Doing the Wright Thing | Visual Art | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Doing the Wright Thing 

Vermont's Copeland Furniture looks to the future with an iconic architect's historic designs

Published September 27, 2006 at 12:19 p.m.

Regular VPR listeners probably have at least a subliminal awareness of the Copeland Furniture Company, based in Bradford - its underwriting blurbs air frequently. But the company is about to become a familiar brand name beyond the state as well. The manufacturer will soon distribute, to top-of-the-line dealers all over the country, some of the 1000 tables, chairs, beds and dressers designed by pre-eminent American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959). Copeland has secured an exclusive licensing arrangement with the foundation Wright established in 1940 to safeguard his aesthetic legacy.

"When we heard they were shopping for a new licensee, we snapped onto them like a puppy grabbing somebody's pants leg," says Tim Copeland, founder and president of the company. "We couldn't pass up the chance to build products designed by the undisputed master of furniture design in this country."

Gaining the rights to Wright's work may prove a monumental coup. "It could be very, very big for us," Copeland says, though he is waiting to see how the market actually develops before moving to expand production capacity.

Wright Foundation officials approached his 30-year-old firm because of its reputation for "quality and value," Copeland recounts. The Upper Valley factory also happens to be one of the last in the United States turning out high-end furniture. Copeland's rootsy identity was among the foundation's considerations in choosing a successor to an Italian firm that had been licensed to reproduce works by a quintessentially American designer.

"Most operations of any size have curtailed their U.S. operations and gone overseas," Copeland notes during a recent interview in his unembellished office close to the factory floor. "We're about the only firm stubborn enough to continue manufacturing in the U.S."

The business has also stayed on the western side of the Connecticut River even though operating expenses would be cheaper in tax-averse New Hampshire. It's "habit," mainly, that keeps Copeland in Vermont, its owner says, noting, "It'd cost us millions of dollars to move across the river."

There's also the Vermont cachet to consider. The state's association with authenticity and quality craftsmanship is "something we of course want to identify with," Copeland adds.

Officials of Bradford, a generally ungentrified town of fewer than 3000 residents, are surely pleased that Copeland hasn't gone elsewhere. The company maintains a 100-strong workforce, and ranks among the top taxpayers in Orange County. It also attracts both drive-by browsers and destination-focused buyers to its two-story retail outlet about a half-mile from the factory.

Copeland himself has lived in Bradford for 35 years. He and his wife have raised four children, each a graduate of the town's Oxbow High School. "It's been a good place to bring up a family. I wouldn't want to have done it anywhere else," he says.

A native of the Chicago area, Copeland was part of the hippie-era flatlander exodus to Vermont, making his way to Bradford mostly by happenstance. He worked initially in a local lumber yard and "fell into design" by building cider presses for Garden Way, a Charlotte, Vermont, company that was the era's emblematic maker and distributor of products for sustainable living.

Copeland soon segued into building tables and other types of furniture. He grew successful enough to open a factory in 1984, which has since expanded into a 129,000-square-foot space filled with the hum and clank of heavy machinery and the scents of sawn wood and finishes.

The northern hardwoods Copeland Furniture uses for its own line of contemporary pieces conform to harvesting standards promulgated by the Forest Stewardship Council. The lumber comes from stands in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

The company's environmentalist ethos squares with the "organic architecture" that Wright pioneered and practiced. The homes he designed made use of natural materials indigenous to their locales. Those built in forested areas consisted mainly of wood, while Wright's desert residences have a stony appearance. His integrative style extends to the furniture and accessories he also designed for each of his houses, the interiors of which are meant to harmonize with the natural environment.

Wright had the sort of eccentric temperament and empathetic worldview that would likely have made him feel at home in Vermont. But so far as is known, Copeland says, Wright never set foot in the state during his 70-year career. He did build a couple of homes in Manchester, N.H. - one of which is open to public view. Zimmerman House, completed in 1950 and maintained by the Currier Museum of Art, is representative of the practical, elegant and inexpensive residential architecture that Wright dubbed "Usonian."

The Prairie Style, for which the Wisconsin-born architect is best known, features the expansive horizontal lines of his native Midwest, as well as jutting verticals abstracted from the crops and trees that thrust up from the heartland.

Copeland's office contains a couple of examples of Wright's classic barrel chairs that are among the initial pieces the company is manufacturing under its contract with the Arizona-based foundation. Their staved shape and cherrywood material are combined into a simple yet striking form described as "architecture you can sit on."

Copeland is also producing Wright's thick-cut dining tables in accordance with the "miter-wrap" manufacturing process that allows the wood grain on the tabletop to extend over the edges and down the sides of the piece. Grain definition in Wright furniture made of white oak is also emphasized by means of a "quartersawn" technique that reveals the wood's ray-fleck pattern. Labor-intensive hand rubbing of furniture finishes further accentuates the graininess of Wright's designs. Copeland Furniture uses only catalyzed lacquer finishes that withstand stains and impart a mellow patina to a piece as it ages.

A few of Copeland's initial offerings in its Frank Lloyd Wright line will be featured at the Vermont Fine Furniture and Woodworking Festival taking place this weekend in Woodstock.

The company says its deal with the Wright Foundation was clinched in part because of Copeland's commitment to "achieve price points allowing all generations to own Mr. Wright's furniture designs and to be able to integrate them into their own individual décor." Whether that's actually the case depends more on the economic than the generational niche a potential buyer occupies. A barrel chair sells for $1000, a dining table for $5500 and a full dining room set for $25,000.

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About The Author

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley is a contributing writer for Seven Days, Vermont Business Magazine and the daily Nation of Kenya.


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