Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams: Good Guys, Great Furniture
American entrepreneurs combine old school values with new age thinking to produce their famous furniture
Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams hold one tenet of design higher than the rest: comfort. Since 1989, the furniture design duo has strived to make customers, employees, and the world we live in more comfortable by producing sleek, durable furniture in a sustainable way. “Our 25 short years of success have taught us that it’s possible to transcend the ‘do good or make money’ dichotomy,” they write in the 2014 book Who We Are. In fact, Gold and Williams are doing just that—their company now makes more than $100 million in annual sales using a business model that provides employees with in-house child care and health care, gives back to the community, and minimizes their carbon footprint. What’s not to love?
We caught up with them at their factory in Taylorsville, North Carolina.
You’ve been in business for more than 25 years. How did you get your start?
Mitchell Gold: Back then, Bob and I were partners in life and decided to become partners in business. The idea was to make comfortable furniture, really comfortable furniture upholstered in absolutely fabulous fabrics. Dining rooms were changing as America’s ideas about dining and entertaining were changing. With that change there was a need for a different and more comfortable kind of seating.
Bob Williams: The other big idea came from our having been furniture retailers and becoming a little frustrated about how long it took to get orders filled. We thought we could make better furniture more quickly. In our factory, the orders were entered and out on the shop floor within 24 hours.
One of your mottos is: Comfort has the power to transform lives. Please tell us what you mean.
MG: Well, comfort is not only about how a piece feels when you sit in it and the fabric you put on it; it is about creating an environment where people feel comfortable and safe: a sanctuary.
BW: Over the years, I’ve realized that when I talk about comfort, I am talking about more than how a sofa or chair sits. I’m talking about creating a home for family, friends, and people we care about—our community.
Please describe your employee cafeteria, Café Lulu.
MG: One thing’s for sure. When people are well fed, they are healthier and happier. We are in a very rural part of North Carolina where the tradition is fried food—fried okra, fried green beans—or barbecue. All very delicious, but we wanted to offer a healthy alternative. We hired a chef and let him be creative. So in Café Lulu, we’ll serve something like sockeye salmon on a bed of spinach or trout sautéed with French green beans. The cost is $6.95 and there’s a $4.95 special as well.
BW: It’s named after Lulu, our English bulldog. We got her on a Monday and took her to the factory on a Tuesday. She came to work with us every day for the rest of her life (more than 12 years) and became an ambassador for the brand. When we put her on a sofa during a photo shoot, she totally got it and lit up for the camera.
Tell us about your chef, and why did you include recipes in your new book?
BW: We entertain quite a lot—especially during furniture market. We have dinners at our homes for editors, buyers, tastemakers, and foodies. Many of them just fell in love with the adorable chef Sean Robinson’s food and ask for recipes. So we included some favorites in the book. Sean is a graduate of Johnson & Wales. We advertised for a cook and, happily, a very creative young chef answered our ad.
Where do you get your inspirations?
BW: I’m a little old school. I love magazines. I read every single design publication and rip out pages that I love. I throw the tear sheets into my “inspiration baskets.” I pull out the baskets when I’m ready to start sketching new designs.
MG: We get inspiration from our travels—from street markets and flea markets to art museums and antiques shops. We also pay attention to what’s happening around us every day—pop culture, fashion, movies, TV, music, books.
You design some of the set furniture for The Good Wife. Who is your favorite character, and why?
BW: Will sure was cute, and I was disappointed when he got killed. So, I guess you could say that my favorite character is Diane because I enjoy gutsy, headstrong women.
MG: Alicia [Julianna Margulies) because she has a real air of confidence and speaks with such clarity. Also, we love Christine Baranski [who plays Diane]. About 12 years ago when we came out with our first book, Let’s Get Comfortable, Christine came to one of our book signings, and we had a great chat. It is a relationship that’s just gotten better over the years.
What is your favorite piece of furniture in your houses, and why?
MG: I love my upholstered bed (above) because I like to sit up in bed to read books, read the newspaper, watch TV, eat breakfast—lots of things at once—and the upholstered headboard makes it comfortable.
BW: I’m crazy about the Bastille chair (above). The inspiration came from wanting something to go next to my fireplace in the media room. I looked for quite a while, and then I thought, “Hey! I’m in the furniture business. So let’s come up with something that expresses and embraces this look.”
Your furniture is made in the United States. What made you think this would be good business and good for business?
MG: First, there’s convenience. In order to manufacture furniture the way we wanted to do it, you have to be in control of production. And in order to be in control of production, you have to live near the factory. This area of North Carolina has the best craftspeople who can make the quality of furniture that we want.
BW: You have to be there every day to run a business the way we want. We took a look at manufacturing overseas but decided we could still be cost effective if we agreed to work with smaller [profit] margins in the U.S.
MG: The role of a company is not just to make money. It is also there to serve the community. We think we should set an example in the community for other businesses and other people that all people, including LGBT people, should have a full and equal place at home, at work, at church.
BW: It is easier to be environmentally responsible when you work closer to your customers. It makes for a smaller carbon footprint. Since our beginning, we have worked to save energy with new technology, to source wood frames from local partners, to make our cushions free of fire-retardant chemicals. Our company is a founding member of the Sustainable Furnishings Council, and Mitchell is on the board.
What makes your partnership work?
MG: I’m really nice and Bob is a goofball. No, seriously, we have a great synergy and are in total agreement about our sense of style and, equally importantly, the way we want to treat our employees and customers. Otherwise, Bob is the design guru. He is responsible for the design—the look—of our furniture, our stores, and our website.
BW: Mitchell is in charge of finances, marketing, and sales. But on all of the big decisions, we decide together.
When you have a disagreement, who wins?
MG: Hmm. We really respect each other and each other’s ideas. If there’s a disagreement about something that’s important to Bob, he wins. And if he sees that something is important to me, he lets me win.
Please describe the key elements of a good party.
MG: I think one of the most important things is just being there to welcome people at the door. Besides that, having a good bar set up and maybe having a specialty drink.
BW: Easy entertaining and a comfortable home go hand in hand. And I would include great lighting—lots and lots of tea candles—very romantic and very flattering. And a great party mix of music—current pop hits and great classics like Johnny Cash and Dionne Warwick.
How would you describe your style?
BW: Relaxed. But it has evolved over time. When we first started, we were both dressing in a way that was much more casual—jeans, prewashed shirts, broken-in leather jackets. The design question we asked ourselves at that time was, How can we make furniture that reflects like we live on the weekends? Twenty-five years later, we’ve gotten a little older and like things a little dressier, but still very relaxed. I live in a big, redbrick Georgian colonial that I’ve furnished in a modern, contemporary, relaxed style.
MG: I live in a smaller but equally beautiful house that’s more Adirondack in design. It is like a camp house, a summer house on a lake. As I’m changing from a casual, country modernish feel to a more distinctly modern look, I’m saying, “Wow! This is a whole new way of modern living on the lake.” Still casual, yes, but also sophisticated.