Furniture library is a hidden treasure

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by Jordan Green

The Bienenstock Furniture Library, open to the public throughout the year, houses the world’s largest collection of books on furniture design and history.

Inadequacy often drives accomplishment.

Hired in the 1920s to review the books at Furniture World, accountant Sandy Bienenstock soon fell in love with furniture, design and publishing. He eventually became the publisher of the magazine.

In his drive to understand the industry his magazine was tasked to chronicle, he collected 3,000 to 3,500 books. Bienenstock moved the collection from New York to High Point in 1970, opening the Bienenstock Furniture Library in a gracious fieldstone manse on North Main Street that was built in 1923 and formerly occupied by Dr. Charles Grayson, a four-term mayor.

Having accumulated more than 5,000 titles, the library now boasts the largest collection of furniture, design and history books in the world.

Thanks to the International Home Furnishings Market, which is held twice a year in High Point, the museum attracts visitors from across the world. The visitors range from doctoral students pursuing scholarly studies and paralegals researching patent disputes to ordinary people seeking the provenance of a grandmother’s beloved chair.

“You never know when the doorbell rings, what adventure is waiting there,” said Karla Webb, the library director and its sole employee.

A native of Trinity, Webb inherited her love of design from her father, who owned a cabinetry and woodworking shop for 50 years. She worked for Bienenstock in college, accompanying him during markets.

“He gave me insight into how passionate he was about the furniture industry and the scholarship program,” Webb said. She took the position as library director four years ago.

A focus on nurturing the next generation of designers is central to the library’s mission. Every year, the library hosts separate competitions in interior and furniture design for college juniors and seniors. First prize for each category wins $5,000, while second prize commands $1,500. The student in each category that places first also wins $1,000 for their school. The library operates as a nonprofit funded by an endowment from the Bienenstock family.

The library receives visits from students in design programs at a number of colleges and universities across the state, including High Point University, UNCG, Salem College, NC State University, Meredith College, Appalachian State University, Forsyth Tech, Randolph Community College, East Carolina University and Wingate University, not too mention out-of-state institutions like Savannah College of Art and Design and Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Mich.

A high-tech media room with wireless connectivity and video and audio conferencing testifies to a spirit of generosity in the design world. The media room was donated by Leslie Hendrix Wood, an interior designer who maintains the Hadley Court blog. Wood, like other designers, Webb said, is “very interested in the preservation of knowledge.”

Webb noted that the 80-inch screen divides into four quadrants so that people with separate laptops can share design ideas simultaneously.

“Everybody walks in and says, ‘Oh, are we going to watch the Super Bowl?’ I say, ‘No, it’s not a TV; it’s a computer.”

Webb noted with pride that any member of the public, regardless of their academic or professional credentials, is welcome to visit the library’s Rare Books Room, which is climate controlled at 65-70 degrees. Visitors are required to wear white gloves while handling the books.

The collection includes several first-edition design books from the 18th Century, the oldest a volume on architecture written in Dutch that dates back to 1543.

“Most of these are in foreign languages,” Webb said, “but it’s all about the pictures when you’re in design.”

The mainstays of the library are the regular-books room and the oversized-books room of the first floor, with titles ranging from a 1961 imprint titled Japanese Homes and their Surroundings and 150 Best Loft Ideas, published in 2007, to decorative art volumes for the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

“A lot of the students come here looking for something to give them a spark of imagination for the next project,” Webb said. “The High Point University students, as part of their class, have to decorate a room for a certain decade.”

There are sections on the second floor devoted to interior design, including books on color theory, along with woodworking and textiles.

On the first floor, practical tomes such as The Furniture Makers Handbook share shelf space with inspirational titles like Dream Homes of Texas and a book on Bauhaus style. Company histories of manufacturers such as Miller, Broyhill, Lane and Martindale set next to chronicles of regions renowned for furniture making, including The Story of Grand Rapids and Foresight, Founders and Fortitude: The Growth of Industry in Martinsville and Henry County, Virginia.

If, like Sandy Bienenstock, you were scrambling to get a handle on the world of furniture design, the library would be a logical place to start. You might pick up a hardback copy of Clifford Musgrave’s Adam and Hepplewhite and other Neo-Classical Furniture, a 1966 work of scholarship on the style revolution wrought by brothers Robert and James Adam in 18th Century Great Britain between the Treaty of Paris and the disastrous war of American secession.

You could do a lot worse than this for an explanation of why design matters:

“The profound changes brought about by the Adam brothers could not have been the result only of fresh whims of fashion. All changes in art are the reflection, indeed sometimes the anticipation, of new patterns of social existence and human relations. The society of the latter half of the eighteenth century moved along different currents of thought and behavior from earlier generations.”