Household Names

To come up with their successful approach to furniture,
To come up with their successful approach to furniture, "We thought, 'How do people want to live?' '' says Mitchell Gold, left, with business partner Bob Williams at their factory. (By Bill Bamberger for The Washington Post)
By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 16, 2007

TAYLORSVILLE, N.C . -- You might not think you know Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams. But if you've bought or admired a sofa, chair, bed or sectional that looks like those lined up on the left, you know their work. For 18 years, the two have been designing and marketing some of the mostly widely sold and imitated furniture in the country.

They produce upholstered pieces by the tractor-trailer load for Crate and Barrel, Restoration Hardware, Williams-Sonoma, Pottery Barn and others. They are carried by some 60 independent home furnishings stores. Now they want customers to know their names -- and Lulu's. She's the English bulldog who stars in company ads and patrols the mammoth factory here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Last month, a Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams shop selling only the company's designs quietly opened on 14th Street NW near Logan Circle. On Tuesday the store will roll out a green carpet (so eco-chic) for the official opening party. Hillary Clinton, who owns a dining table and chairs by MG+BW, is among the 500 invited guests. (No word on whether she'll be there.)

Gold, the business and marketing guy, and Williams, the designer, have an uncanny ability to tap into the prevailing taste for furniture that is accessible, comfortable and uncontroversial. Their target customers buy organic produce at Whole Foods Market and khakis at Banana Republic. They set up their laptops in club chairs (made by MG+BW) at Starbucks or Caribou Coffee and text-message from leather reading chairs (made by MG+BW) at Barnes & Noble.

All those off-the-rack sofas and chairs have become something of a home-furnishings uniform for baby boomers and their offspring.

"Like Martha Stewart, they are really good merchandisers and have a great design team," says C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, a consumer marketing company. "They've given customers the casual lifestyle at an acceptable price."

That would be sofas averaging $1,200 to $1,700.

Over the past four years, Gold and Williams have opened 13 free-standing stores under their own names. The latest, at 1526 14th St. NW, is their first in the Washington area. It occupies a 1920s-era car showroom recently vacated by Storehouse Furniture (ironically, a national chain that also carried Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams products before going out of business last year). Now a sign on the huge plate-glass window announces that "Comfort has Arrived" above a curvy cream sofa and pale blue oval ottoman. In the airy interior, upholstered pieces are grouped with lamps, rugs and occasional tables exclusive to MG+BW stores. Groupings of glazed stoneware punctuate the mostly quiet color palette. Framed photographs by friend and client Tipper Gore cover the walls; a portion of the proceeds from their sale goes to the Gores' nonprofit organization, the Climate Project.

Neighbors and passersby have been pressing their faces against the window for a better look. Word has spread that the store is pet-friendly, and evening dog walkers taking advantage of the 9 p.m. closing time (every day except Sunday) find a container of canine treats by the register.

In an interview last month at their sprawling factory here, Gold and Williams looked back on how their idea to make comfortable furniture grew into a $100 million business. "What Bob and I did was different: We thought, 'How do people want to live?' '' said Gold. "They want pets and 3-year-olds to be able to hang out on the sofa. They want to entertain more in a relaxed way."

And, Williams added, the company doesn't do faddish decor du jour. "We don't reinvent every six months. We want people to love their sofa in five or 10 years."

Think Eileen Fisher, not H&M.

Gold, 56, and Williams, 45, met in Manhattan in 1981, and a personal partnership evolved quickly into a professional one. They formed the Mitchell Gold Co. in 1989. Gold, a former furniture buyer at Bloomingdale's and executive at Lane Furniture, took on the marketing. Williams, an art director at Seventeen magazine, became the designer. They moved to North Carolina, the center of the U.S. furniture industry, and vowed to run their factory in an unconventional way. Theirs was one of the first furniture plants in the state to install air conditioning. They built an on-site gym and hired a gourmet chef for the employee cafeteria.

In the early days they sold upholstered dining chairs and glass-top tables. In the 1990s they added rumpled-cotton slipcovered sofas, an idea taken from casual styles popular in clothing. Their best-selling distressed-leather club chairs were inspired by Paris flea market finds.

Business rocked. National chains scooped up the cottagey look of loose slipcovers and the bookish charm of button-tufted leather.

"They both have a real sense of ownership about their business and everything they make," says Lisa Versacio, president of Brocade Home, which carries pieces made by Gold and Williams. She also worked with the men in previous stints at Williams-Sonoma and West Elm. "They make a quality product, they understand the business and they are very professional."

In 1998, the year their factory opened, they sold the company to McLean's Rowe Furniture in a deal that allowed the duo to keep managing the business. Part of the reason for selling at that point, Gold said, was that they are gay. "We weren't able to be married, and we ran the risk of inheritance taxes if one of us died," he said. "It could have bankrupted the company."

Securing equal rights for the gay and lesbian community has become a fervent political mission for Gold, leading him to get involved at the local and national levels. He has hosted fundraisers for John Kerry and John Edwards. He has been a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. He recently founded Faith in America, an organization based in North Carolina that works to combat religion-based bigotry and anti-gay and -lesbian prejudice.

Gold and Williams's personal relationship ended in 2001, but the friendship and business partnership are still going strong, and they share custody of Lulu. In 2002 they bought the firm back with a group of New York investors. Two years ago, the company that began as Mitchell Gold Co. became Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, to reflect the contributions of both men. In retail expansion plans, Bethesda and Tysons Corner are on the list of possible locations.

Today the company employs 750 at the manufacturing plant on a street named One Comfortable Place in Alexander County, a rural enclave of 30,000 people, 14 traffic lights and 135 churches. There is no Whole Foods or Banana Republic here. The best meal in town is widely known to be had at the factory's own Cafe Lulu, serving blackened mahi-mahi hoagies ($3.50), seared salmon with mango salsa ($5.95) and the local favorite, biscuits and gravy ($1.25).

The factory turns out 1,000 pieces a day: sofas, chairs, ottomans, daybeds, chaises, headboards, scaled-down armless sofas the company calls "sofettes," and dog beds.

Lulu, now 13, doesn't wander the floors as much as she used to, but she's always around, looking for attention. Attached to the factory offices is the Lulu Childhood Enrichment Center. The award-winning day-care center was the first such on-site facility in a residential furniture factory in the state, says Eloise Goldman, spokeswoman for the company. Today, 74 kids are having baked ham and green beans for lunch. They sit on child-size MG+BW club chairs and tiny denim sofas.

Gold, giving the tour, says, "It's a good place to test slipcover fabric."

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