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Sarah Bray | Photo: Courtesy of Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams | May 6, 2019
From the oversize leather armchairs with which they began to the elegant seats you see here, a lot has changed in the 30 years since Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams founded their eponymous brand. But, ironically, sitting pretty is not how they continuously design furniture for the future.
“We were the Uber of the early ’90s,” says Mitchell Gold, laughing, at the Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams Soho store in New York before the first of many blowout bashes to celebrate three decades in business. “Uber came in and took business away from the traditional taxi and limo industry. When we launched in 1989, we took creative risks with our ad campaigns and set new standards in fabric. The other furniture manufacturers were standing on the sidelines with their eyes wide, like, ‘Who are these guys?’”
Decades before “disrupter” was a tech-world buzzword, Gold and his co-founder, Bob Williams, were shaking up the old-school furniture industry. From environmentally friendly materials to early investments in technology that made manufacturing furniture more efficient, the MGBW brand exploded overnight. Success came thanks to an early ethical move that attracted top talent to their North Carolina headquarters. “We were the first furniture manufacturer in a large area to have an air-conditioned factory,” Williams says of the no-brainer yet norm-breaking move.
Scholarship programs for employees and their children, as well as on-premise day care, were only some of the Silicon Valley-worthy perks that soon followed. “We’ve always treated our employees with a certain level of respect and care,” says Gold. “As a result, we have the most skilled makers in the country crafting our collections.”
While culturally conducive work environments undoubtedly lead to innovation, early adoption in other forms has kept MGBW, as Gold says, “surviving and thriving.” The duo’s foresight again led them to launch a website in 1994, a first for the furniture industry. Since the rise of fast furniture, other brands have crumbled to overseas competition. The light-speed machine-made likes of Ikea hurt communities dependent on the woodworking and upholstery trades. But MGBW saw the often unspoken implications of technology as motivation.
“One of the things we identified immediately is that if we could deliver our product quicker and faster than anyone else, that would give us a competitive advantage,” recalls Williams of another key catalyst to break traditional furniture lead times, which, at the time, were typically six months minimum. “We had to be quick, but couldn’t compromise on quality.”
What may seem obvious today in the age of Amazon was—and still is—challenging for any made-to-order creation. “Historically, upholstery manufacturers would order fabric once they received the orders from the retail floor,” Williams continues. “So we decided to stock inventory of all of our fabrics ahead of time. That was a huge investment for our startup, but it was a breakthrough disrupter to have that inventory position.”
Gold and Williams’ success took brains for both business and beauty. The well-traveled co-founders credit their eye for design to their endless curiosity.
“In the ’90s, the market was very much oversize roll-arm sofas because it was all about that living large look,” says Gold of a time period he calls the age of beige. “Americans considered modern to be extremely stark and European. But Bob and I were taken with Jean-Michel Frank designs because they were an interpretation of art deco that wasn’t curved and glitzy—rather more reminiscent of minimalist modern architecture.”
When MGBW came out with its debut American modern collection in ’94, it was an interiors style the U.S. hadn’t seen before. “We really led the way on creating an American modern design,” says Williams of the fresh look, which is constantly evolving and often best conveyed in the form of a chair. “The factory that we started with in 1989 specialized in occasional chairs, so that’s our first love. I love that a chair can be sculptural, like a work of art.”
To this day, the pair is inspired by chairs with their own identities. This season, the brand’s Les Petite Seats collection is, once again, ahead of its time. Smartly scaled yet surprisingly big on comfort, the lineup of far-from-bulky seating brings the room together in more ways than one. “Our conversation-starting Les Petite Seats allow you to have extra seating and bring people closer together,” says Gold of the custom-upholstered designs, some of which have wheels. It’s a fitting analogy for their influence on the industry, American interiors and each other.
“I think Bob and I are successful because we have both business and aesthetic synergy,” says Gold. “You have to care about each other and the world if you want to make it.”
Originally published in the April/May issue of Silicon Valley