While quality remains at the heart of the Amish hardwood furniture community, the light oak, which was the driving force of the woodworking community when the hardwood furniture movement began years ago in Amish Country, has been replaced by a whole new world of woods.
Right along with the movement to embrace all of these other beautiful hardwoods has come a revolution to produce innovative furniture that is trend-setting and sleek, moving away from the look that created such a craze in the hardwood market for Amish handcrafted furniture two decades ago.
No, this is definitely not your grandfather’s hardwood furniture.
Nothing was more telling than a trip through the aisles of the 2012 Ohio Hardwood Furniture Show at the former Expo Center in Walnut Creek March 2 and 3.
There, wholesalers and furniture builders showcased piece after piece of innovative, yet stunningly beautiful furniture.
The event, which was open to retailers only and not the public, afforded customers the opportunity to connect with wholesalers and see for themselves many of the new product lines, and even some of the old standards that remain incredibly successful.
What came of the event was some eye-opening introductions to retailers who are seeking to purchase and sell the next big thing in hardwood furniture, as well as the chance to meet the people behind the voices they oftentimes only hear over the phone.
“We had a steady turnout, all throughout, and it was really good, quality buyers in attendance,” said Shasta Mast, executive director of the Holmes County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau. “This is a great opportunity for our area hardwood wholesalers to increase their business and to create more awareness of the domestically manufactured hardwood furniture of such high quality that is made right here.”
While almost every retailer understands that Amish handcrafted furniture is well known nationwide for its unmatched quality, one of the pushes of the show was to increase awareness that there is a real movement toward innovation and ingenuity in Amish Country woodworking shops throughout the area.
According to Edward Beachy, owner of Beachy Woodworking, and president of Ohio Hardwood Furniture, it is imperative that the wholesalers have the opportunity to show their new product to retailers at an event that draws so many retailers to one spot.
Eighty-four wholesale exhibits were set up at the show, meaning that retailers had plenty to see while perusing the two large floors of furniture.
“In the last couple of years, the general public believes that our furniture is all traditional, and we are trying very hard to change that perception,” said Beachy. “We are introducing many new styles, with a lot more contemporary look. At the same time, we continue to promote the fact that Amish handcrafted furniture is some of the highest quality furniture you can find. It will last a long time, and that is something that the public is really trending toward right now.”
Speaking of trends, one new trend in the wood world is to build brand new furniture that has a rustic, antique feel to it. Furniture builders are creating tables, chairs, bedroom suites and hutches that utilize the beauty of knots, cracks and natural blemishes in the wood, giving it a very weathered look.
They are basically, as Jr. Schrock, owner of Wooden Leaf Furnishings, put it, brand new antiques.
Schrock was one of the many owners on hand who were introducing new and unique pieces, his being a dazzling wine bar made of a rich, dark maple with a tobacco stain.
Another intriguing piece was from the world of Barkman Furniture, which showed off handcrafted wormy maple furniture with a steel frame, something definitely out of the ordinary compared to the white oak of yesteryear.
“We’re finding today that people want to come back to quality, but at the same time they want furniture that is new,” said Dick Gerber, consultant for Barkman Furniture. “People are seeing the quality and are willing to pay the price because they know it will last. But they are also moving away from what most people think of as traditional Amish furniture and toward new designs, so we have to continue to adjust and evolve in the way we see the furniture making process.”
Roy Miller, owner of Country View Woodworking near Mt. Hope, has seen many changes take place during his service on the Ohio Hardwood Furniture board.
Miller said that being more, and doing more in terms of how local manufacturers approach their business, will be a real game-changer now and down the road.
He said that by becoming more innovative and modern in the look of new products, the Amish handcrafted wood furniture market will really begin to open up, which will help local wholesalers find a foothold in some of the larger big name furniture stores.
“Most importantly, the quality is still there,” said Miller. “But if you don’t have anything new to offer, then you don’t have business. So much of today’s furniture business is about eye appeal. If your customer doesn’t like what they see visually, they won’t buy, no matter how good the quality is. And one trip around the floor here at the show will tell you that there is an awful lot of eye appeal in here. We’ve got some incredibly talented woodworkers in this area who have shown that they are willing to adjust and create new and exciting product and move with the times.”
Moving is an appropriate choice of words, because if the show played out another key theme it is that the local companies cannot afford to sit still and wait for customers to come knocking on their doors.
In a competitive market like the furniture world, wholesalers have quickly realized that they need to take it to the streets if they want to compete.
Which is why local Amish-based companies have begun branching out in big ways, soaring well beyond the borders of Ohio, and canvassing the nation coast to coast.
“That’s so important,” said Beachy. “If we stay local, our customer base is so limited. We have to look outside, we need to look for new markets.”
Companies like Valley View Oak have gone national, reaching out to customers across the U.S., presenting their lines of furniture to prospective customers that several years ago would have gone unrecognized.
And offering them a look at the product is simply not enough. Right along with the quality and eye appeal of a piece of furniture is the connection between wholesaler and client.
“Because our business is largely relationship-oriented, we absolutely have to get out and connect with our customers,” said Sam Stoltzfus, national sales manager for Valley View Oak. “We have expanded so much farther than we used to in terms of where we go to find customers.”
Valley View Oak has two regional sales reps, who span the entirety of the continental U.S.
Stoltzfus said that in his travels, he has seen and heard a genuine uplifting voice concerning the state of hardwood products.
“I’ve heard a lot more optimism this year than I have for a long time,” said Stoltzfus.
Much of that optimism is due to the clientele shifting away from throw-away products designed to sell cheap and fast, but that break down after a couple of years, to the desire of the public to purchase high-quality hardwood furniture that is made to last, and built to stand the test of time.
That certainly bodes well for an area where quality is king, but innovation and creativity have continued to keep this area’s handcrafted Amish furniture at the top of many lists.
Published: March 8, 2012