Sharing a few postcards from markets past

HIGH POINT — Although I do not miss the daily grind of covering the October furniture market here, I recall with no small degree of nostalgia those caffeine-fueled, conversation-filled days and nights making so very many showroom visits. Punctuated by parties and packed with showroom huddles “spilling the tea,” the High Point market reminds us all that our industry is first and hopefully foremost an industry primarily of people.

What follows are a few postcards from markets past, mainly from the 1990s, when High Point would transform itself in a matter of weeks into about four square blocks of Manhattan, replete with price-gouging, neon lights, celebrities and nightlife. Emblematic of this metamorphosis was an encounter I witnessed taking place in the middle of one of downtown High Point’s busiest intersections. 

A large, black SUV stopped there in the middle with no regard for anyone else’s travel plans. The passenger window slowly lowered and a beautifully coifed New York woman obviously in town for market stopped a pedestrian using the crosswalk. “Madge, Madge, oh my gawwd, where did you get that dress? It is mahvelous! Mahvelous!” This doesn’t happen the rest of the year. There aren’t even pedestrians the rest of the year. 

Mi Casa Italia, su Casa Italia

There also weren’t any ships in downtown High Point until Natuzzi dropped anchor in 1998. The 110,000-square-foot building at 130 W. Commerce Ave. elevated standards for showrooms, marked Natuzzi’s market penetration in the United States, and, perhaps most of all, symbolized the larger-than-life persona and ambitions of Natuzzi founder Pasquale Natuzzi. 

Casa Italia at 130 W. Commerce Ave.

My reactions seeing it finished and touring inside and out could compare with laying eyes for the first time on Florence, Italy’s Duomo di Firenze: a miracle revealing itself all at once from behind the very ordinary rectangles that were downtown’s thicket of showroom buildings. Natuzzi’s leather ocean liner established a new architectural rhythm and vibe by breaking downtown’s monotony like a Coast Guard cutter slicing through ice. Now the multi-tenant Casa Italia, Mario Bellini’s masterpiece, is still turning heads and stopping marketgoers in their tracks. 

Oh, the humanity

To turn to the irrepressible humanity of market time, when so many good-meaning people convene in such a small geographic space, knowing time will be precious, I think of the standards singer Steve Tyrell. Ladd Furniture brought Steve and his then-wife, Stephanie, to premarket and to market during a very difficult time for Steve personally. Stephanie was in the last stages of a losing battle with cancer. They clearly were in rapturous love, and their warmth, resilience, courage, and soaring hopefulness I hope I never forget. I think of their clear-eyed optimism every time I hear one of Steve’s many jazz standards delivered with conviction and marbled with his distinctive rasp. If you would like to borrow one of his CDs, just ask. I have them all.

Meeting and interviewing Steve came during what became a flurry of brushes with greatness, many of them afforded by the blizzard of licensing agreements signed by Ladd in the mid-1990s. Ladd’s Donnie Mitchell made sure I got an invitation to pilot Dennis Conner’s Stars and Stripes racing yacht. On a windless day, that “piloting” proved a bit anti-climactic, but hanging out on the water with a three-time America’s Cup winner? Pretty cool. 

“Piloting” the Stars and Stripes with Capt. Conner

Around that same time, Lea Inds. also unveiled its Grant Hill Collection of youth furniture. (Conner also licensed a youth line for Lea.) Hill had led Duke University to a pair of national championships, and as a two-time graduate of rival University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I did not appreciate Hill’s resume one teeny little bit. So, upon meeting him at market in the Lea showroom, I said, “It is such an honor to meet someone I have admired for so long. Mr. Stackhouse, could I shake your hand?” 

Jerry Stackhouse was Hill’s counterpart for UNC at small forward. I said it with a twinkle in my eye and a Tar Heel pin on my lapel. To Hill’s credit, he got the joke and laughed good-naturedly. His mother, seated just to the side, had a very different reaction. Grant and I explained the reference, which seemed enough to appease her. But just barely. Hell hath no fury like a woman whose NBA-playing son hath been scorned, even in jest.

The celebrity “experience” to top them all, however, occurred in that most unlikely of geographic destinations, Thomasville, North Carolina. On hand to help Thomasville launch the Ernest Hemingway Collection was the ill-fated author’s only child by his first wife, Hadley Richardson. The quintessential man of leisure, Jack Hemingway regaled the cavernous showroom filled with gadflies with an ease and charm that mesmerized this introvert. Declaring it time for a martini, he would pop to his feet like an umbrella unfolding, organizing his arms and legs according to some predetermined logic. 

Thomasville’s Ernest Hemingway Collection

As for the furniture, the collection remains one of my favorite looks in its combinations of materials, earth tones and cartographic references. The designs had to be good; a themed collection based on a suicidal sexist alcoholic wasn’t exactly a slam dunk on the drawing board. Kerry Glasser could sell air conditioning to an Inuit.

Snow globes

I remember a lot of showroom magic. But, ask any retired professional athlete what they most miss from their playing days and you won’t hear much about the walk-off home run or the perfect game. You won’t hear them speak of their MVP or Silver Slugger awards. Without exception, these once greats will regale you with stories from inside the locker room, of just being a teammate in the dugout, of card games on the flights between series, and of working with a group of very different people toward one singular goal. While I’m not Chipper Jones or Derek Jeter, I feel the same way. 

Waves of market nostalgia are strongest for me when they wash up on my shore memories of putting out those Furniture/Today dailies. Clacking away on our keyboards on deadline, with our fearless, contagiously optimistic captain, Dave Perry, lovingly placing sugar treats next to our keyboards “for a little energy boost,” as he would whisper. Turning a dozen showroom visits into a coherent story, then heading back out to cover the parties, we achieved Gestalt with the consistency of Swiss timepieces.

I remember with such warmth eating, praying and loving during those market grinds with the likes of Powell Slaughter, Tom Edmonds, Clint Engel, Sheila O’Mara, Larry Thomas, Lee Buchanan, Jay McIntosh and Susan Andrews. We were a finely tuned, well-oiled market machine, and it was a privilege and an honor to cover the living heck out of those markets with such a talented crew. We’ve since lost Jay and Susan, may they eternally rest in piece.

And I remember these scenes with such precision, as if I had picked up a snow globe of that downtown newsroom, shook it, and then watched the years swirl and settle into a soft reverie and a slow reveal. Fiat lux. 

May your market be filled with light and love, and may you have that rare prescience that can see a memory in the moment of its creation.

I can see the lead paragraph now: “We saw the people we needed to see. Buyers were selective, but orders are up and our backlogs are manageable. The market was (yet) another huge success.”  

Brian Carroll

Brian Carroll covered the international home furnishings industry for 15 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He chairs the Department of Communication at Berry College in Northwest Georgia, where he has been a professor since 2003.

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