Smaller furniture companies stake identity in NED district

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by Jordan Green

Small-scale, design oriented furniture companies that specialize in one-of-a-kind items have migrated out of the big showrooms to a new market district dubbed NED during the biannual furniture market. But it’s taking awhile for the concept to catch on.

They’re literally on the map now.

Over the past five years, some of the smaller players in the furniture industry have migrated out of the mega-showrooms owned by the dominant International Market Centers, and bought or leased their own buildings along North Elm Street in downtown High Point.

A year ago, a handful of companies including Elegant Earth, Madcap Cottage, BoBo Intriguing Objects and Design Legacy started calling themselves North Elm District, or NED. For the fall market this year — running through Thursday — the official map and transportation guide issued by the High Point Market Authority included an outline of NED. Along with the Hamilton-Wrenn Design District across North Main Street to the east, NED is one of two districts specifically demarcated on the map.

The showrooms in NED are smaller, and their operators hope, less intimidating than the gargantuan International Home Furnishings Center and Showplace and other venues that flank Commerce Avenue to the south. Among other buyers, they’re courting designers who are looking for individual pieces as opposed to bulk purchases for retail stores. And they’re encouraging their customers to come early for first pick. Many of the showrooms in NED were open and receiving customers three days ahead of the official start of fall market on Oct. 17.

“I think the market has become two industries,” said Kelly O’Neal, the owner of Design Legacy and an enthusiastic proponent of NED. “One is the mass-produced ‘stock it deep and sell it cheap’ concept. The other makes special items. The makers of the industry are moving out and away from the big buildings and the mass importers. We’re going to lose some customers leaving the building, but we’re going to attract the buyers who are looking for special things.”

That’s not to say that the small furniture companies that populate the district don’t import some of their goods. While Design Legacy, BoBo and Golden Oldies specialize in antiques and antiques reproductions, others like Elegant Earth and Club Cu feature outdoor furniture. Club Cu manufactures concrete furniture in High Point and locally sources slipcovers for upholstered chairs, but the High Point-based company also operates factories in Indonesia and China. And Circa Loft, which opened a new showroom this past weekend on West Kivett Drive, specializes in furniture made in western China from reclaimed wood salvaged from farmhouses.

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Golden Oldies

Bert Hayes, a commercial realtor who has wooed many of the new showroom owners, dropped in for a visit at Design Legacy, which put out a generous spread of oysters Rockefeller, chilled shrimp, duck and steak, with an open bar stocked with wine and craft beer.

“He’s the one who sold us the building,” O’Neal exclaimed.

The area was “in need of reinventing itself,” Hayes said, adding that he’s watched Golden Oldies double in size.

“We’ve probably tripled our business overnight,” O’Neal said.

Chad Stogner, who played an instrumental role in launching NED as owner of Alabama-based Elegant Earth, said the district attracts furniture companies that cater to buyers looking for unique offerings.

“We call it ‘designer-driven stores,’” he said. “They have higher-end clients. The high end is all that’s left. The middle and the lower end are gone. That’s why High Point survived the Vegas onslaught.”

The smaller showrooms in NED also benefit from space to display their wares.

Golden Oldies and BoBo stock vintage and vintage-inspired pieces in mass quantity ready to provide period detail for a movie set. A black antique Dodge pickup and World War II-era motorcycle with a sidecar are parked in front of Golden Oldies. And stacks of painted metal chairs look like they could easily turn up in a scene of an early ’60s-era outdoor wedding reception in New England.

Its next-door neighbor on Broad Avenue, BoBo — short for “bourgeois” and “bohemian” — got its start reproducing French and Belgian antiques.

“Our headquarters is in Atlanta,” company owner Mark Sage said. “Georgia is booming with the film industry right now. We’ve worked with The Hunger Games and The Accountant.”

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Chad Newman of Circa Loft

Not everyone in the district’s footprint holds a clear sense of the concept behind NED, or is even aware that it exists.

“I guess we’re part of it,” said Chad Newman, owner of Circa Loft. “I don’t know much about it.”

Bill Massengill, a senior vice president for Calvin Klein Furniture — which leases space in the Union Square building — said he had never heard of the district. Nor had William Thorpe, who has owned the French Interiors building on Hayden Place since 1992.

Thorpe’s business is more workshop than showroom, with a narrow doorway and stacks of mirrors jamming the space, and his establishment isn’t listed in the guide published by the market authority. Thorpe took up woodcarving, studying under a master Italian carver, just as much of the craft was moving overseas to the Philippines and Indonesia.

Early in his career, Thorpe started restoring antique mirrors using the trumeau technique of fine woodcarving and gilding to replace sections of the frames that had deteriorated.

“I realized if I could do a half mirror, I could also do a whole one,” he said.

At Club Cu, Sandy Howell said she found NED to be an appealing moniker.

“It’s a cool concept,” she said. “It’s kind of like an arts district. It’s where you go to find people who think differently.”

But she confessed to being a little unclear about the organizing principle, and conducted a little experiment to find out if the idea has caught on with buyers.

“Have you guys heard of NED?” she asked a couple browsing the showroom.

“I have not,” the man said. “This is only our third stop.”

“Well, this is the second year it’s been around,” Howell said.

“Welcome to NED,” her colleague, Andrea Mendenhall, added.

Kelly O’Neal at Design Legacy acknowledged it might take awhile for the concept to catch on.

“The challenge is getting a bunch of people with their own vision to agree on one marketing plan and logo,” he said.

  • Might any of them have a year-round presence? Now THAT would be progress! Oh! And a restaurant! Elm Street Grill has the best Buffalo chicken wrap and seasoned fries, but a dinnertime, fancy restaurant would be nice, too. You know what else would be great? A bookstore. :)

  • Jordan Green

    Good question, Angel. William and Thomas Thorpe at French Interiors operate year-round, and are probably open by appointment, although they function more as a studio than a showroom. And Club Cu, described to me as an “A to Z” furniture business from manufacturing to sales, is based in High Point.