goods, it was competitively limiting, so I made the move then to start buying goods from Grand Rapids, Michigan factories and the Southern factories. In Grand Rapids, we bought from Baker, Widdicomb, and Sligh. The Southern factories included Drexel, Hickory, and Henredon. We began doing business with those manufacturers and others.
INTERVIEWER: What was the reaction of the family board members to your going outside?
BRUNN: They were in favor of it because they realized, too, that we were limiting ourselves. They were very supportive. The company had grown both in sales and in profits. Then in the early ’50s, a family fight began between this young, Ben Coates, and Bill Griswold, his cousin-in-law. Ben Coates took the stand that his place had been usurped by Griswold. I found myself right smack in the middle of this, being pulled and tugged in one direction or the other.
INTERVIEWER: They both wanted your support?
BRUNN: They wanted my full support. I had given my full support to Griswood, as we had become a close working twosome, as well as good friends. It was he who put me in this job and gave me the support. I realized that it couldn’t go on that way because Coates had the backing of other large stockholders in the Sloane family who shared his view. I knew something was going to happen, and it did.
INTERVIEWER: Well, what caused the fight?
BRUNN: The fact that he was squeezed out. He wasn’t given an executive position in the store. He wanted to be the president of the company. We did offer him a job in one of the departments and said, “Look, why don’t you learn something about the business?” That insulted him even more. I knew that if he did manage to get stock control, he would need me, and I knew I could not work for him. The situation got so sticky that I decided to make a move, as some other factors developed that bothered me.
In the meantime, I had developed contacts, as I said, with the factories, and Drexel was quite interested in me. I had helped Drexel. We put in some of their lines, and I’d helped them with ideas as to what they could do style-wise, some of which were successful. So they offered me a job in 1952 as eastern sales manager. They had opened an office in New York. The company had gone through some changes in their management organization and decided to set up regional sales offices in the East, Midwest and West. Now maybe I should stop and tell you the Drexel story. I’m giving you this book. Howard Walker said he had one he was going to give you. In 1963, our 60th anniversary, we published this little book about ourselves.
INTERVIEWER: I heard Howard talk about this Drexel book.
BRUNN: Well, the Drexel story, I guess, is probably repeated in a good many Southern and North Carolina manufacturers. The company was started in 1903 by the Huffman family. They opened a little factory in Drexel, North Carolina. The town wasn’t called Drexel then – it didn’t even have a name, but they thought, “Gee, we ought to have a name.” They decided since the Southern Railroad went through there, and the Drexel family of Philadelphia was involved with the Southern Railroad, and they liked the name Drexel, they just decided to use it. And the town became Drexel.
The Huffmans raised some money, $20,000 or so, and opened this little plant. The first furniture made by Drexel was a bedroom suite, made of oak, comprising a bureau, a night stand, and a double bed, that wholesaled for $14.50. Well, from that it sort of grew. They finally took a big gamble and decided to hire their own sales reps around the country that could help them in terms of what kind of furniture they should be making. I guess you know the old gag that’s often been told about Southern factories. It was told about Drexel, as well as others, that when a retailer got the goods, he didn’t know whether to keep the furniture or the crate it came in. I guess that was true of theirs as well.
INTERVIEWER: The quality was low, but the prices were also low.
BRUNN: Right. You’re probably right.
INTERVIEWER: How were they marketing this?
BRUNN: The new factories were almost completely in the hands of professional metropolitan sales agents who designed, priced and sold their furniture, but Drexel made the move of having salesmen that were exclusively theirs, early on.
INTERVIEWER: That was an interesting switch from what had been?
BRUNN: Yes, right. They began to grow. In 1918, they added another 20,000 square feet, and they purchased another furniture factory in Marion, North Carolina. By 1922, the company had a net worth of $540,000. Then they purchased the Morganton Manufacturing Company which was in Morganton. In 1930, they added another facility in Marion to expand the Marion group. They’re one of the first companies to start national advertising. T. Henry Wilson was the vice president and manager. He was responsible for Drexel’s first major, dynamic growth. It was under him that national advertising in home furnishings magazines...
INTERVIEWER: That was in 1922 or about that time? I just wanted it approximately. Were they among the first national advertisers?
BRUNN: Yes, they were. The first piece of national advertising done by Drexel appeared in the Home Furnishings magazine of national distribution in the early part of 1937. It started then and became a very important part of Drexel’s marketing effort.
Henry Wilson and two other executives who worked with him decided to start their own manufacturing business. They resigned in 1944 and formed Henredon Company, “Hen” being for Henry Wilson, “Don” being for Don VanNoppen, and “re” for Ralph Edwards. Drexel promoted Burt Tuxford, who was the New England sales representative. He became vice president in charge of sales. They brought in Maurice Hill, remember him? He was put in charge of production, and Robert Connelly became the financial officer as treasurer. This trio was the new management team replacing the Henry Wilson group. Burt was financial vice president, treasurer.
INTERVIEWER: Burt Tuxford?
BRUNN: Right. Burton R. Tuxford. During the 11 years that followed, sales grew from $7 million to $30 million. Profits went from $230,000 to $1.8 million. In 1955, Burt Tuxford resigned. Drexel promoted a guy by the name of David J. Brunn and Joseph Huffman (no relative of R.O. Huffman), dividing the marketing functions into merchandising and sales.
INTERVIEWER: Burt Tuxford retired or resigned?
BRUNN: Just resigned. Well, it was a little bit of both. He made a big pitch to get in a stronger stock ownership position, threatening an either/or stand. R. O. Huffman couldn’t stand that. So he resigned/retired. As Eastern sales manager, I was asked then to move to Drexel and take over the job of vice president in charge of merchandising.
So I became VP of merchandising and then later was put on the board of directors. My career, then, with Drexel was from ’52 to the end of ’67. In 1961, I became VP for marketing, which included sales and merchandising. Then in 1965, I became president of the Drexel Furniture Company division because at that time, the parent company had become Drexel Enterprises. I also became executive VP for marketing for Drexel Enterprises. Then, in late 1967, I decided on an early retirement at age 60.
INTERVIEWER: What happened to the company’s growth?
BRUNN: During my Drexel years, I had a number of major objectives when I took over that job. One: I wanted to give Drexel a style-leadership position. Drexel had had a style-leadership position, but it had been weakened. Second: I wanted to build a stronger brand name for the company through national advertising. Third: I wanted to build a close relationship with editors of the shelter books, with two objectives in mind. One was to keep in close touch with their views and opinions as to what was happening in decorating trends, but also I was hopeful that we could encourage editorial coverage from them, believing that this was one of the most important things that we could do to stimulate consumer interest in our goods.
Now here I was very far-sighted. I wanted to develop a “key store program.” We didn’t call it a gallery program, but a key store program. Fifteen to 20 years later, it has become an industry move. The fifth thing: I felt that one of the most important things we could do was to establish a retail salesperson training program. We did this and implemented it by inviting stores to send their salesmen to us for a three- or four-day training program. The retailers would pay the travel expenses, but we would take care of all of the rest of the expenses when they were at Drexel. Well, in the years before I retired, we had something like 4,500 retail salespeople attending. I felt very proud about that. So how did I do, then, on achieving these objectives? Style leadership.
INTERVIEWER: Repeat what you just said.
BRUNN: I said, “What’s the scorecard on the style-leadership objectives we had?” Well, here’s what happened. In modern furniture, we introduced two groups that became very, very successful. One was called Profile and was designed by John VanCourt. And I state parenthetically that I didn’t list it as one of my objectives, as it was part of the style-leadership thing. I really worked hard to seek out top designers that I felt could contribute to our goals. One was John VanCourt. He designed a group which we named Profile, which you could say was Danish inspired. It was very, very successful. The next group was introduced in ’56 or ’57, and was called Declaration. I had been out to California...
BRUNN: Declaration, like the Declaration of Independence. The name was chosen because it was American modern. I had spotted some furniture in a store that had been designed by two young California designers, Stewart and McDougal. The furniture had been produced by a small factory. I was very taken by it, as it seemed to me to be the first approach to American design-inspired modern. Modern that was based on some of our American traditional designs. So I looked them up, found them, and I asked them whether they would be willing to design a group for us of similar inspiration. They said, “Certainly.” So they did, and it turned out to be a very successful group. It was award-winning. Some pieces of it were selected by the government to show American furniture at the Cologne Fair in Germany, and House & Garden selected a few pieces to put on the front cover of one issue.
Then, in about 1960, we introduced Triune, which was designed by Henry Warren, a Grand Rapids designer. Italian provincial furniture had become popular, but we decided on a different approach. We combined design elements from three centuries, hence the name Triune. The AMC got interested in it, and had all their department stores buy it. It was a very, very big success.
INTERVIEWER: You want to say AMC stores?
BRUNN: AMC, American Merchandising Corporation, representing the Federated Company department stores. Then, in 1963, was my biggest success: Esperanto. This was designed by Jim Peed, who had been a designer for The Hickory Furniture Company. He left them and joined our design studio.
INTERVIEWER: He was a staff designer?
BRUNN: He became a staff designer, but later headed up our design studio.
INTERVIEWER: These other people?
BRUNN: They were freelance designers. In Esperanto, we weren’t the first to do a Mediterranean group. As a matter of fact, one of my quotes is: “The trick in this business is to be the first to be second.” And this was true of Triune, because I think Century and one other company had done well in the Italian provincial styling. Ours were never copies. Mediterranean had been started by Thomasville, who had a group in that style, as well as Heritage. Esperanto made a tremendous impact in the industry. We got the single biggest order from any one store. A California store gave us an order for $50,000.
INTERVIEWER: Signed by one store.
BRUNN: Yes, one collection. We followed with another group in that same feeling called Palazzo, which was Macy’s-inspired. Macy’s asked us to do a coordinated group. They would merchandise the accessories and everything else that went with it. So we introduced that and it was successful. Not as successful as Esperanto was. Then, in about ’65, we introduced a French group called French in the Country Manor. This also made a big, big industry impression. As a matter of fact, Bob Spilman...
INTERVIEWER: Who is Bob Spilman?
BRUNN: He was the head of Bassett Furniture Company. He met me at an industry meeting the Market after we introduced French in the Country Manor. He said, “Well, Dave, you put the furniture industry into the Mediterranean business, and now you have put it in the Country French business.” He said, “You’re going to be in shock when you see how many copies of French in the Country Manor have been introduced at this Market.” I don’t know whether his company was one of them or not. I’m so pleased to learn in my tour of the Drexel-Heritage space yesterday, how important Country French continues to be. We decided to bring out a group of accent pieces which we called Etcetera that would supply decorative needs for people’s homes. When we first introduced it, I think we had about 10 pieces. They were cabinets and chairs, end tables and wall pieces, etcetera. Many of our salespeople were worried. They didn’t believe Etcetera would win dealer interest. But I was so pleased yesterday, in my tour of the Drexel-Heritage showroom, which is 20 years after the Etcetera idea was introduced, that it actually ... that whole concept produces more volume than any other collection. The concept, not the same pieces.
Now, if you ask me how much volume all of these successes did, it would be up in the $100 million range or so. But that is not to say that we didn’t have some big bombs. Because there is a price you pay when you seek style leadership. That is, you have to be willing to stick your neck out and try things. And I did, we did. And we bombed frequently. There’s an agony and ecstasy in this approach. We had some big bombs but, thankfully, we had some tremendous successes. So I don’t think anyone will dispute the claim that Drexel did establish itself as a style-leadership company.
INTERVIEWER: May I ask you a question about Esperanto? How many years was Esperanto made by Drexel?
BRUNN: The answer is many years.
INTERVIEWER: How long?
BRUNN: I would say 10 years. But that’s an interesting question you asked because in looking over the White, Drexel, Heritage and Hickory showrooms, Mediterranean is out now as a style, after 15 to 20 years of such strong consumer acceptance. However, I’d like to read to you a column that’s written by Lou Grop. Also in Home Furnishings Daily, dated December 6, 1965. Here’s what he said: “David Brunn’s ascendancy in the Drexel management hierarchy parallels a significant new orientation on the part of furniture manufacturers. At one time, manufacturing was primarily production-oriented. But that orientation is changing today. Today, marketing, merchandising and product design play a much more important role in the top management. David Brunn’s new job as president of Drexel Furniture Company is symptomatic of the switch in orientation. Dave Brunn joined Drexel as a merchant, leaving W. & J. Sloane in New York where he was vice president and general manager. He started in sales in 1952 at Drexel as Eastern sales manager and became vice president and director of merchandising in ’55. In ’61, he took full charge of all the marketing end. Fortunately, for the home furnishings industry, it has let Drexel test market new designs for the past seven or eight years. And when money-making design directions are discussed, the introduction by Drexel of Esperanto or French in the Country Manor figures into the discussion. It was consumer response to the firm’s block-front credenza that jolted Drexel into introducing Esperanto, and the industry into maintaining one of the style phenomena of modern-day design selling. The block-front double dresser in Esperanto, derived from that credenza, truly has sold more units than any other dresser in furniture history.”
So, I really feel I can honestly and objectively state that the objective we had of achieving a style-leadership position was really achieved. Now what happened on the brand name? National advertising. Well, the surveys that we had made regularly through our advertising agency did show that Drexel’s was the best-known name.
Now, that’s not to say that if you take a poll that everyone asked knows a brand name in furniture. Probably only about 25 percent of those that you ask know any brand name. But those who do show Drexel as clearly ahead. At that time, Kroehler was strong too.
The third objective, the editorial coverage in the shelter books, I feel that we did achieve that too. Often our new groups received very spectacular coverage in the shelter books.
INTERVIEWER: How did you accomplish that?
BRUNN: Well, we accomplished that by keeping in close touch with the editors. Getting to know them. Making sure that when they came into our showroom, they were greeted and given the tour and made to understand our style objectives. When I was in New York, which was frequently, I made it a point to see them, have lunch with them, and get to know them well. So I developed a good rapport with all the major editors of House & Garden, House Beautiful, Better Homes and Gardens, American Home, and the trade publications. And I think they appreciated this. It was not the treatment they got from most manufacturers. Very few manufacturers gave them that kind of attention. And it was helpful to them in turn.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have an ad agency in those days?
BRUNN: Yes, we had an ad agency. It was Arndt, Preston, Lamb & Keene. It was a good agency and they did a fine job for us.
Now let’s look at the fourth objective: the key store program, which was our early “gallery program.” Of course, as you know, it now has become an industry program. To give you a statistic as to how it has succeeded: In my early years at Drexel, we had a couple thousand accounts, maybe as many as 2,500. Today, Drexel does $160 million in sales volume, with 370 stores. And I really do claim credit for pushing the company in this direction. Although, I also give credit to Nat Ancell for inspiring us. He started the plan before we did. We were copycats, I guess.
INTERVIEWER: Nat Ancell of Ethan Allen?
BRUNN: Yes, of Ethan Allen. I did mention earlier that our retail sales forum did turn out to be very helpful. And I mentioned the figures that over 4,500 retail salespeople from stores around the country came to Drexel for these training sessions.
Now, in 1967, I decided to retire. Well, an industry first … The announcement of my retirement led to a two-page spread in Home Furnishings Daily. That certainly hadn’t happened before. Tom Watson and Gloria Walden, from the HFD staff, interviewed me and wrote the article. In response to their questions about my views about the industry, I stated: “Understanding furniture’s individualistic appeal is important, for it is the answer to the great difficulties the industry faces in standardization. Selling a million Volkswagen bedrooms and several Mustang dining rooms and as many Impala living rooms is a myth. No one wants his furniture to be identical with his friends’ or his neighbors’ furniture. And it’s the explanation for retailers’ insistence on the ‘What’s new?’ approach, and the major reason for the outpouring of new goods, just for the sake of something new.”
I showed them the company announcement of my retirement by R.O. Huffman, the president, and his statement, “Dave brought to Drexel a fresh and forceful approach to design and merchandising from the point of view of the dealer and the consumer.” Then they quote me again: “‘Exciting, intensely interesting and frustrating’ is the way Dave Brunn describes retailing in those years with Sloane. He ran the gamut from furniture buyer to vice president and general manager. I found manufacturing to be very exciting and a little less frustrating, where there is not that preoccupation with the daily comparison of last year’s figures. Projects were long-range and, of course, this hurts you when you pull the boner. I had some big bombs at Drexel — Designs for Living, Viewpoint ’70 — but there were also the big successes which I mentioned earlier: Esperanto, Triune, Declaration, Profile, and French in the Country Manor. Dealing with retailers is a lot easier than dealing with the consumer. Dealers are generally more reasonable.”
I have another quote from this article: “In the years I’ve been in the furniture industry, the biggest change is the role of the powerful manufacturer vis-à-vis the retailer. An increasing number of manufacturers now control their own destiny in marketing goods to the consumer. The retailer is, in fact, the distributor. Certainly, Baumritters and the Ethan Allen stores dramatize this move, as well as the many Drexel-Heritage stores around this country.” Then Tom and Gloria go on to write a little more about me and what I’m going to do and so on. They’re suspicious that I might have had something else industry-wise in mind. They wouldn’t quite accept the fact that, no, I really wasn’t planning to make an industry move.
INTERVIEWER: They didn’t believe it. Well, can you tell us why you ... What was behind it?
BRUNN: Well, I had made up my mind early on that I wanted to retire at 60. I wanted to spend more time traveling, and to be with my family, and to do some consulting and to pursue other interests. I have always had a very close sense of involvement, looking upon myself as a director of a play. So I was motivated primarily by the fact that I felt I would have freedom to do other things. My job at Drexel was not just a 9-to-5 one. It was a seven-day-a-week job. It required frequent travel and intense work. So, I retired. I received hundreds of letters from various people when my retirement was announced. I went through them and selected a few of them, some from our dealers, some from competing manufacturers, and some from the media. This one is from Robert Philpott of United Furniture: “The industry as a whole certainly owes you a debt of gratitude for the outstanding work which you have done. I’m certain that your accomplishments in our industry will long be remembered.” And from R. M. Simmons of American of Martinsville: “You have contributed tremendously to our industry and to your company. The leadership which you have provided was not only responsible for your own success, but has also meant a great deal to the many that have been influenced by the way you have conducted yourself personally and professionally.” Harriett Burket, editor in chief at House Beautiful: “It won’t seem right without you at Drexel. But more than that, it won’t seem right with you out of this field.” Vera Hahn of American Home: “I do not know how this goliath industry will manage without you, its only Renaissance man.”
INTERVIEWER: Renaissance man?
BRUNN: Yeah. Here’s a dealer, Blocker’s of Ocala, Florida.
INTERVIEWER: What is his first name? His full name?
BRUNN: His name is Blocker. “The furniture industry and dealers owe a lot to you. Your contribution, a combination of an excellent retail background and style design knowledge, gave Drexel a lead over competitors and put Drexel’s dealers way out in front.” And Harry Dow, who was the home furnishings merchandise manager at Marshall Field’s: “Somehow the trip to N.C., Dave, won’t be the same from now on.”
INTERVIEWER: Those are great points.
BRUNN: R.O. Huffman was very much a chairman, a chairman of the board manager. He believed in hiring people with competence, then giving them full authority. He would not stand for anyone competing with him for the controlling position. My relationship with him was all 100 percent. He turned over the merchandising, and then the marketing, to me and was very supportive. I remember one Market, for example, when we did poorly, he came over, he put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Dave, don’t worry. Next Market you’ll prove that you’re back in full strength.” That was his attitude and the way he handled it. Now in financial matters, he was very conservative and in full control of that end of it. Any of the people we had who tried to test him in any sense, he could not stand.
INTERVIEWER: Now we have Mr. T. Henry Wilson and Burt Tuxford. Tell us about them. Was that the reason that Mr. Wilson left Drexel?
BRUNN: Primarily. Henry Wilson left for two reasons. One was that he did want to get a stronger position, stock control-wise. But also, he had in mind having his own business. So two factors triggered his move. I was at Sloanes at that time, and when I heard that Henry was leaving Drexel, I was very upset. He was the powerhouse for the company and had contributed so much to its success. I was really quite concerned when I heard that he was leaving the company.
INTERVIEWER: And then he established Henredon?
BRUNN: He established it with Ralph Edwards and Don VanNoppen.
INTERVIEWER: Ralph Edwards?
BRUNN: Burt Tuxford’s position was a little different...
INTERVIEWER: Now were either Edwards or VanNoppen involved with Drexel?
BRUNN: Yes, they all worked at Drexel.
INTERVIEWER: They all did. They all left at the same time?
BRUNN: They all left at the same time, with Henry Wilson.
INTERVIEWER: What were those two gentlemen’s positions?
BRUNN: Ralph Edwards was in sales, and the other was in the financial end of it, as I recall. They were replaced by Robert Connelly on the financial end, and Maurice Hill, who was brought in to become the production manager. He had no experience with production at all. He was with a hospital in Morganton for the mentally ill, in an administrative position.
INTERVIEWER: Is that right?
BRUNN: I believe so. He’d moved to Morganton; that’s how Mr. Huffman got to know him. They were both active Baptists.
BRUNN: So Mr. Huffman put together a new team then of Tuxford, Connelly and Hill.
INTERVIEWER: Tuxford then retired?
BRUNN: He retired in 1955, after 11 years in management.
INTERVIEWER: Well, Dave, we’ve talked about Drexel and you told the story of T. Henry Wilson and also of Burt Tuxford. Let’s go back and talk about what’s happened to W. & J. Sloane since you left. Let’s talk about Drexel since you left a little bit.
BRUNN: Well, the Sloane story, unfortunately, is a sad story. After Ben Coates got stock control of the company, he immediately fired Bill Griswold, his cousin-in-law, who was the president and CEO. As a matter of fact, Coates walked into Griswold’s office and said, “Out of this building now.” So for a few years then, he was president, and he hired managers. The most important person that he hired was Ray Reed, who later became a columnist, as you remember.
So Ray Reed became his operating executive for a couple of years. Then, Coates couldn’t resist the temptation to try to make a fast buck, so he sold the company. One of the biggest assets the company had was the long-term lease for the 47th Street/Fifth Avenue property. Sloanes leased the property, but owned the building. He sold the company then to a Philadelphia outfit, who moved Sloanes out of 47th/Fifth Avenue to the former Franklin Simon Department Store building at 5th Avenue and 38th Street. They converted the 47th Street building to an office building and it is now a merchandise center for jewelry.
Well then, as the usual ploy is, they began to sell off the more profitable sites. They sold the Beverly Hills store to a chap by the name of Manny Rothburg. He operated the Beverly Hills store for a number of years, and then sold it. The San Francisco store was sold; they closed the Washington store and closed the suburban stores. So in 20 years or so, after I left by the early-to-mid-’70s, the company went down the drain. Now today, just today, I met a sales representative from southern California that made me feel good. A southern California company bought the name from Rothburg or his successor and has now opened three stores under the Sloane name, trying to rejuvenate the same strong pitch, high-end, high-quality, high-decorating image. He has apparently been successful, judging from the amount of business that Drexel-Heritage is doing with them. He plans, he hopes, to expand it. So maybe, off in the future, the good old 145-year-old company will have a new life.
INTERVIEWER: Where are these?
BRUNN: They’re in southern California, primarily in the L.A. area. Now, the only other thing I’d like to interject into this is that when I told the story of my father becoming a minister of this church on the Lower East Side, in Little Italy, he lived until 1952. During those years, he became one of the most outstanding Presbyterian clergymen in New York. He was a delegate to their general assembly several times. He was given assignments to attend the Waldensian Synods in Italy. And overall, he became well known as an outstanding preacher. His ministry was primarily a social ministry, because here in Little Italy, these new immigrants that arrived in great numbers needed help and guidance in secular, as well as religious areas.
INTERVIEWER: Having gone through it himself...
BRUNN: Yes, and he taught them how to become American citizens. “We’re here. Let’s become American citizens. Not that we don’t love Italy, but now we’re Americans.”
INTERVIEWER: That’s great.
BRUNN: OK, now we want to go back, huh?
INTERVIEWER: Well, Dave, you talked about Drexel and the five objectives and how you accomplished them. And you certainly didn’t do that by yourself. You recruited a team of people. Can you tell us a little bit about that team?
BRUNN: Yes, it was a good team. I had Dick DeBell in sales. He was really an outstanding sales manager. He was primarily responsible for implementing our key store program that I mentioned as one of our objectives and one of our achievements. We worked very closely together.
INTERVIEWER: His title was sales manager?
BRUNN: Yes, sales manager. Then, in addition to that, I had John Harmon, who was our advertising manager. When I talked about our brand-name building, I credit John Harmon so much for this.
Then I made another move, for which I was very much criticized at the time. I decided to hire a woman executive, Betty Bailey from Better Homes and Gardens magazine. I put her in a PR position. I remember several of the Drexel people coming to me and saying, “Hey, listen. We’re not at the point where we can live with a woman executive.” I said, “Well, we are as long as I’m here.” Betty Bailey was the one that implemented the program of our building a close relationship with the magazine editors. I give her 100 percent credit for doing that. She was a very competent person. Others who contributed greatly were Jim Peed in design, Robert Connelly and Howard Walker in the financial end, Ed Bounous in production engineering and many others.
INTERVIEWER: You just mentioned the merger with Heritage in 1957. What prompted the merger?
BRUNN: Heritage had a cross-marketing agreement with Henredon. It was called the Heritage-Henredon Company, but they were both independent companies. Heritage concentrated on upholstery and occasional tables, and Henredon on case goods. Well, there was a falling out between Elliot Wood (of Heritage) and Henry Wilson. What triggered it, I don’t recall, exactly. So Elliot came to us and said, “How about it? Can we get together?” We said, “Hurray!” So he exchanged the net worth of his company for Drexel stock, which was then owned publicly on the New York stock market. Elliot had two young men working for him. One was Howard Haworth, and the other was Fred Councill. He was very high on both of them. Interesting. He is one of the manufacturers who is supporting our program, the American Furniture Hall of Fame.
INTERVIEWER: One of our supporters?
BRUNN: Of the two, he seemed to feel that Howard was one of the brightest he’d ever brought into the company. I was given the job, as you know from my resume, as VP for marketing for the entire company, including Heritage. So I decided to bring Howard and Fred into the home office there at Drexel, giving them larger assignments. I gave Howard the job of merchandising our case goods, and Fred, the upholstery end of it. They came into their new positions about the time I retired. After I had retired, Howard eventually became the president of Drexel. Fred, however, was disappointed that he didn’t get a crack at that job. So he left and started his own company.
INTERVIEWER: That’s Councill Craftsmen, I think. Now, right after you ... Not long after you left — though this is another history; it’s not Dave Brunn’s story — but U.S. Plywood acquired the company.
BRUNN: Yes, U.S. Plywood bought the company. I was involved with it, as I stayed on as a director and a member of the executive committee of the board for a few years, until U.S. Plywood decided to discontinue the Drexel Enterprise board of directors, and transferred management authority to their New York executives. Afterward, U.S. Plywood made some bad mistakes. They put the wrong people in key jobs. Recognizing this, after a year or two, they made changes, one of which was promoting Howard Haworth to the presidency.
INTERVIEWER: Howard did an outstanding job.
BRUNN: Right. Very, very bright guy.
INTERVIEWER: Was he, by any chance, over there at Drexel yesterday?
BRUNN: No, he has pulled out completely.
INTERVIEWER: I knew he had his own operation, but I thought he was executive vice president...
BRUNN: No, Masco, who had acquired the companies, had named him as a consultant, but I learned yesterday, in talking to people over there, that he had pulled out. He is or was the Secretary of Commerce for the state of North Carolina. Now he’s involved in welfare activity. He made a lot of money. As a matter of fact, the story was kicking around that he just bought a $1.5 million home there in Morganton. But anyway, I was hoping that we could get him interested in AFHF.
INTERVIEWER: Now that your days of actively managing a manufacturing operation or running it have ended with your retirement, because you said you wanted to travel, you wanted to write ... Now what did you do about that?
BRUNN: Well, I did those things, but I also kept my hand in the furniture industry, and I think for the purposes of this interview, you probably want to know what I did.
From 1969 to 1972, I was a consultant for House Beautiful magazine and for Home Furnishings Daily. The consultant’s job for House Beautiful lasted for several years. Paul Yergens was then the publisher, and Sara Lee was the editor.
That was a very interesting consultant assignment. They held meetings about once a month in New York. At the meetings, the editorial group would indicate the direction of their editorial approach in the next issues. Then my assignment was to advise them as to what I thought could be done to alert manufacturers on these directions, with the objective of obtaining more manufacturer advertising support. I don’t know how successful I was in that. I can’t say. But the other thing they asked me to do was to run seminars. One seminar I ran, we invited top carpet manufacturers’ executives to come to New York and participate in discussions on the direction they thought the carpet industry was going style-wise.
The Home Furnishings Daily assignment didn’t turn out to be too productive. What they really wanted me to do was to help them increase their advertising. I don’t know that I was too successful in that. Well, that didn’t work out too well. During that time I had minor consulting deals with several furniture manufacturers — Kroehler and Simmons and some small manufacturers. They were usually one-shot deals in which I gave them pearly words of wisdom, I guess. Then I was asked to join the board of the Knob Creek Company. I was on their board from 1970 to ’76. I enjoyed that. The company, as you probably recall, was finally bought by Ethan Allen.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, who was the dentist who owned it?
BRUNN: Jerry McBrayer.
INTERVIEWER: Jerry McBrayer was the principal, wasn’t he?
BRUNN: Right. Then this gets close to home now. In 1969, The Home Furnishings Council was established. A guy by the name of Bob Spelman asked me if I would become a consultant for them and join the council’s board. The council consisted of the trade associations representing the various branches of the industry. The two furniture manufacturers associations, retail, bedding ... What was the other?
BRUNN: The objective we had then and we have now is: what can we do to really get consumers interested in spending more of their dollars on furniture? It wound up with an attempt to put on a Home Fashion Time promotion. I’m sorry to say that that was only moderately successful. We made another attempt. We hired a professional to see if he could put together an annual fall promotion.
INTERVIEWER: Ralph Shockey.
BRUNN: Ralph Shockey. They put together a program for us which we called Debut ’72. And we tried that. That was more successful for the Home Furnishings Council, but not successful enough to excite the industry to continue it. So I would have to state that it wasn’t a world-beater, either.
INTERVIEWER: Well, that’s true.
BRUNN: So, for those years, I had these continued involvements in the furniture industry. Also, in 1976, I was invited to join the Hickory Furniture Company board, an association I’ve really enjoyed, particularly since my former Drexel colleague, Howard Walker, was treasurer and then president. Recently, when I announced my retirement from their board, they said I had made vast contributions.
INTERVIEWER: Now, you resigned from Hickory’s board when?
BRUNN: In ’88. The Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association in 1970 gave me a Distinguished Service Award for my work on the Home Furnishings Council. In 1971 or so, Appalachian State University (in Boone, North Carolina) decided to open a business school. They asked a number of executives, retired or otherwise, to become members of the Business School Advisory Council. One of the suggestions made was that they start an executive-in-residence program, similar to an artist-in-residence program. The plan was to invite executives to teach a course for a semester in the business school. They asked me what I thought of the idea. I said, “I think it’s a very good idea.” They said, “Well, if you think it’s such a good idea, why don’t you become the first?” So there I was. I became the executive-in-residence for their spring semester of ’72. I gave a three-month course on the furniture industry.
Now this was an interesting idea because Appalachian State, being there in Boone, is in that part of North Carolina where a high percentage of the students are from furniture-family backgrounds, and thinking maybe they would likely wind up in the furniture industry. It was a bright idea to give them some idea of what goes on in the furniture industry, how it operates and what opportunity there would be. That was what I attempted. But I learned a lot in attempting to teach.
INTERVIEWER: Was it a credit course?
BRUNN: Oh, yes. It was a credit course. I got myself in bad trouble because I was a tough grader. Students who took the course thought this was going to be easy. What do they call them? They had a name for easy courses.
BRUNN: There was a name for them. Many took the course because they thought it would be easy to get a “C” without doing any work. When I passed out the first examination, and then flunked a number of them, it was holy horror. Matter of fact, the dean said I could even let up a little. So I gave them a re-exam. But more than the course, though, was the fact that I was available for consultation with these boys and girls, advising them as to how they could prepare themselves for job interviews, how they could approach the companies that were interviewing, how they could prepare themselves for the interview, and what opportunities there would be in the furniture industry. Well, it was a very satisfactory experience because, as a result of it, I am now Dr. Brunn. You didn’t know that, did you?
BRUNN: They gave me an honorary degree.
INTERVIEWER: That’s great.
BRUNN: They gave me a Doctor of Commercial Science degree in August of ’73. I enjoyed that because I was living in Chapel Hill at that time. In Chapel Hill (where the University of North Carolina is located) any service person that calls on you and doesn’t call you “doctor” is afraid he’ll get in trouble. So they could call me doctor and I was a doctor.
Then, in 1972, SFMA (Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association) decided to endorse this CAP program, which stood for Consumer Advisory Panel, which was being promoted by Virginia Knauer, President Nixon’s Consumer Affairs Assistant. It was named FICAP, for Furniture Industry Consumer Advisory Panel. SFMA invited me to be one of seven panelists. Others were the dean of the School of Economics at UNC at Greensboro, a retailer, a home fashion consultant, the director of New Orleans’ Consumer Affairs, a public relations specialist, and a New York University professor. Then the next year, in 1974, they asked me to become their chairman. I chaired this effort for 10 years. After the 10 years, it was decided that the CAP program wasn’t working out as had been hoped. But I’m very proud of the fact that the American Furniture Manufacturers Association (which resulted from the merging of the SFMA with the National Association of Furniture Manufacturers) presented me with a very handsome plaque for the 10 years of service that I had given FICAP. That was in ’83.
Now, the other plans. Yes, we did a lot of traveling. We’ve covered Europe very thoroughly, from Norway to Russia, England, France, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Egypt, Italy and Greece. We’ve really enjoyed it. We became cruise addicts, doing most of our traveling on cruises. For several years, we took two- or three-month travel trips and as many as 10 Caribbean winter cruises. I had hoped to do some writing. That’s still in the future.
INTERVIEWER: Have you written anything?
BRUNN: Nothing publishable. Those are the things I’ve done since I retired. You’d like to know what changes I have seen in the furniture industry from 1950 to ’80.
BRUNN: Here’s one that has not changed, nor ever will. Often forgotten is the fact that furniture is one of our art forms. Sometimes we forget that furniture is in every major museum from the (State) Hermitage Museum (in Russia), which we visited and saw a great variety of historic furniture there, to the Louvre (in Paris), the American wing at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the National Gallery in Washington, the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Every important museum in the world has a big selection of furniture. Quite often, when I give lectures on furniture, I ask, “What business is the furniture business?” If I asked that question about airlines, you’d say, “Transportation.” If I asked that about automobiles, you’d say, “Oh, transportation,” and so on. If I asked you that about furniture, you’d have a hard time giving the business a one-word description. Why? Because the furniture business must supply a utilitarian product — tables, chairs, desks, chests, beds, etc. But furniture must satisfy a decorative need as well. And the consumer makes buying decisions as much as, if not more than, on furniture’s ability to supply that decorative need as they do the utility, although it’s very important.
It hit me today and yesterday, when I had the opportunity to visit the showrooms of Hickory, White and Drexel, how beautifully they’re decorated. How exciting the decorative appeal the furniture gives in finish, in wood. The third thing one must remember about furniture is our love affair with wood. Let’s face it, wood is really not a very good raw material. It’s unstable. Manufacturers spend untold amounts keeping it from cracking, splitting, expanding, and contracting. It’s a very fragile product. The problem the retailer has in handling it, just getting it to the consumer, is the scratches and dents. Those are some factors about the furniture industry that we keep forgetting about, I think.
INTERVIEWER: You just gave the negative, not the positive. You better give those, too.
BRUNN: All right. Now, the other thing that I want to mention is that the consumer is greatly traditional style-oriented. I’m always amazed how much of a love affair we have with reproductions of our great antiques of the past. Particularly English 18th century reproductions, and French and American reproductions, which makes it exciting. We must remember that the consumer desires to have his or her home be an individualistic expression of themselves. Another change … I don’t know what the figures are now, but when I was involved, we had over 5,000 manufacturers and 30,000 retailers. Have we changed since?
INTERVIEWER: I don’t know.
BRUNN: The number of manufacturers has dropped to maybe 3,500?
INTERVIEWER: Probably closer to 2,500, somewhere in there. The retailers have dropped, too, from the 30,000 figure that was generally used.
BRUNN: And what would you say, now, that the 10 largest furniture manufacturers produce? I believe you mentioned that the total manufacturing volume is something like $15 billion.
INTERVIEWER: $15 billion.
BRUNN: And of that, how much is produced by the American industry?
INTERVIEWER: That is the American industry volume.
BRUNN: Yeah, American manufacturers. What would you say the percentage is that the top 10 manufacturers control? Back when I was active, it was only 7 percent. It hasn’t changed much.
INTERVIEWER: Well, we now have companies like Interco that are over a billion dollars. Masco is something around $600 million.
BRUNN: In 1965, I was interviewed by A.W. Stamey with Home Furnishings Daily.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, Coone Stamey. What was that date?
BRUNN: The date was April 9, 1965. Let’s both review what I said then. I said a bright new era is dawning in furniture. I’m quoting from the article now: “The furniture industry is on the threshold of an era of unprecedented importance. Newer approaches on both the retail and manufacturing level in recent years have made home furnishings, particularly furniture, and the leading status symbol in America. In the future, there is no reason why the industry shouldn’t get a bigger share of the consumer’s expendable dollars than it is getting now. This outlook in a nutshell is the view of David J. Brunn, executive vice president for Drexel Enterprises.” Continuing the quote: “The original authentic styling is the vital factor in merchandising programs of the future. The general business outlook for the industry in the next decade is very good as home furnishings move to the forefront. Fashion has become a very important element of the furniture industry and will become even more important. The home has to be furnished in present-day fashion. Currently, the style movement is still toward furniture with traditional roots. The consumer wants traditional furniture as authentic as possible. He or she also wants a fresh, informal approach to contemporary furniture. Brunn named several factors that will change the furniture industry’s outlook in the coming years and set the stage for a new era. One: The emergence of a number of strong manufacturing firms. These larger and stronger firms have become powerful enough to be a great influence on the marketplace. They are creating factors that influence the industry down to the consumer level. In this connection, he said, the stronger manufacturers have developed sophisticated approaches to styling, distribution, merchandising and production in terms of quality. Another factor, he said, was the emergence of stronger and more knowledgeable retailers who are making a more aggressive effort toward improving methods of presentation and selling to the consumer. These two things have happened in the last several years in home furnishings merchandising. Department stores have taken a more lively interest in furniture.”
Now, the other thing I find that is very fascinating is RTA (ready-to-assemble) furniture. I had a personal experience with this. My daughter, Susan, decided to buy a computer word processor and, of course, she had to have a table or desk for it. She picked out an RTA table. It was about half the price that a conventional table like it would cost, and I helped her put it together. I was really very surprised over how ingenious the engineering was, and when put together, how attractive it was. I can really understand why the RTA growth is so fast. I don’t know how big it’s become, but I guess it is big, isn’t it?
INTERVIEWER: That’s right. It’s big.
BRUNN: It’s also led to the emergence of retail stores offering only RTA furniture. I don’t know whether you’ve been to one of these chain stores named Door Stores. It’s amazing, the business they’re doing. Most of their RTA furniture is imported from Sweden, Germany and, I presume, Asia.
INTERVIEWER: There’s another one that’s coming.
BRUNN: It’s that Swedish-owned and –operated, very large retailer in New England, with other stores opened or planned.
There have been changes, too, in the retailing arena. I’d list them as follows: (1) The gallery programs. (2) The growth of suburban stores. (3) The growth of chains – Levitz, Haverty’s, etc. (4) The decline of mom-and-pop downtown stores. (5) The decline of the department store as a furniture retailer.
But there’s been no change in the discount retail advertising techniques, “Hurry, hurry, hurry, bargains today,” to the almost complete exclusion of furniture presented as a fashion product.
INTERVIEWER: What have been your most valued honors?
BRUNN: The Distinguished Service Award by SFMA; the Distinguished Service Award by AFMA for FICAP; the honorary doctorate at Appalachian State University; and letters from retailers, media and manufacturers upon my promotions and retirement.
INTERVIEWER: Have you summarized your life in the furniture industry in one or two paragraphs?
BRUNN: Yes, here is my summary: A career in the furniture industry was a fortuitous one, for it enabled me to combine my creative ability and my administrative and marketing skills – an unusual dichotomy. I was fortunate, too, to be able to fill executive roles with two of the nation’s most prestigious companies, one in retailing and the other in manufacturing.