Israels Has Designs On Manufacturing

June 21, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Israels Designs for Living will debut its manufacturing business on the city’s northwest side next year, as the company revealed last week that it purchased the John Widdicomb Furniture complex.

The complex consists of five buildings and a large vacant lot. One building will produce Israels specialty furniture line, one will be turned into a state-of-the-art technology center for the floor-covering division, and a third will be made into a computerized warehouse and distribution center that will support the furniture operation. The latter two buildings front Muskegon Avenue.

“On top of those buildings on Muskegon is the old John Widdicomb upholstering plant, which we haven’t decided what to do with yet, because we may just need to do some upholstering,” said Israels Inc. President Robert Israels.

Uses for the two remaining structures haven’t been finalized, either. But Israels said he would renovate both, and possibly move his firm into one and lease the other for office use.

The complex, based at 601 Fifth St. NW, is in the city’s Renaissance Zone, and Israels said the nearly tax-free status of the properties persuaded him to acquire the complex.

“I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for the city and the availability of the Ren Zone program,” he remarked. “This would not have happened without it.”

Israels added that he intends to buy two more nearby structures once the environmental issues are settled. The De Vries Companies will direct the renovation, and work should begin in January.

The 30,000-square-foot manufacturing facility, which stretches over much of the Sixth Street block it sits on, will produce case goods — such as finely crafted tables. Israels said Designs for Living will add 20 jobs to the local economy, and buy products and services to support the new operation from local vendors.

“This investment constitutes a vote of confidence in the Grand Rapids economy and all the people we have worked with over the years,” said Israels. “As our business has grown beyond the local to the global marketplace, Grand Rapids continues to be the best choice as home base for all our companies.”

Israels is family-owned and operated and can trace its roots back to 15th century Europe. Paintings by Israels’ great-great-grandfather still hang in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Art has always had a prominent position in the business, as the backbone of the company is its design division and not its more visible home-furnishings retail operation.

“To be able to start up manufacturing as sort of an expression of the designs that we’ve been making for all these years for other people, is going to be really exciting to do in the Widdicomb plant,” said Israels, alluding to Widdicomb’s lengthy history and respected name.

“We have been in the business of doing designs in furniture since around 1400.”

In contrast, the retail operation of Israels just turned 24 this year, having started in 1977.

Although the Designs for Living name may not be widely recognized here, its reputation is well known throughout a diverse business world. For nearly seven decades, it has designed a host of products for a slew of noteworthy manufacturers.

Some may know that Israels has done designs for Harden Fine Furniture, a maker of high-quality cherry residential pieces and executive office suites, along with a handful of other renowned furniture manufacturers. But few are probably aware that Israels also has designed dishes for Sears, wallpaper books for Schumacher Waverly, carpet patterns for Shaw and Mohawk, and adult-care complexes for Marriott and Del Webb.

“What you see in Grand Rapids is a tip of the iceberg. Our big business is actually the design business,” said Israels, who has 13 corporations under the family’s business banner.

The company will invest several million dollars to ready the plant for the production of its designs. Israels said the idea to produce its creations came from the company’s customers. So the company went ahead with the acquisition — which closed last month but had been expected to close last June — despite a listless economy.

“I thought, well, why not? Here is a great opportunity. Grand Rapids has all of these furniture people here, a lot of whom may be looking for employment with the existing conditions that we have here,” he said.

“These conditions are not out of line. People should not be worried about the economy. They should be working on the economy because the economy will come back and it will come back very, very strong.”

Israels said the Designs for Living line will fill a need in a specialty market: high-quality residential furniture. He said his business will be small, like similar manufacturers he has followed in California, North Carolina and upstate New York.

“We hope to have everything lined up for construction by the first of the year. We are presently getting all of the bids in on the products, and the line-manufacturing products are also coming to us right now,” he said.

In the meantime, Israels began a public liquidation sale of its entire home furnishings line last Wednesday at 446 Grandville SW.

Once the inventory is gone, storage and distribution operations will move to the new complex. But the trio of Israels retail centers will remain open in their current locations: downtown on Pearl Street, 28th Street at Breton, and The Other Store on Grandville Avenue.

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