leo a. jiranek; jiranek school of design
AMERICAN FURNITURE HALL OF FAME
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
AUGUST 12, 1988
ETHAN ALLEN COMPANY OFFICES
Interviewer, Robert A. Spelman
JIRANEK: My father was born in Prague which is now Czechoslovakia. As a young man he came over here with his brother, and kicked around awhile in New York as young fellows do. He tried everything from teaching, writing in Central Park, to even waiting on tables, I guess. And finally, he was an artist. He always had artistic ability.
(Note from Leo’s son Robert: My dad, if he knew, did not say that his father's birth surname was Sedmik. Otto Anton took the surname, Jiranek, when he and his brother, Ludwig, emigrated from Bohemia. The name change is a mystery. Otto had a half brother, Jiri Sedmik, who was a Czech patriot and who was tried and executed in Berlin by the Nazi Government in 1941. Otto had a social relationship with Franz Ferdinand when the two men were officers in the cavalry. The assassination of Ferdinand was the start of World War one.
We have met Sedmik relatives in Prague. We have not discovered any Jiranek geneology, and tentatively conclude there never was a Jiranek connection in Bohemia.)
INTERVIEWER: Had he been trained as an artist in Europe?
JIRANEK: No, he was of the gentry class. He was a lieutenant in the Austrian army. He answered an ad in Kalamazoo.
INTERVIEWER: What year did he come to the United States?
JIRANEK: I don’t know exactly, but approximately 1890. He applied for a job by mail and he was interviewed and got a job in Kalamazoo, Michigan for Regalia Company. There he designed large furniture and so on, which he took to Grand Rapids to have samples made. And one of the factories that made the furniture was the old Oriole Furniture Company. Oriole later became one of the Berkey & Gay factories. The head of the Oriole Furniture Company was a man by the name of Black, and he talked my father into going into the furniture designing business.
So he left Kalamazoo and moved to Grand Rapids, and started with Oriole. He met my mother in Chicago, and they were married, I would guess in 1892 or ’93. I had a brother who died when he was 5 years old, and I was five years younger than he was.
I was born on August 30, 1900, and when I was born, my father decided to leave the Oriole Company and become a freelance furniture designer. He was probably one of the first freelance furniture designers in America.
INTERVIEWER: What was your father’s name?
JIRANEK: Otto Anton Jiranek.
INTERVIEWER: What was your mom’s name?
JIRANEK: Elizabeth E. Mebold.
INTERVIEWER: She was from Chicago?
JIRANEK: She was from Chicago — German ancestry, which I’ve had authenticated and dates back to her great-grandmother and her great-great-grandmother.
INTERVIEWER: Had she come over here or was she born in the States?
JIRANEK: I do not know. My parents discussed very little about their early lives. I know that my father came from an apparently very, very fine family. He was well educated at the University of Vienna. He could speak three languages. He could play the zither and the cello and piano. He was a good artist, which was an avocation of his.
They spent summers and winters in the Alps skiing, but I don’t know too much about his childhood. He had a sister who married a Count Von Ratzenbeck and he was knighted by Emperor Franz Joseph.
INTERVIEWER: That was your uncle?
JIRANEK: Yes, my uncle that was married to my father’s sister. That’s practically all I know about her.
INTERVIEWER: You were educated in Grand Rapids?
JIRANEK: Yes, I went to school in Grand Rapids and then I left at 17 and went to the Western Military Academy. The war was on, the military schools were very difficult to get into — my dad was a friend of the president of Sears, Roebuck whose wife was an Adler in the Adler planetarium, and the Adler boys went to the Western Military Academy in Alton, Illinois. I can’t think of his name now, the president of Sears, Roebuck, but through his influence, we got into the Western Military Academy.
I graduated in May. I was on the Dean’s List and appointed to a training camp preliminary to the government putting in training camps in the colleges and preparing officers for the colleges. So they sent me to Fort Sheridan, Illinois where I was in the cavarly.
INTERVIEWER: Did you get a commission?
JIRANEK: No, I left Fort Sheridan, and they passed the 18 to 45 draft, and I went from there to Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont, where I stayed until the end of the year. Then I joined the militia – the Guard. I was a captain until the war ended in 1918.
INTERVIEWER: Then what happened? You were discharged? You were in the Guard, the State Guard?
JIRANEK: I was commissioned in the State Guard.
INTERVIEWER: Commissioned in the State Guard – you’re Captain Leo Jiranek here? All right now, the war is over, and you are where?
JIRANEK: Then I went to Princeton University and graduated in the class of 1922.
INTERVIEWER: What did you major in?
JIRANEK: Engineering. At that time, Princeton Engineering School was very, very small. It is now a big school with probably one of the biggest research institutions in the country, but we had very few in the class. I was president of my class.
We had some big guns in my class — Adlai Stevenson; Struve Hensel, Assistant Secretary of the Navy; Cupe Love, President of Dana and Chrysler; and John Lourie, President of Quaker Oats, Chairman of the Board, et cetera.
INTERVIEWER: So you’re out of college now, and you were president of your class and you had all of these people — now what did you do?
JIRANEK: Well, we should go back.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s go back.
JIRANEK: Because when I was 15 years old in 1915, I had my first taste of working in the furniture industry. I ran an elevator for the Keeler Brass Company’s exhibition building during the war. They were on Division Avenue in Grand Rapids. Baker was one of the companies that showed there — and for the furniture markets, I ran an elevator.
INTERVIEWER: Was this an exhibition building that Keeler owned?
JIRANEK: The Keeler Exhibition Building. Keeler had an exhibition building, as well as being in the brass business – the Keeler Brass Company.
INTERVIEWER: They had markets – how often did they have a market?
JIRANEK: Twice a year. The market was in January and July. Markets were after the first of the year and after the fourth of July, and there was a lot of controversy because the buyers didn’t want to leave home. But I know of one or two instances where men kept two households, two wives – and the reason they could do so was because they could go to the markets and make excuses for not being home at Christmastime or the fourth of July and get away with it.
In Chicago, there was one salesman that worked for Kroehler and also for Thomasville Chair Company, and he dropped dead during the market. Austin Finch tried to get a hold of his wife and report it, and Pete Kroehler tried to get a hold of his wife and report it – he was working for Pete Kroehler –
INTERVIEWER: Each one was getting in touch with the other wife?
JIRANEK: Right. So finally, Pete Kroehler got both wives together and he talked them into our harmoniously burying the guy together.
Now then during the furniture markets and after the war, my dad designed for many factories, and the South was just coming up – and we had showrooms in Grand Rapids for companies like Thomasville Chair Company, Broyhill, Bassett – they all showed there; Pennsylvania factories and the rest of them. So I would drive during vacations and during January markets and in July, I would chauffeur the different manufacturers around so I got to know a good many manufacturers.
INTERVIEWER: Now this is the market, but where are you? You started out at 15 and you were running an elevator; this is later – but when later did this happen? When did you start chauffeuring and so on, when did that occur?
JIRANEK: When I was in college. In 1919 or 1920.
INTERVIEWER: You were in college until ’22.
INTERVIEWER: So you were home on vacation at these times? In the summertime you’d be there for the summer market, and then were you home at winter markets?
JIRANEK: Yes, then, the markets were the first of January.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, I see, the first of January, right after Christmas.
Why, Leo, when they had Grand Rapids markets, did they set them in January and the fourth of July rather than some other time of year?
JIRANEK: Because they figured that was a slow time, and not much furniture was being sold in mom-and-pop stores and furniture stores, and they felt that was the time they could leave their stores and go to market.
INTERVIEWER: I see, because it was slow, and mom-and-pop could leave home.
JIRANEK: But they also had sales – August and February sales in the big department stores.
INTERVIEWER: I see, so they’d buy for those?
JIRANEK: No, they didn’t buy the furniture in July and January, they bought the furniture for their regular line. But what started the mid-season furniture market was that buyers of the leading stores like Wanamaker’s and other department stores, and the big furniture stores, they went to Grand Rapids in May and November to buy for their February and August sales. At that time, the factories were working on new designs for January and July. So then the buyers would say, “Well, I don’t like this leg,” or “Change this a little bit” and so on, and that was the beginning.
INTERVIEWER: What we now call Pre-Market?
INTERVIEWER: Did you call it Pre-Market in those days?
JIRANEK: No.. We didn’t call it anything. Then the factories from North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, showed in Grand Rapids.
INTERVIEWER: That was the market?
JIRANEK: In May and November.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, they showed in May and November? I see.
JIRANEK: Sure. It then became four markets a year.
INTERVIEWER: So those factories didn’t show in January or July?
JIRANEK: Yes, they did — once they did show in January.
INTERVIEWER: But you said they showed in May and November and I thought there was a difference.
INTERVIEWER: OK, so now we have four markets a year. Now approximately when did that change happen – when they went from two to four markets a year?
JIRANEK: I would guess it was about 1926.
INTERVIEWER: Now before Grand Rapids, there was Jamestown (New York)?
INTERVIEWER: Was Jamestown important then, and did Grand Rapids take the leadership away from Jamestown?
JIRANEK: No, Jamestown had a market that did not coincide with the dates of the Grand Rapids factories. They had a market in Rockford and they had a market in Evansville. The first furniture market was in 1900 in Cincinnati, Ohio, and as Bill Bassett once told me when we talked about where the markets were going to be, he said, “The markets will be where the buyers are.” And there used to be some big factories in Cincinnati.
But that was the beginning of markets. So then when the factories started showing in Grand Rapids from the South and from Pennsylvania, show space was at a premium. They rented space in drug stores, in dentist offices. Thomasville had an office in a building. They didn’t have big lines in those days, but they all showed. So there was very, very little space. The hotels were overcrowded.
INTERVIEWER: Sounds like High Point was later.
JIRANEK: Unless you had an “in” with a Grand Rapids factory, who had all of the space in the hotels tied up and you couldn’t get in. The furniture salesmen and the manufacturers stayed in homes.
So then, in about 1922 or ’23, there was a fellow by the name of Gus Hendricks, and he had plans for an exhibition building. In the meantime, Keeler Brass Company built The Morton House which later folded, and The Pantlind which was an old hotel.
INTERVIEWER: Now, this is a hotel and exhibit building combined?
JIRANEK: Oh no, no.
INTERVIEWER: There was just a hotel to help the market?
JIRANEK: No. Keeler Brass Company built The Morton House. Gus Hendricks came up with plans for market space and so on. The czar of Grand Rapids – the leader – was Robert W. Irwin, and he made probably the best furniture in Grand Rapids. That was the Royal Furniture Company. And the city fathers turned down Gus Hendricks’ plans so the furniture people got together and said, “Look, if you don’t build us hotels and places to eat, we’re going to Chicago.”
Bob Irwin and the rest of them said, “Look, go to Chicago. We never wanted you here in the first place.” He was head of the Royal Furniture Company (later renamed the Robert W. Irwin Co.)
INTERVIEWER: Right, and that was a big company and a good company, but he didn’t want his competitors there – why did he want to chase them away from Grand Rapids?
JIRANEK: Because he just felt that there was Century – all of those guys, Sligh.
INTERVIEWER: All the southern guys were coming in. Sligh was Michigan, though.
JIRANEK: Sligh was in Grand Rapids, yes.
INTERVIEWER: All right, so the Grand Rapids furniture guy said, “Go to Chicago, we don’t need you here?”
JIRANEK: Yes, he said, “We don’t want you here.” In other words, they felt that … so they went to Chicago.
INTERVIEWER: And that was about when, when did that start?
JIRANEK: It started about 1920-21 when the Mart opened in ’24.
INTERVIEWER: Now the American Furniture Mart was built as an exhibit building from the beginning, was it not? Was it built as a furniture building? And that was 1920-21, right? Then now the southern guys …
JIRANEK: And it didn’t open up until about 1924, I believe.
INTERVIEWER: But then the southern guys said, “OK, let’s go to Chicago because we have our own building and we can have all the rooms we want?”
JIRANEK: Chicago had an exhibition building on 1019 North Michigan. It was just a building and everything was out in the open. There was nothing going on but whiskey drinking and the games and gambling and so on. And that’s when they built the American Furniture Mart, which Lawrence Whiting built.
INTERVIEWER: But they still continued to run a Grand Rapids market?
JIRANEK: The Grand Rapids market – the southerners and people from out of town went to Chicago. But the Grand Rapids factories continued to stay there. They thought the people would always come there, but buyers gradually went to Grand Rapids less and less, and the last guy that really broke the back of Grand Rapids was Hollis Baker. And when Hollis moved to Chicago, that was the end of the Grand Rapids market.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s go back to Leo Jiranek. That was a market history and it was very good.
You now are in Grand Rapids as a freelance furniture designer, but as you said, you were more than a designer. Tell me a little bit about “more than a designer.” Tell us how you started out, about the factories in those days and how they were, how the guys were hiring the salesmen, taking care of the machines, doing everything in the place.
JIRANEK: I think we ought to interject in here that when I got out of college, the first year, I lived with my roommate in New York City.
I was with the Turner Construction Company. I had thought of getting into engineering or construction. My roommate, Hugh Richardson, was from Atlanta, Georgia.
INTERVIEWER: What year?
JIRANEK: That was in 1915 to 1917. And whenever I had the chance, I would go down and write letters for him and I would make sketches or details and so on.
Then I left the Turner Construction Company and said that I would like to be in furniture, I think I’ll go in with you (Dad).
INTERVIEWER: OK, I think we have that.
JIRANEK: Then he said, “If you want to learn to be a furniture designer or learn the furniture business, you’ve got to first learn how to sell furniture.” So I went on the road selling furniture for two years.
INTERVIEWER: In 1923-24?
JIRANEK: Until 1925. And it was the best education that I ever had because I learned what the people wanted, what the stores wanted, what the buyers wanted and so on.
For my territory, I had Michigan, Ohio – and of course, being a young guy, I could only get “cat and dog” lines as a sub-salesman. And so the lines that I got were from Leo Adler, whose sister married the president of Sears, Roebuck – that’s where I got the Adler connection. The lines that I had were Cochran Chair Company of Aurora, Indiana; the Evansville Furniture Company’s upholstered line of Evansville, Indiana; and the Pioneer Furniture Company of Au Glaze, Wisconsin. They’re long gone out of business.
INTERVIEWER: Now did you travel by car, by train? How did you cover your territory?
JIRANEK: Mostly by train. The first year I didn’t sell anything, and it was the second year when I began to get some interest in the lines — I remember I was in Detroit the weekend that President Harding died, it was interesting – a buyer of one of the big stores in Detroit took a look at my line (oak chairs made by the Cochran Chair Company), and he wanted to know whether he could have them wrapped or unwrapped.
I said, “Well, you can have them any way you want them,” and he said, “Well, I want them wrapped,” so when I got back to the hotel, I found out that being wrapped cost 40 or 50 cents more. So I called Leland Stark, the head of Cochran Chair Company, and he said he was so glad to get the order and that they would absorb it. So then I had to go back on Monday – Collashaw was the name of the buyer, and I forget the name of the store, it was one of the big ones …
But then I ran into some situations one time in Ohio. I went into a store and showed the fellow all my pictures and he said, “Oh, what a wonderful line this is. I’d like to buy this and buy that, and you sure won’t have any trouble selling this kind of merchandise,” and so on.
I wrote up two or three cars and went to Cleveland and met some guys for the weekend, and I think I blew all my commission. Then I found out Monday morning that the guy had just gone bankrupt. So I learned that whenever anybody starts buying fast, fold your book and walk out the door.
INTERVIEWER: That merchandise was never delivered, then.
JIRANEK: No. So then I decided that I was going to leave – I didn’t like the furniture business. I was going back with the Turner Construction Company, and I also was offered a job with the American Rolling Mill Company.
INTERVIEWER: This is 1923?
JIRANEK: That was 1925. That was two years that I sold furniture. In 1925, I was also offered a job by an engineering company to deepen the harbor of Shandong and my father took me to an importer, and he said, “If I had a son that went to Shandong in China, I would rather have him dead.” I said, “Why?” and he said, “Because you get lonely out there, and if you do get lonely, and don’t like the country, come home – but so many of them start drinking and end up as derelicts.”
At that point, I think it was in November of ’25, I came east to a Harvard-Yale football game. The house that we had built for my father was about completed, and he and my mother went to Chicago to buy some rugs. On the way home, they left the hotel on Sunday morning in a Yellow cab to catch the train to Grand Rapids, and the car drove with terrific speed, hit the Yellow cab and turned it over, and both my father and mother were injured. My father and mother were taken to the Presbyterian Hospital in Chicago, and of course they called me the night before from New York and I caught the first plane to Chicago. Well, they had broken my father’s pelvis and so on, and my mother didn’t stay in the hospital too long, but finally she was so nervous and upset, we put her in sort of a convalescent home in Winnetka.
And my father, I thought was going to live, I didn’t think he would die, but I thought he would be an invalid, and I thought the best thing that I could do was to stay in his office and help him with his business. He died during the Chicago Market, and incidentally –
INTERVIEWER: From November to January?
JIRANEK: He lived for almost two months, and my mother lived practically a year. When we had the funeral for my father, they had a special car of furniture people come to Grand Rapids for the service and back again.
At that time, he was under contract for Bassett, Thomasville Chair Company, the American Furniture Company of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, Karges of Evansville, Indiana, American of Martinsville, the Cochran Chair Company.
What was the name of the factory that made nice bedroom furniture in Ohio? No, in New York State? Oh yeah, the W.H. Gunlocke Chair Company.
INTERVIEWER: Were they then in the residential business and not in the office business?
JIRANEK: I don’t know.
INTERVIEWER: They made chairs in Whalen, New York.
JIRANEK: You see, when you talk about designers, you take American and Bassett and so on, it sounds like a hell of a lot, but you made two suites for one guy. In 1925, Bassett was making two suites. For instance, there was a designer from Grand Rapids named Leon Hall, a freelance designer, and he went to Bassett and I think he made the details and sketches for Old Man Bassett for $150. Then when they showed in New York, he showed alongside American of Martinsville which had a little space.
When Leon Hall went in to see his suite, the American Furniture Company had the same suite that Old Man Bassett had. He asked him why and he said, “Well, I figured I could sell all that he could make,” and so he sold half the design for $75 or something to American of Martinsville. He said he figured that wouldn’t hurt them.
So they both had the same suite and split the cost.
INTERVIEWER: $150, was it? Didn’t he get a commission?
INTERVIEWER: No royalties?
JIRANEK: Not in those days. Then the standard price was about $250. When I entered the business it was $250 for sketches and details, and you also paid your own expenses and so on.
INTERVIEWER: Would you go down to the factory in those cases?
JIRANEK: Yes, sir. Hell, you took a train and it didn’t cost much money.
INTERVIEWER: You took over your dad’s business and you took over those lines. Did they all stay with you?
JIRANEK: Some of the factories stayed with me after my father died, but a lot of them felt that I was young and didn’t know anything about the business, but Bassett, Thomasville Chair Company, and then I think Kent-Coffey was one of his accounts. I’ll think of the others who stayed with me, but they were enough, all I could handle.
INTERVIEWER: It was Bassett, Kent-Coffey ...
JIRANEK: Bassett, Kent-Coffey, Thomasville Chair Company, and then I picked up other lines like Grand Rapids Furniture Company. I designed a couple of lines for Sligh Furniture Company, Showers Brothers – they had the first conveyor belts in Indiana. The Showers Brothers were the big guns of the furniture business.
INTERVIEWER: They were the big guys, huh? Now where was Berkey & Gay? Were they there then or did they start later or what?
JIRANEK: It would take me two tapes to tell you the story of Berkey & Gay. William A. Berkey died and his widow took over and hired some boys from the Wallace Brothers (Wallace Furniture Company). I think they had a factory down in Allegheny, Michigan. They were real promotional promoters, and they took Berkey & Gay and built it up to be, really, a national company so that they were probably the biggest at that time.
INTERVIEWER: When did Mr. Berkey die? And when did this transition with Wallace happen?
JIRANEK: I would say in the early ’20s. Berkey & Gay was nationally advertised, it was franchised – you had to have Berkey & Gay furniture. So when the buyers got off the train in Grand Rapids, they went to Berkey & Gay.
INTERVIEWER: You just told me that Showers Brothers was big.
JIRANEK: Showers Brothers was like Bassett.
INTERVIEWER: So Berkey & Gay was the high-end line?
JIRANEK: High-end line. They were more like Sligh, Luce Furniture Company ... You’d have to go back to Nelson, Matter & Company.
INTERVIEWER: Who’s that?
JIRANEK: Nelson, Matter & Company. They went back to – that was in the early days … see, I don’t know, you’ve got so many transitions you’ve got to go through, the period when they made Mission furniture in the factories before the war in Grand Rapids, and that was a period during the war.
INTERVIEWER: What was Mission furniture?
JIRANEK: Mission furniture was very straitlaced, almost modern furniture made of oak, and made like the Morris chair. Mission furniture was very, well, it got its name from the mission – it was straight furniture. And then they came up with what they called the weathered oak finish, or fumed oak finish.
JIRANEK: Yes, and the fumed oak finish was obtained by heating finishing material and letting the vapor go to the furniture.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, so the fumes did it?
JIRANEK: The fumes did it. At one time, Stow & Davis Furniture Company, which is now part of Steelcase, in about 1919-20, they were fuming oak during the weekend, and somebody left the door open so that it went all over the offices and everything. And Monday morning everything was fumed oak. I’ve had a boiler blow out in my house – I had been away for a weekend one time, and the fumes went all over the house. Of course, it was covered by insurance, but …
INTERVIEWER: Now, the finishing material, the fumed oak, was it a varnish, was it a lacquer, what was it that they were heating?
INTERVIEWER: It was a stain? OK. Well, how could they prevent the fumes from going everywhere?
JIRANEK: They did it in a finishing room, and closed the doors and the windows.
INTERVIEWER: They had fans blowing?
JIRANEK: No, they didn’t have fans. In those days, most of the furniture factories had belt-driven, overhead pulleys.
INTERVIEWER: For all the machines, right.
JIRANEK: Yes, and DeVilbiss, I don’t think came in with the spray gun until 1921 or so.
INTERVIEWER: Well, were they using lacquer or varnish? What were they using?
JIRANEK: Synthetic varnishes.
INTERVIEWER: OK, they used varnish like the kitchen cabinet people still do. So you had fumed oak. Now that was during the war – then did it change?
JIRANEK: No, that was before the war.
INTERVIEWER: What happened during the war?
JIRANEK: The furniture was very restricted, just like the Second World War. Designs were frozen, and so were markets.
INTERVIEWER: Right. Now you told me about the changes after the war, and then you mentioned Mission furniture.
JIRANEK: That was before.
INTERVIEWER: And then you mentioned Mission furniture, fumed oak and …
JIRANEK: I’m jumping back.
INTERVIEWER: What happened after the war as far as design, finishing, whatever? We’re in the mid-’20s now.
JIRANEK: What do you want to know about it?
INTERVIEWER: Well, the changes. We had fumed oak and we had the Mission look before the war. Then we had the war and things stopped. Now we’re after the war and we’re starting into the so-called roaring ’20s. What were the styles, what happened to furniture then?
JIRANEK: The styles were simple in bedroom, they made 18th Century mahogany furniture. William A. Berkey in Grand Rapids made some beautiful mahogany furniture.
INTERVIEWER: Now is the William A. Berkey Furniture Company different from Berkey & Gay?
INTERVIEWER: Same family?
JIRANEK: Yeah, Berkey.
INTERVIEWER: They were high end?
JIRANEK: Yes, the head of it was a fellow by the name of Berkey Jones, he was a Berkey.
Then the Century Furniture Company made very fine furniture in Grand Rapids. And Sligh.
INTERVIEWER: Sligh was in the bedroom business then, weren’t they?
INTERVIEWER: And desks?
JIRANEK: No, they weren’t in desks.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, bedroom – I remember their stuff, we did their 100th anniversary thing and I remember the pictures. So in the early ‘20s, where were you in your career?
JIRANEK: At that time in my designing office in Grand Rapids (I must have had about eight or 10 people in my organization), I put in a finishing department. When I designed a suite for a factory, I had them send the dressers or the front of a buffet up to Grand Rapids and we finished it.
INTERVIEWER: You finished the samples. And then you told them the specifications for the finish? OK.
JIRANEK: And I made two or three speeches for the ...
INTERVIEWER: Grand Rapids Furniture Manufacturers Association?
JIRANEK: No, the finishing people.
INTERVIEWER: The National Paint, Varnish and Lacquer Association?
JIRANEK: Yes. And in particular – who was the president? He’s still with the Gilbert Spruance Company which was credited with being the first ones that recognized the situation. Some of the finishing salesmen in the South were indicted by the government. It was a mess.
But anyway, then I recognized the importance of finishes and so I hired different people to go to the factories and finish my samples like Bassett and so on.
INTERVIEWER: I see. All of this for $250 a suite?
JIRANEK: Well, sure, because hell you could travel from here to North Carolina for $35 or $40. But I think I charged the companies when I sent a man to finish the sample.
I tried eight different people. I hired them out of furniture factories in Grand Rapids and so on. I just had the damnedest time because if they got into a factory that was using Grand Rapids’ varnish products, and the guy wanted to use Gilbert Spruance, it was a battle. And we went through more hell in finding someone. One of the last fellows I had was a son of a finishing foreman from Luce. He’s, of course, retired. His son was a finishing foreman and specialist at Lane. But what happened with these finishing people, DeVilbiss came out with a spray gun in about 1920, and the finishing people, the salesmen, went around and showed them how to spray. The second year they went around and they would said, “Well, you showed us what to do last year. What have you got that’s new?” And suddenly, overnight, the finishing salesmen became finishing experts. So then everybody had to have a finishing expert. So they’d pick the guy out of the factory – out of the spray booths – and he became a finishing expert. the whole finishing game was just lousy.
But the last guy that I had was a fellow by the name of Oscar Yokes. I sent him to Bassett and Doug Bassett liked him very much, and so did Grand Rapids Varnish Company. Oscar came into see me just before Christmas and he said, “Well, it’s Christmas, and I think I have to tell you … You’ve been nice to me. You’ve been paying me every week, but I’ve also been paid by Grand Rapids Varnish.” “Then,” I said, “I’m through with the finishing.”
Oscar then went to work full time for Doug and moved to Greensboro. He’s dead now. Oscar Yokes. He was a good finisher and I got him out of the Luce factory. They used to put a smock and cap on Oscar and put him in front of a suite during the market. That was in Grand Rapids. The buyers would walk in and say, “Oh, that’s our designer or finisher that we just got from Amsterdam. He doesn’t speak English.”
INTERVIEWER: Now, why did you stop finishing? You put in this thing in your office. You found out that didn’t work well?
JIRANEK: I couldn’t buck the finishing game.
INTERVIEWER: I see. Well, when you did your own thing in your own office, did the finishing guys come to you and try to convince you that you should use their product?
JIRANEK: No, not necessarily. I used the finishes. We had the Wolverine Finishing Company, Grand Rapids Varnish Company, which is now Guardsman. I called Old Man Brown down. He was big, six foot. I guess it got straightened out. I guess some of the big companies did, but it was a really crooked deal. I don’t think any of the finishing people, manufacturers, today, know. Nat Ancell can look at a piece of oak or metal or maple and tell you about it, but finishing materials – I don’t know anything. I can’t. I don’t know anything about tests.
INTERVIEWER: But they’ve got all sorts of chemistry. I mean, they had chemistry then, too, but they had it pretty well down to specs, didn’t they?
JIRANEK: I think so, now, too. And I think it’s been cleaned up, but it was a crooked game.
INTERVIEWER: When did that quit, or did it continue right through into the ’40s and ’50s, or when did the crookedness stop in the finishing business?
JIRANEK: I couldn’t tell you.
INTERVIEWER: Now we’re in the ’20s and you’re doing this, and you’re sending people around to help finish the product, and they’re showing at the markets in Grand Rapids and Chicago. Now, along comes the Depression. What happened then?
JIRANEK: You’ve got a whole history of Berkey & Gay. Do you want a history of what happened to Berkey & Gay?
INTERVIEWER: Very quickly. We don’t have to cover all the details, but what about them? I know I’ve heard the name always.
JIRANEK: Well, Berkey & Gay reached the top of the cycle. The warehouses were full of furniture. The Wallace boys had spent a fortune. They had the greatest design organization in the country.
They had 10 top designers who, as fast as they would come over from ... W. & J. Sloane would hire the designers from England –Waring & Gillow – then Berkey & Gay would hire them from Sloanes and they built big machine shops, and this, that and the other. Berkey & Gay and the boys were really promoters. And they reached the top of the hill.
INTERVIEWER: Now why did Sloanes have designers?
JIRANEK: Sloanes had two or three factories.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, I see. They were making furniture.
JIRANEK: Sure. They were the top.
INTERVIEWER: Well, they weren’t Berkey & Gay, though.
JIRANEK: No, no.
INTERVIEWER: Sloanes was higher than Berkey & Gay, as far as quality?
JIRANEK: No, Sloanes was a retailer with factories. They would hire the designers from England – Waring & Gillo.
INTERVIEWER: Waring & Gillo. They own retail stores now in the States.
JIRANEK: In England.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, the same company.
JIRANEK: They made very fine furniture. So then Berkey & Gay would hire them. In the meantime, Old Man Simmons had sold all his stock.
INTERVIEWER: Now, who was Old Man Simmons?
JIRANEK: The Simmons Bedding Company. There was a fellow by the name of Arthur Cotten, who was a big advertising fellow, and he got a hold of Simmons, and he said, “Simmons, we can go into the furniture business and we can build the thing up into big money.” So he got Simmons to go back in. Simmons had sold all his stock.
INTERVIEWER: That was mattresses, then. He wasn’t making furniture.
JIRANEK: Yes, but I’ll come to it.
INTERVIEWER: But I’m just trying to get the feeling here.
JIRANEK: Right. He’s making mattresses.
INTERVIEWER: Do you know Old Man Simmons’ first name?
JIRANEK: Zammie was the son. I can’t think of the man’s name. From Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Simmons had sold his stock, but he went back in with Arthur Cotten. They bought Berkey & Gay. Then, they bought B. F. Huntley in Winston-Salem, and the first year that they were to take over at the first market in Salem in January of ’29, the president who had been there for about two or three weeks, died. So then they got Jim Lynch, who was head of Huntley. B.F. Huntley was another factory of my dad’s in Winston-Salem. Well,
Thomasville Chair Company finally bought them.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, I know they bought them eventually.
JIRANEK: Jim Lynch went to Grand Rapids to head Berkey & Gay for the Wallace boys. Then came the Crash.
INTERVIEWER: Now, the Wallace boys. When Simmons and Cotten took over Berkey & Gay, were the Wallace boys still there? Did they keep the management or did Lynch come in to take over from the Wallaces?
JIRANEK: Lynch came in.
INTERVIEWER: Lynch came in from North Carolina. He came from B.F. Huntley.
JIRANEK: Right. He moved to Grand Rapids. And when the banks closed, Jim Lynch signed a draft for $1,250,000 on the Simmons Company. Berkey & Gay owed the banks in Grand Rapids. And the Simmons Company owed Berkey & Gay and Huntley. And so he signed a draft for $1,250,000 on the bank, and that was the only bank in Michigan that stayed open during the bank holiday.
INTERVIEWER: What was the name of the bank, do you remember?
JIRANEK: Old Kent Bank.
INTERVIEWER: And that was a Grand Rapids bank?
JIRANEK: Yes, Grand Rapids Bank. The guy’s name who was president was Idema, who was one of the big guns in Steelcase. Walter Idema was his father.
INTERVIEWER: What happened to Leo Jiranek during the Depression?
JIRANEK: I kept on going, designing. But I think this is very interesting. So then they had a meeting in Chicago as to what Simmons was going to do with Berkey & Gay. They had a meeting at the Drake Hotel and I was there. They got up and they had all the decorators and all the people who were buying the line on franchise, and they asked Mr. Simmons what he was going to do with Berkey & Gay – whether he was going to open it up and sell it to everybody or what. And he said, “I’m going to sell every God-damn buyer that wants to buy it. I could put it in every whorehouse.” Everybody was shocked. He was a rough talking guy.
INTERVIEWER: Because before that time, I guess they had selected distribution.
JIRANEK: Right. Correct. So then he gets Berkey & Gay. This is the Depression. He’s loaded with furniture and so he’s got to dump it. So when he dumps it, it ruins the whole Berkey & Gay picture. To tell you what happened to the Wallace boys – there was a big, big company in Rockford called Lindstrom or something like Lindstrom. And so then they took over and they had an office on the top floor of the building that I was in and they tried to rejuvenate and do with this Rockford company what they had done with Berkey & Gay, but then they finally petered out. So Simmons lost practically everything he had – his company and so on. He was broke. But there was a guy named Zammie Simmons who was his son. He was something. Zammie walked in to see his father and he said, “Dad, I told you not to go back into this business when you sold. Look, I went to Paris and I’ve been living over there and while I was there, I put an order in for every share of stock you sold. Here’s your company back.”
INTERVIEWER: Really? So he was buying the stock?
JIRANEK: As fast as he could.
INTERVIEWER: Where did Zammie get his money?
JIRANEK: I don’t know.
INTERVIEWER: Alright, when did Berkey & Gay go down the tube? After Simmons said, “Get rid of everything?”
JIRANEK: Yeah, I would say they fooled around with Berkey & Gay until 1926 or ’27. It was offered for sale. It was bankrupt. I tried to get Austin Finch … I took him to Grand Rapids to see what they could sell it (for). There was a fellow from Detroit who was a junk dealer. His name was Frank McKay. He had been with a fellow by the name of Ken Welch and they, with a fellow named Abe Bebinsky, reorganized Berkey & Gay and they sold stock. Everybody said, “Well, this is the chance for them to get a good name and so on.”
They tried to start up Berkey & Gay again, but these guys were highbinders and they built the stock, and finally, Berkey & Gay closed for the last time and the buildings were sold.
But Berkey & Gay was a leader. These guys were – I took Austin Finch up there when I tried to get him interested in taking over Berkey & Gay. I took him into a room that had nothing but spindle carvers. It was so big, he almost fainted. But they weren’t pickers.
INTERVIEWER: You mentioned these “boys” all the time – the fellows who really put Berkey & Gay on the map …
JIRANEK: Those were the Wallace boys.
INTERVIEWER: The Wallace boys. Now what did they do? Were they the president and vice president? What were their positions?
JIRANEK: They were president, vice president. One of the Wallace boys was in the advertising business. The Wallace boys ran the business. I think they had an upholstered company from Allegan, Michigan. They were just deep into everything.
INTERVIEWER: When did Baker get to be big? We have Berkey & Gay in high-end furniture and we have …
JIRANEK: Century, Sligh.
INTERVIEWER: All right, Century and Sligh. Where did Baker come from?
JIRANEK: Hollis Baker was with a company in Allegan, Michigan, too. And they belonged to a company called Peck & Hill’s. Peck & Hill’s were contract people, hotels, and so on and so forth, and they went broke. So Hollis took his factory and they were given space in Holland, Michigan and he moved to Grand Rapids. At that time, ’30, ’31 or ’32, Hollis was pretty much on his uppers. He didn’t have any money. I knew him very, very well. He built himself up and he was even making borax commercial furniture. Then one night he was at a party at Evelyn Avery’s house. She had a lot of antiques and Hollis said, “If you let me copy that chair, I will give you one just like it.” He had a designer by the name of William “Bill” Millington. Bill was a wonderful English designer. Hollis copied the chair and did very well with it, and that started him on the road. I would rate Nat Ancell the number one entrepreneur innovator of the furniture industry of the 20th century, and I would rate Hollis Baker number two. Hollis was very smart. He built his company up on making fine furniture designs, quality, and his name is still going. The trouble with the furniture industry – Berkey & Gay is gone. Sligh is on the second generation. There have been very few successes in the second generation in the furniture industry. Luce is gone. William A. Berkey is gone. Nelson, Matter & Company is gone. All the factories in Indiana. But Baker has stuck because they didn’t sell on price, they had a philosophy.
Now, another great contribution to the furniture industry that a lot of people haven’t recognized was by Lawrence Whiting. To me, Lawrence Whiting was almost a hero. Lawrence Whiting was a colonel in the Army.
INTERVIEWER: He was in the Air Corps?
JIRANEK: No, that was his brother. He was on Pershing’s staff and he headed the de-embarkation of all of the troops from Brest. He was captain of the Chicago University football team, which was big; he was president of the National Boulevard Bank of Chicago; and he was president or something of the Indiana Limestone Company. Lawrence Whiting could have been president of the United States. When things were going good for Lawrence – the Kings of Norway, Sweden, all the big dignitaries, all have stayed at his house, which was on Michigan Avenue, near the Drake. You’d know the building. And I stayed there many times. I’m a very good friend of Lawrence’s and I had a very, very high regard for Lawrence.
Then came the Crash and the Indiana Limestone Company failed. I don’t know the details of what happened to him as president of the National Boulevard Bank of Chicago, but all Lawrence Whiting had left practically was the American Furniture Mart.
So Heywood-Wakefield, for whom I was designing (I had the account for over 25 years), needed some seats for the Wrigley Field where the Cubs play. So Heywood-Wakefield was in the theater and school furniture business, making seats. They made them up in Menominee, Michigan. We made all the seats for Wrigley Field. And Old Man Wrigley had a place, I think, out at Catalina, and he had a yacht out there. He wanted to get some chairs for his yacht so he went down to the American Furniture Mart, but they wouldn’t let him in. And he said, “Well, my name is Wrigley and I bought chairs for Wrigley Field.” They said, “Well, we’re very sorry. Wrigley asked, “Who’s the president of this market?” They said, “Lawrence Whiting.” So in the meantime, Lawrence Whiting, to save himself from the Indiana Limestone Company going out and the bank and so forth, which is the story that I was told – all of these things, that’s what I was told. The old man went back to his office, and he said, “Phil, find out who owns the American Furniture Mart.” And Phil said, “Well, Dad, you do it.” He said, “What do you mean?” He said, “We got a mortgage, over a million dollars.” He said, “I want you to find out the name of the president. I want to fire the son of a bitch and kick him out.” Well, they didn’t. Oh, and he said, “I want to cut his salary.” So the story that I got was that they cut Lawrence’s salary, and he kept Lawrence. Lawrence didn’t have any money and didn’t own the furniture market. It was owned by Wrigley, and although Lawrence had to put up a big front, Lawrence was just a puppet. And the guys, Harold Coffey and all those guys just hated Lawrence. Lawrence tried to do a lot of things for the Furniture Mart. Lawrence went into the Second World War as a colonel, and he came out as a general. I called on him two or three times in Washington at the Pentagon building and saw him sitting behind a desk as a general.
But I’ve also been told that once there’s a war on, and you put your uniform on, you can’t take it off until the war is over. But I used to see Lawrence Whiting in the Pentagon building as a general, and on the weekends, would see him at the American Furniture Mart in his civilian clothes. He went in as colonel, came out as a general, was cited by Forestall, the Secretary of Defense. I’ve seen the citations on his wall. And Lawrence never went outside of Chicago or Washington. But Lawrence – I thought they crucified him. But of course, he didn’t have any clout.
So at one time, the furniture fellows all got together and they had a secret meeting. Harold Coffey sponsored it. And they were all going to walk out, cancel their leases, and move South. So when Lawrence said, “OK, fellows, go ahead. Cancel your leases and pull out. But read your lease. It says you must leave the spaces in the same condition they were in when you took them over.” And everyone of them had made new fronts and changes and so they couldn’t afford to change them back.
What Lawrence did with his home on Michigan Avenue, which was like the Petite Maison that Napoleon built for Marie Antoinette, he kept owing, putting road blocks up, taxes, taxes, taxes. Finally, the City of Chicago, said, “Look, you can stay for six months more and then at that end of the period you have to turn the building over to Chicago for the taxes and everything and get out.” And he did and now it’s a doctor’s library or building of doctors or museum out by the Drake. Lawrence tried to do a lot of things for the furniture business, but he didn’t have any power. And his brother Frank was the flier.
INTERVIEWER: He was the flier. Well, Tom was in the building after – when his father was there, and stayed on for a while after, until they converted it, he still was there.
INTERVIEWER: This is August 12th. We’re with Leo. He’s now continuing the interview.
JIRANEK: There was a fellow by the name of Campbell who worked for Pete Kroehler. Pete was a trusting, fine old good-hearted fellow. Came up from the ranks. He started out in Naperville. He was an upholsterer. And he got some frames, made them sofas, put them on a wagon, and took them out to sell them. He came up from the ground up. And he never made any agreement with Campbell to stay out of the furniture business for a number of years. Campbell went to work right away, formed a company making competing furniture to his line. He hired Pete’s headman, the headman that Campbell had had. And although Valentine Seaver, I think, used the name almost to the end. I don’t know what happened to the Valentine Seaver name, but Pete was very disillusioned. Pete was the kind of fellow that could go buy anything. He bought Mickey Mouse furniture. He bought the reclining chair, and the push-back theater chair of one of the movie actors, I can’t remember his name.
INTERVIEWER: What’s the name of the chair?
JIRANEK: The push-back chair. And I asked him one time, I said, “Pete, you buy anything that comes in?” And he said, “Well, I buy – even if I get one out of 10, it’s worth it.” That was the kind of guy that Pete Kroehler was.
He had the first floor on the American Furniture Mart. A big, big showroom. He was head of the Manufacturers Association. He was a big gun.
So, my first brush with Pete was when I designed Valentine Seaver. He had to have a designer. And while I never did much in upholstered furniture, I designed Valentine Seaver for Pete.
INTERVIEWER: This was in the late ’20s?
JIRANEK: I don’t know. It would be the late ’20s. And then when Simmons bought Berkey & Gay, Pete then thought everybody was … there was a hysteria for getting big, big, big. So Pete wanted to buy Berkey & Gay. And he got on the train in Grand Rapids and – I’ll have to think of the fellow’s name there that made the sale for Simmons and Berkey & Gay. The story goes that the train stopped outside the station in Grand Rapids, and the fellow jumped off the train and got to Berkey & Gay and made the deal – closed the deal – before Pete could get there. So Pete then turned around and bought the Luce Company, which was run by a fellow by the name of Martin Dregge. And the Luce Furniture Company was one of the leading companies in Grand Rapids. But they expanded. The boys – Hampton Holt and Martin Dregge, I think they were brothers-in-law, and they were promoters, high binders, lived high, had golden bathtubs – their wives spent money like drunken sailors. But they tried to buy the Hubbard, Eldredge & Miller factory in Rochester, New York, which at the time, was making very, very fine furniture. Then Luce went bankrupt.
INTERVIEWER: This was in Rochester?
JIRANEK: Where is Kodak?
INTERVIEWER: Kodak is in Rochester.
JIRANEK: It’s either Rochester or Syracuse. The fellow who was the head of it, was a fellow by the name of T. Ashley Dent. He was the dean. He was a salesman. He was the dean of the salesmen. He wore a cutaway all the time. And so then, Del Kroehler came along and got through college and worked with Don Rowe who ...
INTERVIEWER: I want to just clear up this business now. So because he couldn’t buy Luce, he bought the Hubbard, Eldredge …
JIRANEK: No, no, Luce sold to Kroehler so then Martin Dregge and Hampton Holt were out.
INTERVIEWER: They were out.
JIRANEK: And then Holt committed suicide.
INTERVIEWER: I see. And Dregge went and bought the company.
JIRANEK: He did and he didn’t because … T. Ashley Dent was a very fine salesman. I used to see him. He told me this story himself. And it was a very successful company. They made furniture equal to Baker. And he decided to retire. He was a man that would take three hours to eat a gourmet meal. He wanted a home on the Riveria, and would read and listen to music and so on. So he left, and he left the business with Tom, his son. Then came the Stock Market Crash. Tom ran the factory from Rochester or Syracuse, but he lived in Long Island and was in a very fancy crowd. So when the Stock Market Crash came, he wired his father, T. Ashley Dent, to come back – that they were in financial trouble. So T. Ashley Dent returned and he said, “Dad, we’re in bad shape.” And he said, “Well, we’ll roll up our sleeves. We made the money one time and we’ll make it again. We’ll get work in the factory and see what we can do.” And T. Ashley Dent – or Tom Dent – said, “Well, Dad, I’m sorry, but I put the factory up. Two of the factories are gone.” So Tom Dent and T. Ashley Dent were penniless. And the factory in Syracuse closed. Then Martin Dregge tried to form a company to invest and to get going with the factory. Kroehler was interested, but the deal never went through.
INTERVIEWER: Now back to Del.
JIRANEK: To Del?
INTERVIEWER: You started to tell me about Del and I cut you off because I wanted to hear the story of the factory in New York State.
JIRANEK: Del Kroehler worked with Don Rowe. Pete Kroehler felt that he needed somebody to run his business. He wasn’t sure of Del or Kenneth.
So he recruited from universities and hired a fellow by the name of Don Rowe from Dartmouth. Don Rowe was Pete’s assistant. Then when Del came along, Don Rowe was over Del and then jealousy crept in. Incidentally, Don Rowe went down to Virginia and formed the Rowe Furniture Company.
INTERVIEWER: Is he the one?
JIRANEK: And he got Harry – one of the Fish boys from Chicago in the retail furniture business – to finance him. And Bill Bassett. At that time, Del was stirring a lot of stories that Don was crooked and Don had been doing things, undermining the factory, and so on. And he discredited Don and got Don out. That was the time when Don and the second Mrs. Kroehler were trying to force Del out and take over the business. And Don Rowe came to Bill Bassett and tried to get financial help. Bill turned him down. But a few years later, Bill told me, he said, “That was one of the mistakes that I made, because I think Don Rowe is one of the smartest upholstered furniture manufacturers in the country.” I think his company is still doing very well, isn’t it?
INTERVIEWER: Yes. That’s good. But it was the family thing really that ...
JIRANEK: I would think so. Then they decided to go into case goods, and I designed the first case goods for them. I did a lot of designing for Kroehler, but then I made the first case goods designs at Kankakee.
Then he bought the Mengel Company which, I guess, was the biggest wood-working operation in the country at the time. That’s a very interesting story in history.
Mengel was making wood parts for furniture, selling them to factories – also to Sears, Roebuck, Montgomery Ward and so on. And Del Kroehler engineered and bought the Mengel plant.
INTERVIEWER: Is that the one in Louisville?
JIRANEK: That’s the one in Louisville. And I designed furniture for Kroehler that was made in the Mengel plant.
INTERVIEWER: Now, their case goods were mostly tables, and so on, to go with the upholstery. Was that what it was? Occasional?
JIRANEK: No, they made bedroom and dining room. I don’t think too much occasional. They also had, down the line when things got – I don’t know whether Kroehler sold their interest in Mengel or what. There was a man by the name of Green running it for a while, and then a fellow by the name of Voight who was the treasurer. And they had Raymond Loewy design some stuff. They got way out, modern and so on.
INTERVIEWER: They had the plant for a long time because Paul Rumbaugh was there. Do you know Paul? He was superintendent or plant manager, or whatever for the Kroehler operation in Louisville until, gosh, in the late ’70s sometime.
JIRANEK: Then Kroehler made a plywood plane during the war. They had the mayor and prominent people from Louisville, suppliers and so on, present for the first inaugural flight. They got up in the air and it disintegrated and they were all killed.
INTERVIEWER: That was the end of the plane, too, I suppose.
JIRANEK: That was the end of the plane. But I have a lot of interesting stories with Mengel.
INTERVIEWER: I got you off the track with Mengel. I wanted to get you back on Kroehler. You mentioned Bill Bassett being such a fine man and about his son, Doug, and so on. Can you just give me a relationship of how … You said “The Old Man.” Was he the Old Man? Was he Old Man Bassett?
JIRANEK: No. Bassett was founded by – there were three fellows: J.D. Bassett, who was the father of Bill and Doug; and J. E. Bassett, who was the father of Ed Bassett; and then a fellow by the name of Reed Stone. And the Bassetts married sisters – the Hunley sisters. But the old man, J.D. Bassett, was the one who founded the business and was really the brains. And his son, Bill, then took over. And Bill, I think, was the Daddy Rabbit, as we called him.
INTERVIEWER: Doug was big in the business. He was a finance man, wasn’t he?
JIRANEK: No, no.
INTERVIEWER: He ended up running a bank. I know that.
JIRANEK: Doug took over after Bill died.
INTERVIEWER: I see.
JIRANEK: Well, that Bassett really was the president. And then he made Bob Spilman president and he moved up to chairman of the board. And then he had a stroke and Bob took over.
INTERVIEWER: Let me go back to where we were because I said we had to cover a lot of ground. Back to the ’40s and ’50s and some of the changes that took place in ownership. Other plants went down or were bought or absorbed or whatever. Like the Thomasville situation, taking over various plants. The changes that took place. Kent-Coffey’s going out to Magnavox and the United Chairs and the whatever. What do you remember about those? What were you doing during that period?
JIRANEK: One of the accounts was Magnavox. I was a consultant to Frank Freiman, the president. His headquarters were in New York and we would fly on his private plane to Ft. Wayne, where the offices were.
So, I said to Freiman, “Well why don’t you call them up yourself or have Bob Platt do it?” And he said, “No, I want you to do it.”
I said, “I think I know the heads of three of the companies, at least they know of me. I’ve never worked for them. One I know, Harold Coffey, but I don’t think I’m in a position to do a thing like that.” And he said, “No, I want you to do it.” So I called up the five companies, and I recall one was Century, then Kent-Coffey – Harold Coffey, Roger Triplett, and I forget the other. So they went down on the plane and they made the deal.
INTERVIEWER: Not with Century, though.
JIRANEK: Not with Century.
INTERVIEWER: Coffey, Roger Triplett, and United?
JIRANEK: No, there was just Harold Coffey and Roger Triplett. I’ll think of the other one.
That started out with the two, and then he had the plant in Jefferson City, Tennessee, and then he got a plastic plant. That’s where he got Bernie Tremlet. The first time I knew Bernie Tremlet he was a foreman in a factory, I think superintendent in a factory in Jefferson City. He bought Harold Coffey for about $5 million. Blowing Rock was the name I was trying to think of.
INTERVIEWER: Blowing Rock, right.
JIRANEK: He called it the Consolidated Furniture Company and we argued with him. We said, “It’ll sound like a can company. You ought to call it Magnavox.” And he said, “No, I don’t want to have a Magnavox franchise and then have some furniture store, a schlock house furniture store, buy Magnavox furniture and run a sale and so on. I want to keep them separate.” Which they were.
I designed for the Consolidated factories. I worked for them because I was a consultant for Magnavox and then we bought – and I’ve had a great deal to do with buying the Baker factory. Hollis Baker had died and Franklin Steenberg was president and there was a lot of friction between Hollis, Jr. and Franklin Steenberg. That’s a long story. And Hollis, Jr. sold the Baker business to General Interiors. But the deal never went through and I take credit for blocking it. I think the people at Baker recognized the fact that I was the one that was responsible for Magnavox getting Baker.
INTERVIEWER: Then what happened? I know for a while they did fine and then why did Magnavox eventually decide to fold their tent? That was in the late ’50s sometime, correct? Oh no, it was around ’65, ’66 somewhere in there, wasn’t it?
JIRANEK: The situation changed as far as cabinets and tubes are concerned. I think Sylvania started making their own cabinets and so did RCA. I think RCA put in a big factory in Virginia and so the furniture operation was a sideline for Magnavox. Frank Freiman died and they just didn’t seem to have the ability to get the right people to run the factory. I know that Spilman had come into the picture at Bassett and he tried to buy Blowing Rock for Bassett, but they turned it down. That’s when he started on the road of expansion.
The first president that they had to run Consolidated Furniture – I forget his name. He had been a manufacturer of luggage and he didn’t know a damn thing about the furniture business. So then they needed somebody in a hurry and they took a fellow by the name of Bernie Tremlet. Bernie had worked over in Tennessee, then he ran the plastic plant in North Carolina, and then they took him up to Lenoir. Then they let Bernie go and they had a fellow by the name of – I don’t know whether it was Bob Platt … but the president of Magnavox wasn’t capable or a smart guy. He was a nice fellow, Bob Platt, and then Magnavox was sold to North American Phillips. North American Phillips has now sold Baker to Kroehler. Bernie Tremlet went to ...
INTERVIEWER: He went to Bassett.
JIRANEK: No, he went to Broyhill.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, Broyhill first?
JIRANEK: And then he didn’t last there but for two or three weeks or months, and then he went to Bassett and from there he went to DeSoto in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
INTERVIEWER: Those changes – the Desoto operation – that was the Sears, Roebuck ...
JIRANEK: Sears, Roebuck. The new plant in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
It might be interesting to the designers to know that in one year or one season, I would design for 30 or 40 different factories. People would say today, “Well, how could you do that?” Well, the factories were small. They had one or two suites. When I first started at Bassett, J.D. Bassett only made two bedroom suites. The market was easy and there was another designer by the name of Carl Mowitz. I think Carl Mowitz did more business than I did. He was the first designer who would design with blueprints. He was a good designer and worked for one of the big companies, Van Sciver in Philadelphia. He would design for maybe 40 or 50 factories in one season.
We would make a bedroom suite and put a carving in the center of the apron and then change it a little and put the carving for the next fellow on the other end of the apron. A lot of the furniture looked alike, but the market was big so that type of furniture sold in that commercial area. Pennsylvania was a big producing area.
INTERVIEWER: Red Lion was in that area?
JIRANEK: Red Lion, Stewart’s Town, Hanover, Gettysburg. They used to have a furniture market in Gettysburg. It wasn’t a big market, but the factories around Gettysburg would show it in Gettysburg. The fellow who was the big gun there was a fellow by the name of Jones. The Gettysburg factories were very big, prominent factories. Dallastown was another furniture company, Home Furniture in York, and the chair factories in Union City. Pennsylvania was big.
INTERVIEWER: Union City is still in business.
INTERVIEWER: How about Pennsylvania House in Lewisburg? Was that anything then? I know that was Carpi, but what happened? How did that evolve? Were they in this picture at that time?
JIRANEK: There were about 10 guys in New York – financial guys. One of them was – I can’t think of his name. They got together and said, “We think the furniture business is going to be a great business, and we want to invest in it.” It was Whitney, one of the Whitney boys. So they hired a guy by the name of Carpi who was living in Princeton and he was in the brokerage business. He was a good salesman, a good procurer, and so he went out and started buying furniture factories. He was successful in buying factories, but he wasn’t successful in putting them together in a way that made any sense. For instance, he had a wrought iron factory, he had Dunbar, and he had Pennsylvania House. The factories that he had, none of them could do any good – to show together, to buy together, to do anything together. He had a mishmash. The last mishmash that he had, he had a contract to buy Baker Furniture Company but that didn’t go through and Carpi had problems. I’ll say this about the Baker thing: I found out the situation in New York. Baker had the deal and they were to come up with the money to buy the General Interiors factory. I think it was July 8 or something. I had made a deal with Franklin-Steenberg (not a deal but …) that Magnavox should buy the Baker factory. And Franklin Steenberg didn’t get along well with Hollis, Jr and Hollis, Jr. arranged the sale. So to make a long story short, negotiations went on secretly in Detroit. The boys in New York pulled the rug out from under Carpi and he didn’t have any money. So Carpi kept trying to find Hollis, Jr., but they couldn’t find Hollis, Jr. In the meantime, Magnavox had made another deal with Hollis, Jr., so Carpi went crazy when he couldn’t find him to get an extension. The extension ran out. Two hours later in Detroit, the deal was closed.
INTERVIEWER: At the same time, we had other people coming in. We had Armstrong, of course, taking over Thomasville and Founders. We had U.S. Plywood coming in and buying Drexel. We had Burlington buying first, Globe, and then United. Meade Paper coming in and buying Stanley. That was an era in the ’60s of, they all had stars in their eyes, but they came into the business and it didn’t work over a period of time, except for Armstrong. They’re still in it strongly.
JIRANEK: Making low-price furniture, cheap furniture. The trouble with the furniture industry was most of the factories were small factories, particularly in the South, and the principals got a salary. They had their automobile paid for, their gasoline. If they needed to have something fixed on their house, they had people from the factory go up and fix it. They went to manufacturer’s meeting in Florida once or twice a year and played golf and had dinner. They went to New York a couple of times a year. They had their taxes and their expenses paid for, and they got a salary. They made 5 percent after taxes and they were very happy. And some of them had their sons come in, but very few in the second generation came in.
In the meantime, when Meade and U.S. Plywood and some of these other giants came into the furniture industry and tried to organize them and bring them together, they needed 25 percent. The furniture factories were making only about 5 percent after taxes. And they couldn’t exist. So they fell flat on their faces. But now today, the story is different with the stock market, with stocks and so on, and the organizations. So I think that companies like AMSCO, who are big giants in the kitchen cabinet field … and that’s the next big field to combine furniture with ... the bathroom and the kitchens are going to be the big rooms.
INTERVIEWER: They are growing now like crazy.
JIRANEK: Well, look down the road. People are not building big houses. They’re building small rooms or condominiums. People want to have leisure time, they want to play golf, they want to fish, they want to ski. They don’t want to work all the time. And that’s why the studio couch has become so big. Outside of big houses, the market for dining rooms is limited. People now have a combination kitchen-dinette and that is the big trend.
INTERVIEWER: The family room.
JIRANEK: And another thing that the furniture manufacturers don’t realize is that you have to change the furniture to go with the economic and political conditions that exist at the time. People say, “Oh well, I want French. I want this, that, and the other.” If you called Chippendale in today and said, “George, I’d like to have you design a group of furniture for me.” He’d say, “OK, let’s go. Let’s start with the bedroom.” You’d say, “Well, we should have a triple dresser.” Chippendale would say, “What the hell are you talking about? I’ve never heard of a triple dresser.” “Well, let’s skip it. Let’s make a chest. We’re going to have a TV in it.” And he’d say, “What the hell are you talking about? I don’t know anything about a TV.” “Well, we want wall units. They sell very good. We want some Chippendale wall units.”
In the olden days, furniture was simple. They made fundamental things which were the corner cupboard or the water bench or table and chairs. It wasn’t until later when the federal government was created and developed in this country that they had time to make beautiful furniture and so on. And that’s the point. You’ve got to make the furniture to fit the present way of life.
When I first started designing furniture, we made vanities with triple mirrors, we made all kinds of robes, and that sort of thing. But people don’t have room for that kind of furniture. You’ve got to make things that fit the present style. And so, if you made wall units – Chippendale furniture – you’d have Chippendale details or Chippendale décor and use mahogany or other woods. But normally the pieces that they had, we have today, and that’s one of the difficulties. The furniture fellows are still living in the past
INTERVIEWER: So they need to catch up with the trends – keep up with the trends?
JIRANEK: You have to keep up with the trends, but you’ve got to make furniture that fits the needs. You want an entertainment center –you want a wall unit for a TV and hi-fi and a record changer. You have to have furniture that fits the needs. That’s why the recliner has become so popular. Instead of a chair that you sit in, a recliner is a chair that you can be comfortable in, sleep in. A man comes home at night tired, and he flops in the recliner chair. It’s interesting to note that the recliner chair business in an area like Detroit has been excellent, even when the automobile factories weren’t working because the men weren’t working. They were spending time at home and they spent the time in the recliners. The recliner business has become big, and the studio couch.
Now the first guy that – Kindel ... This might be interesting … I forget his first name, but I’ll think of it. Kindel was in St. Louis and he invented the studio couch – the sleeper sofa. And Kroehler bought it – Kroehler bought the invention. And Kindel had built a factory in Grand Rapids. And so when Kroehler bought Kindel, he had a deal with Kindel that Kindel couldn’t go back in the furniture business for a certain number of years. So Kroehler sold the Kindel factory to a brother-in-law of Stewart Foote, who was a leading manufacturer in Grand Rapids – it was a table company called the Imperial Table Company. And his brother-in-law, Cele Reynolds (I think it was Cele, I don’t know), Cele made furniture. I don’t know under what name, whether it was Smith-Reynolds or … but anyway, he died in 1927 or ’28 or something like that. Just at the time that Kindel’s deal with Kroehler not to go back into the furniture business had run out. So then Kindel came back into the furniture business. Incidentally, my father was a great friend of Kindel’s and they were even talking about going into business together. And he had sons, Tom Kindel and Walter Kindel. So, Walter looked after designing and developing and died at an early age. But Tom ran the business and it’s still going. I don’t know what interest they have in it, but they made very fine furniture and have a very good reputation, even today. Kindel Furniture is excellent.
But Pete Kroehler bought the Kindel sleeper bed patents in St. Louis.
INTERVIEWER: Now if you were giving advice to a young designer who was coming into the business today, what would you say? You just mentioned some of the things like you have to change with the times.
JIRANEK: First, he should be able to sketch or draw. Then he should be able to put his ideas on paper or present them to somebody who understands what he’s trying to create or interpret. Then he should make working drawings. He should understand materials, the property of materials, manufacturing, machinery, the methods of manufacturing involved in merchandising. He should know marketing and he should know styles, periods. He should know shorthand so he can take notes in meetings. He should be able to speak. He should be a mind reader so he can read people’s minds. All of these things I tried to cover in a school that I had.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s start at the beginning. Where was the school? Why did you decide to have the school? Tell me the story of the school.
JIRANEK: I had an office for 35 years in Rockefeller Center and I felt that there was a great need for a school to educate people in the furniture industry.
For instance, in the finishing game, people who finish furniture … it should be an art. People go along and say, “Well, I’ve got an 18th Century suite made of mahogany. What finish should I put on it?” And someone will say, “Well, put Drexel’s finish on it. They’ve got a good finish.” So you put Drexel’s finish on it and it doesn’t look good. Why? Because the design is entirely different, the veneers, the mouldings. Every suite should be studied from an artistic point of view. So I thought there should be a course on how to finish furniture, how to decorate furniture and properly design and finish it. And then, buyers should have an education. Buyers walk up to a suite and say, “Well, I don’t like the leg. Change it” “Well, what do you mean? What should you have?” “This, that and the other.” Salesmen who sell mouldings and hardware should know furniture styles and periods so they can help furniture designers and manufacturers.
I thought there should be a school to teach merchandising, manufacturing, manufacturing methods, and so on. So, I started one in Rockefeller Center in the evening. I had five or six students. And at that time, which was at least in the ’30s, you didn’t have to have a license nor were there any restrictions to have a school of that kind in New York State. I went along and when I gave up my office in Rockefeller Center, I needed a place for the school – it had expanded. So I went down and I was offered a place – the Phoenix School on 23rd Street. And then the Phoenix School went bust and was taken over by Pratt. So then I moved up to One Park ... Was it One Park?
INTERVIEWER: You moved into Lexington Avenue.
JIRANEK: Lexington Avenue.
INTERVIEWER: 215 Lex.
JIRANEK: But at that point, New York State passed laws that you had to renew your license every year. You had to check to see how many rolls of toilet paper you had, how many pencils and erasers for each student. You had to have them OK your premises and so on, and you had to pay under the table to get an OK by New York. So then I moved over to 215 Lexington before they changed there.
Finally, I decided that I just couldn’t buck it financially. I’d put in a lot of money. Then I would’ve had a very difficult time getting anybody to run the school, and I couldn’t give up what I was doing to run it. I taught at it and so on. We graduated some very good people.
INTERVIEWER: Who were some of the people that graduated?
JIRANEK: Well, Tom Woller, who is vice president of Baker’s entire upholstery operations and who someday, may be president of Baker, and Joe Richardson who was head of design manufacturing and vice president of Richardson Brothers.
INTERVIEWER: His uncle, was he a graduate?
JIRANEK: No, he never went to school. No, I never could get him interested. I know of another with a name that skips me for the time being, but he worked for Purimutter. And then different designers down the line.
But I felt there was a need to teach the whole home furnishings business, not just sketching, but the whole field of and so on. But I ran the business for – I guess the school was in business for about 15 years. I struggled with it, put in a lot of money. But finally, I gave my library, the school library, to High Point College. And they’ve got a copper plaque down there with my name on it.
INTERVIEWER: Speaking of plaques now, you’ve received many honors. Would you care to recount just quickly the most outstanding ones, the ones you are proudest of?
JIRANEK: There haven’t been too many honors given in the furniture design field. I’m a charter member, a past member, of the Grand Rapids Furniture Designers Association, which is the oldest design organization in existence. I was the founder of the American Institute of Designers which has developed into the ASID, which is a big, big organization, called the American Society of Interior Designers. And I have documentary proof of it. It was interesting.
INTERVIEWER: They just had their convention in Washington last week.
JIRANEK: Did they? I haven’t kept up with it.
INTERVIEWER: They had something like 2,000 people.
JIRANEK: Several years ago, the president of ASID (I was chairman) appointed John Vassos and Chick Waltman, a designer in Chicago, to write a history of the formation of the ASID. He said at the time that someday the time would come when that would be asked for and it should be put on paper. So Vassos was not very active in it. But anyway, there was a girl – it really started out from the American Furniture Mart. And so I got all the papers and everything for that foundation ...
INTERVIEWER: You started it all. And the other man’s name was Waltman?
JIRANEK: Chick Waltman. He was a furniture designer in Chicago.
INTERVIEWER: You said Vassos or somebody.
JIRANEK: John Vassos. And then I’ve taught at Princeton University and at Syracuse University.
INTERVIEWER: These were courses in furniture design?
JIRANEK: Just furniture design.
INTERVIEWER: Were these short courses?
JIRANEK: No, I used to fly up to Rochester and go down to Princeton once a week in the evening. But they were not mechanical design courses. They were lecture courses, and slides.
INTERVIEWER: What years did you do those things? Do you recall? For example, let’s go back to the ASID. Was that about when? Do you recall approximately?
JIRANEK: That would have been in the early ’30s.
INTERVIEWER: Early ’30s. OK. Now when you taught these courses at Princeton and at Syracuse, were they concurrent? Were you doing them at the same time? Or did you do one and then the other?
JIRANEK: No, they weren’t concurrent. I don’t remember. I’d say in the ’40s.
INTERVIEWER: In the ’40s.
JIRANEK: But I could never get anybody really interested in furniture. Now the first guy that really had the idea for a furniture school was Chuck Sligh. He tried to get a school at the University of Michigan.
INTERVIEWER: They did start a course there.
JIRANEK: The furniture manufacturers and the furniture industry were just not capable of doing anything.
INTERVIEWER: I think his own son, Robert Sligh, went to the school.
JIRANEK: Probably. But that kind of petered out.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever have anything to do with N.C. State, the North Carolina School of Furniture Manufacturing and Management?
JIRANEK: No. I designed two or three interiors for furniture and so on. Kroehler made the furniture at the World’s Fair in Chicago in ’33 and I designed it.
INTERVIEWER: Now, were they on exhibit? Were there exhibits to show what furniture was going to be like?
JIRANEK: No, no, it was houses – the American Rolling Mill House and the Lumber House. I’ve got pictures of this.
INTERVIEWER: Houses. And you designed the furniture that went in the houses.
JIRANEK: Right. Then I did that for the Formica House at the New York World’s Fair. I’ve been honored and given recognition by the Conference of Christians and Jews and the Anti-Defamation League. There haven’t been too many awards for recognition in the furniture industry. That’s why the American Furniture Hall of Fame needs to grow.
INTERVIEWER: That’s true. That’s why we need the Hall of Fame. That’s right exactly. Well, good. OK, thank you very much. That wraps it up and thank you, Leo.