The ubiquitous American furniture company Widdicomb was founded as a cabinet shop in 1858 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Its first four employees were William, Harry, John, and George, Jr., sons of George Widdicomb, an immigrant and skilled woodworker from Devonshire, England. All of the boys enlisted to fight in the Union army in the Civil War, and the company was briefly dissolved during that time. Eventually the sons would rejoin the business, except for George Jr, who died in 1866. The firm grew to approximately 25 employees and moved to larger quarters, with T.F. Richards joining the business in 1869. By 1871, the roster of employees had grown to 150, and the company’s most widely sold products were spindle bed frames, hugely popular in the late Victorian era, and shipped either “unfinished, or in the white” throughout the United States. In 1873, Widdicomb Brothers & Richards incorporated as Widdicomb Furniture Co. In 1915 the company was purchased by lumber tycoon Godfrey von Platen, Maynard Guest, who knew the furniture business, and Joseph Griswold, Sr., later merging with Mueller Furniture in 1950. In 1960 Mueller split off, and the company name was acquired in 1970 by John Widdicomb Company. 22 years later, in 1992, Stickley Brothers & Company acquired the design and manufacturing rights.
Spindle bed frame of the late Victorian era
Widdicomb Furniture Company, 1878
At age seven, son John was apprenticed by his father into the cabinetmaking craft while living in Elbridge, New York. American National Biography states “It is noteworthy that Widdicomb’s experience began in a water-powered factory. At this stage of industrial history, the manufacturing process still required the use of highly skilled artisans. During his life many industries would introduce machines that would hasten the demise of skilled work. Widdicomb was among those who pioneered the use of these new machine-operated manufacturing techniques that both changed the structure of the workplace and mass-produced consumer durable goods”. Another son, William, was “a clever mechanic who invented many improvements for machinery in the factory”.
Among the styles produced by Widdicomb from the 1880s onward were Colonial Revival, American Empire and French styles, and included chiffoniers, wash stands, bed frames, mirrors, nightstands and wardrobes made of “low priced” cherry, maple, ash, birch and oak, as well as other woods including San Domingo and Tabasco mahogany, Circassian walnut, golden curly birch, bird’s-eye maple, and also– at the lowest cost of all –a white enamel finish. Indeed, in 1887 and 1891, local histories describe Widdicomb as “the largest manufacturer of bedroom furniture in the world”.
During the first two decades of the twentieth century, the earlier styles were passed by in favor of then-popular Italian Renaissance, Georgian Revival, Venetian, Louis XV and XVI, Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Early American, and “New England Colonial” styles. Freelance designer William Balbach created designs for Widdicomb beginning in 1917. From 1918 to 1920, a division of the company produced phonograph cabinets in the Queen Anne, Adam and Chippendale styles. The first modern pieces were introduced in 1928, and by 1938 these designs took the place of the traditional. It is this output that has become most widely known to the public—a.k.a. “mid century modern” style.
English-born T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings (1905 – 1976) served as designer for Widdicomb from 1943 – 1956. Born in London, he was trained as an architect and designer at the University of Liverpool and London University and was already well known in Europe before he came to the U.S. in 1929. He started the interior design firm Robsjohn-Gibbings, Ltd. in New York, which he ran from 1936 to 1964. He began designing at Widdicomb in 1943 at the height of the Second World War, although production did not begin until 1946 when the war ended. His Modern designs, for which Robsjohn-Gibbings is most well known, were of blonde wood in warm tones, and utilized Scandinavian modern and tapering shapes or neoclassical influences. He is most specifically known for the strapped chair, the low standing lamp, the glass top cocktail table and the louvered drawer front. As well as authoring three books, Robsjohn-Gibbings received the Waters Award for Achievement in Design in 1950.
T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings
Robsjohn-Gibbings two-tiered table with tapered legs
Chaise from a Widdicomb sectional sofa, attributed to T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings
In the early 1950s and 1960s, George Nakashima also designed for Widdicomb. One of the leading innovators of 20th century furniture design, his output for the “Origins” collection emphasized the grain and texture of the woods, including Circassian walnut and hickory, and included bedroom, dining room, occasional and upholstered pieces with Japanese and Shaker influences. It is interesting to note that Nakashima learned and mastered traditional Japanese hand tools and joinery techniques from Gentaro Hikogawa while at Camp Minidoka in Idaho, a World War II internment camp for Americans of Japanese ancestry.
Walnut cabinet by George Nakashima
A style leader, Widdicomb produced collections in conjunction with such names as Mario Buatta, Jacques Grange, The Victoria and Albert Museum, Paul McCobb and Frank Lloyd Wright. Works by the company are on display at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum in New York.