(KEY OFF)(KEYWORD)lmost everybody whose name is not Rockefeller has started out in his or her first apartment with that fine old period furniture known as Early Shipping Crate. So it should stun no one that after enduring fake fine French furniture, Williamsburg reproductions and revivals of Egyptian, art nouveau and art deco, now we have the Shipping Crate Period revival. With the revival, of course, come genuine, guaranteed reproductions of packing-case furniture.
It all started like this. In 1974, Randall Ward, then 29, had a party in his half of a duplex in Raleigh, N.C. The next afternoon his friend Steve Robertson, 27, bleary-eyed, came over to see if he was alive and if anything was left of the beer and the furniture. There wasn't.
"The beer was gone and the furniture destroyed," said Ward in an interview on a visit to Washington. "We went out and got another six-pack and we sat on the packing crates I was storing for Steve. And we tried to figure out what to do."
One of them - accounts differ as to which - said, "Let's make a sofa out of packing crates." And they proceeded to do just that. The upholstery was the pile of pillows left over from the demolished furniture. When their friends came to see it, they all said "wow." Furthermore, the piece outlasted the beer at a number of parties.
At the time, Ward and Robertson were trying to make a living by restoration and renovation work. Robertson was just back from New Zealand (hence the crates) where he'd worked as a sailing teacher. Ward had been selling textiles. Robertson is a graduate of North Carolina State University; Ward from NCSU's textile school.
At the end of 1974, buildings was a precarious livelihood. Things got rougher and rougher. Christmas came and neither Ward nor Robertson had a dime. That's when they heard about the flea market. They borrowed money from another friend to pay the stall rental at the market. And they dragged the sofa down to sell.
Right away it sold for $130 or so, and the purchaser it was all set to cart it off that minute. About then, Ward and Robertson looked at each other and decided quickly: "Just leave it with us and we'll deliver it." With the sofa on the flea market floor the rest of the day, they took an order for another one. They delivered the original that night, collected the money, made a second sofa, delivered it, and collected again. Those sales became their start-up money.
At first, their aim was to make and sell 30 to get seed money to go into big business or pay the fare to Europe or some such grandiose scheme. They worked about 100 hours a week in the basement of the home of a friend, Jessie Walton, who also helped out with the carpentry. They made the pieces during the day and delivered them at night, using the money from one day's delivery to pay for the next day's materials. "We discovered pretty quick that we'd been sitting on a gold mine," Ward said.
They had started just at the right time, when people were fed up with molded plastic Mediterranean curlicues and were turning toward rustic, natural styles - furniture that went with the increasingly popular indoor jungle look. Furniture to sit on while wearing jeans, furniture for putting your boots on. Sturdy. Real. Anti-elite.
Rights off they patented their corporate name: "This End Up." Of course.
By the time Robertson's New Zealand crates ran out and they were sick and tired of pulling out nails, they had enough money to buy North Carolina yellow pine. They leave the knots in but sand the joints and smooth out the splinters. They offer a choice of light or dark stains. The upholstery of fabrics originally came from mill ends. Now that they're in the big time, they offer a choice of 25.
The design remains traditional shipping crate construction - lengths nailed onto a frame, nothing fancy but as sturdy as the great outdoors. They give a 10-year warranty on the frame. They've branched out to make a chair ($145), ottoman ($75), square table ($90), coffee table ($70), beds from $135 to $250 and two sizes of dining tables, $125 to $140. They're still making the sofa, now in two sizes, $230 to $295.
"This End Up" still works on consignment. The firm takes a 30 per cent deposit - and then they start to make the piece, with about a six-week delivery time promised.
Before long, the two were able to hire 14 helpers and set up a small factory in a warehouse in downtown Raleigh's historic "fan" (from the fanlights over the door) district. This June they will add a factory building triple that size, just outside Raleigh. Steve Robertson's mother opened a shop to sell the furniture in Wilmington, N.C. His sister and brother-in-law, the Stewart Browns, have the Virginia concession. Susan Stevens is the manager locally for the shops in Crilley Warehouse, 218 Lee St., Alexandria, and Bethesda Square at 7649 Old Georgetown Rd., Bethesda. In all there are about 12 stores, with another due to open soon in Philadelphia.
Of course, the idea is as old as people. The first furniture most early settlers in the United States had was their sea chests. In the '40s orange-crate furniture there was so prevalent somebody wrote a story about how he had made a crate out of his coffee table. Hiromitus Morimoto, a young Japanese man in New York, has made a series of exotic Japanese chests out of crates he scavenged from the alleys behind Chinese grocery stores. Washington's Abigail Wiebenson makes magazine racks from asparagus crates.
Now, writer Lura La Barge has produced a book called "Crate Craft," published by Butterick. La Barge explains in her book how to hunt for materials at construction sites - she alleges you can cart them home on the bus, if you come supplied with a claw hammer or a tire bar to remove the nails and disassemble them. Her book shows how to make everything from a planter to a sofa using the batten principle.
There remains one big catch in do-it-yourself. Today, everybody values crates more for firewood than for furniture. Which may be where "This End Up" comes in, with its genuine, authentic Packing Crate Reproductions.