GRFDA Meeting New Needs Today

June 21, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Grand Rapids Furniture Designers Association, the oldest organization of its kind in the country, has changed its focus over 85 years.

In 1916 local manufacturer Robert Irwin came up with the idea to form an association of furniture designers as a way to foster relationships between area designers and manufacturers, according to GRFDA.

Local designers William Kimerly, J. Stuart Clingman and Thomas Handley liked the idea, as well, and interested other designers in organizing a group.

They officially established the association on Oct. 25, 1917, and E. Berkey Jones of the William A Berkey Co. was elected as its first president.

Eighteen area designers were admitted as charter members at that time, according to association records.  

In the beginning, membership was limited to designers living here and employed by Grand Rapids area furniture manufacturers.

After reorganizing in 1920, the group opened its doors to qualified furniture designers throughout the United States and began granting associate memberships to people in related fields, such as furniture suppliers.

Membership was later extended to third-year furniture design students.  

In 1926, then-president Thomas Johnson said GRFDA’s purpose was “to promote the welfare and enlist the cooperation of all furniture designers throughout America in the betterment of furniture design and construction.”

For many years the association’s membership constituted the Who’s Who of furniture design.

“There’s no doubt about that,” said Max Shangle, chairman of the Furniture Design Department at the Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University. “For a long time it was the only designer association of its kind in the country.”

With the depression of the 1930s, some members began gravitating towards other regions, such as the Southern furniture market in High Point, N.C.

Today, the majority of furniture designers live and work in the South, and GRFDA’s focus has changed, said Shannon Lookabill, association president.

The group has 75 members presently, about 30 of them living in the Grand Rapids area and the rest scattered across the country.

At age 30, Lookabill, a furniture designer with Warren & Associates Inc., is among the youngest in the group. Most members are retired furniture designers or people who worked in the furniture industry for years, he said.

The five meetings the group holds each year have taken on a decidedly social flavor.

“It’s not so much a means of keeping furniture designers together, and we don’t necessarily share ideas or anything of that sort,” Lookabill said.

“Twenty or 30 years ago the Grand Rapids Furniture Designers Association was more involved in the industry as a whole. Now it’s more of just a social event for people in our industry.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s no longer viable.

Every year, GRFDA awards a $1,500 scholarship to a promising Kendall student in his or her final year of the furniture design program. Shangle said about a half dozen Kendall design students are currently student members of GRFDA.

However, the scholarship program isn’t the only incentive for students to affiliate with the organization, he said. 

He said students can still get a lot of mileage out of the GRFDA connection, as they have in the past.

“Although it’s more of a social organization than anything, it’s a great opportunity for them to network with professional designers,” Shangle said. “I can call members of the designer’s association, at the drop of a hat and have someone come in and mentor with a student.

Over the years, Kendall also has called on GRFDA members to serve as guest speakers in its furniture design courses. And the college’s long-term relationship with the organization continues to present opportunities for its students, he said.

That’s especially true with some of the industry suppliers who are GRFDA associate members, he noted.

“They’re out there talking to any number of manufacturers and they know who is looking for design help. I know for a fact that there are people who’ve been members as long as I have that are still in contact with some of those original students they befriended back then.”

(A separate story in this edition names two Kendall graduates who enjoy important design posts with Turnstone, a Steelcase subsidiary. And one of the graduates, in fact, patented a design while still a senior at Kendall.)

Not only do GRFDA events give students a chance to socialize with a professional group, the events are fun, too, Shangle said.  

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