Disrupting the Disruptors: Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams Celebrates 30 Years of Innovation in the Furniture Industry
Style is impermanent. Hot decor trends come and go in a flash. But while most of us can shrug off an out-of-date sweater or swap out a purse that doesn’t scream “you” anymore, the pieces of furniture that populate our homes are harder to replace; besides our houses themselves, they’re probably the biggest design decision we ever make. And yet it often feels impossible to find that perfect armchair—the one your family will snuggle up in for a decade, but will continue to look as fresh and fashionable as if you bought it yesterday.
For 30 years, MGBW has been walking the tightrope between up-to-the-minute style and enduring design, and in the process, it’s set the bar for the entire furniture industry. Its eponymous co-founders entered the market in 1989 with a radical vision: to put comfort at the forefront of their business. But what really sets Gold and Williams apart is their expansive definition of that word—not just “comfortable” in the sense of a velvet-soft sofa that you could nap on for days, but “comfortable” in the sense of knowing that sofa was made in an ethical American factory by employees who are valued; “comfortable” in the sense of two openly gay co-founders who aren’t afraid to use their power and resources as industry leaders to speak up for LGBT youth; “comfortable” in the sense of design so classic that it can easily fit into any home you make, even as you move through the stages of life.
We sat down with Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams to talk about what they’ve learned over the past 30 years as innovators, and which status quo they plan to disrupt next.
ALIVE: Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams revolutionized the furniture industry—but, as happens with a lot of early disruptors, I suspect that many of today’s customers don’t realize just how thoroughly different the industry was before you came along. Paint me a picture of what things were like in 1989 before MGBW changed the game.
Mitchell Gold: In 1989, furniture was sold largely in destination locations—big, solitary showrooms surrounded by a lot of parking—not in malls or high-traffic shopping villages. Only apparel and jewelry and things like that [were sold in those places]. And people who sold upholstery didn’t talk about comfort, which was remarkable. You’d hear words such as “modern” and “contemporary,” but no one mentioned if the piece was comfortable or not.
The other thing was that in the world of furniture manufacturing, there was what I call a kind of plantation mentality. A lot of store owners had factories, and I don’t want to say they didn’t care about employees at all, but employees certainly were not their top priority. Benefits were shabby and minimal. The lighting wasn’t particularly good. They didn’t even have cafeterias for those who needed them.
So when Bob and I started out, we decided to make a company that, first of all, sold comfortable furniture. We also wanted a company that placed a high value on the happiness of its employees—happy employees give you a consistent workforce. That’s how we believe you make better quality products: by employing trained staff who stick around. Finally, we were determined to sell our pieces in places where customers would be comfortable shopping.
ALIVE: Let’s talk about the retail piece a little more. You didn’t just step away from the big-box, furniture-showroom-out-on-the-edge-of-town model; by placing your furniture in high-traffic mall stores such as Crate and Barrel, which runs a big catalog business, you actually challenged the idea that people needed to see the furniture in person before making a purchase. That must have been huge.
MG: Right; at the time, there was no such thing as selling furniture out of a catalog. People would chide us, asking, “What are you guys doing? Why are you working with businesses with catalogs? You can’t sell furniture out of a catalog; people need to sit on it.”
Now, a couple of years before [we started selling through catalogs], our furniture was featured on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” and as part of the segment, Oprah went down on Michigan Avenue with a microphone and asked people, “How do you feel about furnishing your home?” Their response was incredible; they would, like, cringe and say, “Oh, I’m afraid to! The salespeople in those [traditional furniture showrooms] are like used car salespeople!” They showed such anxiety towards the whole process.
I remember sitting in what was Bob and my’s house at the time, thinking, man, furniture is such an anxiety-ridden purchase. If we can make it so that, while they’re shopping, people receive really good, educated, truthful information in a relaxed environment, that would be an advantage for us. And because we were shipping better quality, more stylish merchandise fast, we were in tune with the consumer of the day, and we profited. We ended up taking a lot of people’s business—that was the beginning of our disruption.
ALIVE: It’s almost like you anticipated the internet era, in which we buy a lot without seeing it in person and companies leverage the absence of a showroom to deliver consumer-focused shopping experiences. When the online revolution happened, were you ready?
MG: Oh, we were ready. [Laughs.] I think the thing I want to express is, Bob and I, we were thinking about what future customers were going to buy and how they were going to buy it. We watched consumer habits across all kinds of industries.
Bob Williams: Yeah, and we quickly saw that the internet was able to give us certain advantages that we didn’t have before. In the past, when we were working out of catalogs, if something changed [in the design of a piece], we had to wait until the next year, when the catalogs were reprinted, to change the description. When the internet came along, if there were updates, we could inform customers right away. That was important because consumer tastes change constantly and we need to show that we’re changing with them.
ALIVE: Let’s talk about those consumer tastes, because you guys were big disruptors in that regard, too. You were actually one of the first companies to try to be nimble in your design sensibility, and you were definitely among the first to use the kind of comfortable, stylish textiles you see in the fashion industry in the context of furniture. Where did that idea come from?
MG: Well, we used to get the J.Crew catalog in the early ’90s, and I remember looking at it with Bob and noticing some trends. It was selling polo shirts that were pre-washed and faded. People were buying aged leather bomber jackets. There was this whole thing about comfort and relaxation—people weren’t going to work in suits every day—and we saw that as a style option for furniture, too.
ALIVE: When you’re designing, is it hard to balance the impermanence of fashion with furniture’s semiperminant nature? People don’t refurnish their homes nearly as often as they update their closets.
BW: From season to season, within each collection, we don’t make drastic changes. We know that when most people furnish their home, or even a room, they buy one piece of furniture at a time and slowly bring it all together (either because they don’t have confidence in their choices or simply because of the cost). So we want somebody who comes into our store every few months looking for that next piece to find that everything we stock still works with what they already have at home—we want to reassure them that they’ve made good design choices.
We don’t want to be a furniture company that jumps on fads because fads come and go. At the same time, we do pay attention to trends and try to work around them, but we want people to have pieces that they can keep for a long time. We focus on what I consider to be more classic items, which have a sense of longevity to them. Thirty years go by before you know it, trust me. [Laughs.]
ALIVE: Your commitment to company ethics hasn’t wavered over the years. Why did you prioritize things such as producing American-made furniture and offering great benefits to your factory employees—I personally love the fact that you were the first company to offer on-site childcare, and have invested a lot of your resources in charitable and activist causes—and do that, by the way, way before those things were trendy?
MG: When we started MGBW, we wrote a mission statement. The first sentence of it reads: “Comfort is paramount.” From there, we started thinking about how to make comfortable furniture, which made us question what comfortable furniture really means. For us, it means the way you sit on it, the way it feels in your hands and even the price; none of those things should make you uncomfortable. That idea led to us considering how to make our employees comfortable, as well, and expanded to incorporate our community and how to make them proud of us and our business.
In 1994, when President Clinton instituted the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, allowing gays to serve in the military, there was backlash, especially down here in the South and in the Midwest. At that point, we’d started to make some money, we had a voice in our community, and we became active in defending our LGBT brothers and sisters—in particular, LGBT youth.
Frankly, one of the reasons we do things like this is because we want to; it’s the right thing to do. We don’t want young kids to undergo the kind of mental anguish that we suffered throughout childhood. We have the power to help and our customers have responded really well to what we’re doing. We’ve actually gotten a lot of new customers because they like our activism and our company ethos.
ALIVE: So what’s next for Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams? What do you want to do in the next 30 years?
MG: We are going to disrupt the disruptors. There are new companies coming in, which are solely online, and we appreciate them joining the party. But what we have to offer is 33 stores where customers can sit, lay, touch, visualize and plan, while experiencing unparalleled service from our design staff. Our designers will come to your home, measure the space, create a floor plan, help you figure out what you already have and how it can blend in with new pieces, install and arrange furniture when it’s delivered, and so on, right down to the finishing touches. It’s that level of service, which nobody else is offering today, that we’re most proud of and that we think consumers crave.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Images courtesy of Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams.
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