Debate has been sparked over the last couple of years among insiders as to the longevity of “industrial” as a decorative genre. Like any stylistic movement, this one will make way for the next, whatever that may be. Inexpensively produced cookie-cutter furniture pieces — generally manufactured in India or China — have entered the market, sometimes giving design enthusiasts pause before they invest in an original item with historical provenance.
Artificially distressing steel and wood to give the look of decades-old, utilitarian factory items is not uncommon. Even fabricating gear-shaped patterns in steel to embellish stools and tables is not unheard of. It’s a way to loosely capture a factory look without, perhaps, going through the time, effort and expense of seeking out an original.
The idea of reproduction furniture is hardly a new concept, but does it kill a design movement when copies or non-authentic items enter the market? I say no. From what I can see, Herman Miller, Knoll, Emeco and many other furniture brands have done very nicely, thank you, simply by providing well-made originals, manufactured to a high standard. The debate over the integrity of materials used in new originals versus vintage ones we’ll leave for another day, but so long as there’s an interest in authentic design, quality and durability, industrial pieces will remain relevant. I’ve long used the example of the Toledo stool, which is now an icon of 20th century design and will hold both its aesthetic appeal and collectibility long after the movement that thrust it into the limelight has passed. The key is to focus on what you like and buy quality.
When this old cast-iron base — removed from a decommissioned wire-spinning machine — was first spotted, the pressing question was: How can this fixture be transformed into a functional dining table? Through some trial and error (and a good deal of grease removal), the custom table was completed via its pairing with a large section of refinished antique bowling alley.
While admired today for their aesthetics, vintage and antique industrial furniture was considered utilitarian in its day. It was built using durable materials and therefore fabricated to withstand considerable punishment. Though it is appealing to unearth an unusual piece like this shop bench, it is doubly worthy of attention when the item possesses its original and untouched configuration and presents in superb condition.
The Industrial Workbench and Equipment Manufacturing Company was a later incarnation of The New Britain Machine Company, headquartered in New Britain, CT. They began churning out heavy-duty industrial furniture at the beginning of the 20th century and by the 1940s were known as, I.B. (Industrial Bench). The olive hew finish of their products was even referred to as, “IB Green”.
The discussion of quality is a common thread when referencing items of this era and I.B. prided themselves on creating equipment of a higher standard than many of their peers.
The heavy-gauge tubular steel leg sections are welded together, making a single-piece, rigid leg. This results in less sway, irrespective of whether or not the table rests against a wall. The legs and expansive feet are totally closed thus ensuring that dust and other unwanted waste does not accumulate in cracks and crevasses. A variety of optional extras existed including, rear and side plates (to ensure that materials did not fall from the work surface), maple or plain steel tops, lower shelf and drawers, complete with sliding inner tray.
This clean, original example not only possesses its factory configuration, including a drawer and lower shelf, the IB Green finish is excellent and the maker’s labels are clear and visible on the trademarked positioning of the two front legs.
*Special thanks to the Smithsonian Institution Archives and the National Museum of American History Library for their generous contributions to this post.
An occupational hazard of repairing and restoring old wares is that one becomes a magnet for a diverse collection of tools, parts and hardware. As time passes, one tool box is filled, then another and another. The resulting game of multiple choice when searching for the right item can be harrowing.
When the time came to upgrade to a larger source of storage, Dorset Finds was pretty thrilled to stumble across a heavy-duty rolling work station.
The only thing better than a tool box with 25″ deep drawers is one with a solid butcher block top and a retrofitted shelf. Other customizations include a row of hooks that line one side of the piece; perfect for organizing readily used tools and parts and keeping them off the work surface. Frequently misplaced in other examples is the original solid steel lock plate, that when dropped into a lip on the lower front of the unit, forms part of a mechanism which secures all the drawers. As we found out, large cast iron casters are also a godsend when shifting the full cabinet from one side of the workshop to the other.
With each passing month, the depth of tools that Dorset Finds accumulates increases. Some are acquired out of necessity, and others because they just look so damn cool: worn-down wooden handles, stained from the hands of previous craftsmen; steel, flattened and grooved, and possessing a patina that comes from decades of age.
If every task has its corresponding perfect tool, then where do these tools go when they’re not being used for their intended task? Our suggestion is that they be placed in a rolling tool cart like the one pictured, a piece manufactured in the 1940s by Lyon Metal Products Inc. The convenience of having a plethora of tools at your fingertips can’t be underestimated.
These heavy-gauge steel carts have rolled themselves into the home environment for some time due to their durability, versatility and functionality. Commonly, this item is repurposed as a media stand, kitchen island or bedside table. A single rolling tool cabinet can bear more than a few hundred pounds, which may be irrelevant to most applications, but having that level of strength is never a drawback. Neither is the ability to padlock the front to keep others out of your drawers.
To create a table it sometimes requires a table. Or in this case, the workbench to end all workbenches.
Traditionally, benches like this were found in wood shops, basements and garages. Generous enough to hold large and, in some cases, multiple furniture items, the 4-inch-thick maple top provides a stable station. Located on the front and side are vises that keep the project in place. At the rear of the horizontal surface is a gutter where tools and shavings can be pushed aside, while below a later addition including walls and a hinged door form a compartment for storing other tools.
Today, this 7-foot piece is as likely to be found in an open-plan kitchen surround by people sipping drinks or preparing food as it is in a carpentry shop. A thorough cleaning and several coats of polyurethane converted a workhorse like this into a show pony worthy of all the praise and attention it attracts.
Though commonly associated with industrial seating, the Toledo Metal Furniture Co. made a range of tables that included compact typewriter desks and this recent find: a small cafe-size table, typically found in soda fountains in the early part of the 20th century.
This particularly early version is as rare as hen’s teeth and almost impossible to find in any condition. It features a solid oak top — rather than the wood laminate found on later Uhl pieces — and an ornate steel base with a copper oxidized (Japanned) finish.
In a thorough restoration, the modern gold repaint was removed to ensure that the dormant original finish was left unscathed. The oak’s surface was stripped of its tired, black paint and refinished, ready to be used and enjoyed for decades to come.
At Dorset Finds, we like a table. No surprises there. But a hefty, solid work table we love all the more…
Exploring the boundaries within this realm, it was decided that a heavy-duty workbench would be constructed out of salvaged pieces: a set of 90-pound, cast-iron lathe machine legs paired with a 2.25-inch-thick, 1930s work tabletop. Neither item was embraced with joy when negotiating the transportation to my third-floor walk-up. During the move, there may have been a curse or two hurled in the direction of the 30-year-dormant freight elevator, but the effort paid off.
Scale and proportion are always considerations when undertaking a project such as this. The finished piece needed to be dimensionally generous while also being manageable enough to place in any average living space.
After a thorough cleaning and light sanding, the true character of the timber surface was revealed. Scratches, crude saw cuts and paint stains mark its history beautifully. Therefore, plans were abandoned to strip the item down to bare wood. Instead, three layers of clear-coat were applied, preserving each flaw and blemish.
Heavily distressed, the patina of the green iron legs mirror the war wounds of the workbench’s surface. Once again, the imperfections were entombed rather than being sanded away. The marriage of the iron legs to the wood top has resurrected the table, now ready to host many decades of meals, conversations… and perhaps one or two backaches.
It can be a delight when seemingly random items come together to form a unifying, functional object that echoes its past while reimagining the piece for a sustainable future. Not only do we preserve a piece of history by salvaging and repurposing, we lend to it new life.
Messrs, Morse, Williams & Co., known as the Morse Elevator Works, was founded in the late 19th century. Demand for their freight elevators was intense due to their use of superior safety devices and automatic hatch doors, features uncharacteristic for the period. Their reputation won them not only product orders from across the country, but from overseas as well. Stephen A. Morse, who supervised manufacturing, was also known to mechanics the world over for his invention of the twist drill.
Established in 1911, the Burke Machine Tool Co. of Ohio produced large, heavy-duty milling and drill-press machines and corresponding bases.
Shying away from heavy, oversize objects isn’t part of the Dorset Finds mind-set. In fact, if it’s too large and too cumbersome to transport back to the workshop, it generally gets snapped up faster that you can say, “lower back pain.” That said, the prospect of combining three weighty items seemed a little daunting on first consideration.
The goal: Join two, solid oak, antique Morse signs (which were originally housed within the framework of a factory’s freight elevator) along their flat edge to make a seamless tabletop and attach to this an early-20th-century, cast-iron Burke pedestal base. With some help from the woodworking mavens at Brooklyn Design + Fabrication, coupled with some reflective days spent scrubbing, repairing and refinishing the dark timber surfaces, a new, custom dining table was born.
At Dorset Finds we spend a good deal of time talking about, searching for and contemplating the best office chair solutions. Comfort, durability, design and value all come into play because let’s face it, you spend more time sitting in this chair than anywhere else so there are a lot of boxes that need to be checked before choosing the right item.
Just as significant – though often overlooked – is the selection of the right desk. This Globe-Mernicke desk has a great industrial look while also being sleeker that some of the other tank-style steel desks of the same era.
Globe-Wernicke originated in Minneapolis in 1899 when the Globe Company, who already had production plants in Europe, purchased the Wernicke Company in an effort to expand into the US market. The company was most notably an office furniture manufacturer but like many companies had its factories converted to produce military equipment during WWII.
The deep, seaweed green, heavy-gauge steel shows some age marks and the black vinyl top has scratches, imprints of the odd paper clip and and a few stains. The subtle, slimline drawer is sans hardware. Merely a small logo plate. Its width and depth prove a worthy match for all those pesky desk items that need stowing. Yes, this desk has been used, but it’s tough as nails and more sturdy an office desk, has never there been made…
Even in a small apartment, it’s advantageous to have an area that allows enough space to work comfortably and not feel you’re going to damage the piece of furniture, even if said work is simply using a laptop or reading the paper.
This piece – manufactured by The Hart & Hutchinson Co. of New Britain, CT. – not only provides an abundant work area, but also has the versatility to be used as a kitchen island, office desk, media stand or sideboard.
The battle scars to the butcher block top and green steel lockers really make you wonder what this bench has seen. The rear gutter allows for items to be pushed aside while remaining secure from falling from the edge. The locker doors have heavy duty latch hardware and after a bit of scrubbing, the original brass number plates were revealed on each door.
It’s good to shake things up. Yes, indeed. It’s also good to re-purpose an object specifically engineered for one task and reassigning it to fulfill another.
Here we have a mahogany Slingerland drum, manufactured in Chicago in the late 1920s. The wood frame on this example has aged well (hopefully from countless late night jams, smoke-filled clubs and spilled cocktails) giving the drum a charming patina. Its skins are tight and the metal hardware aides it in its overall strength.
Though still capable of holding its own as a functioning instrument, this piece will be re-purposed to be a generous sized coffee table.
Now, let’s see if we can drum up some drinks around here…(boom-boom!).
Update: Shortly after writing this post, the drum was snapped up and used in the John Varvatos, Spring 2011 campaign. (Can’t say I’ve ever been a fan of Dave Matthews but the ad is very well styled!)