A Proud Chairitage

In this photo taken on the plant floor in 1942, members are assembling seamless and sturdy wooden chairs, which used steam bending, Gunlocke’s signature technique. Photos courtesy of Gunlocke
by Kay Thomas

Gunlocke, the internationally recognized manufacturer of high-end office furniture, is located in Wayland, in Steuben County. Since the company’s founding 114 years ago, eight American presidents have made important decisions while sitting in a certain style of high-back desk chair. That leather chair, called “Washington,” is made by Gunlocke.

The company is known for long-lasting and timeless designs, which are often found in private offices and government chambers. You can even spot Gunlocke chairs in television courtroom dramas. Today, everyone who works for the company remains dedicated to quality, from its President Don Mead to its 800 or so “members,” the preferred term for those working on the floor and in the office.

Gunlocke is one of the few furniture companies that still does “steam bending,” a technique it introduced in 1912. Basically, strips of wood are steam heated – the applied heat and moisture make the strips pliable enough to easily bend around a mould to create a specific shape. Steam bending has been discontinued elsewhere in the industry because it is so labor-intensive, but time-honored manual techniques combined with modern technology (a small machine routs the chair parts) give Gunlocke furniture a proud heritage.

To see if you might own a Gunlocke, turn the furniture over and look for a small tag on a leg. Early labels were leather, and then paper. Today, they are made of brass and attached with rivets. The label will say, “Gunlocke,” or in the case of older items, “W.H. Gunlocke Chair Co. Wayland, NY.” The tag is also stamped with the date and an individual authenticity number.

The value of character

An expert woodworker can tell you about the character in a single piece of wood: the color, patterns, figure, knots, and other visible features. No two pieces are alike. Even when you rip a board and a lay the two faces side by side, you will see slight variations in pattern and color.  The craftsperson who makes a Gunlocke chair also has character. To create a beautiful piece of wood furniture down to the finest detail is all in the skill and artistry of the person.

Last year, Gunlocke, part of HNI Industries of Muscatine, Iowa, took a serious look at itself, and decided to reposition better in the national market. After delving into the company’s rich history and exploring how it relates to the current people working at the plant, the conclusion was drawn that members are like family. They are vested in quality and problem-solving together to create better products. There is a renewed appreciation for the individuals performing the challenging tasks on the plant floor, and a reaffirmation of pride in the company’s past.

Today, there are high stakes for sustainability, and contemporary workspaces require different designs for more open office arrangements. However, 21st-century styles have not changed the original focus of Gunlocke. It still employs motivated craftsmen who have a strong personal interest in designing and building the best products. They are not unlike the original employees of the small family-owned business: predominately German immigrants already well-trained as woodworkers.

Family members

William H. Gunlocke and four other wood furniture experts acquired a vacant factory in Wayland in 1902. They established the W. H. Gunlocke Chair Company, which specialized in seating for homes, libraries and lounges. When a new wing was added to the factory in the 1970s, the company expanded its line to include tables, desks, credenzas and book cases.

Howard Gunlocke became president upon the death of his father in 1937. He positioned the company on the national forefront with three major initiatives. He brought Detroit mass manufacturing into the factory, and he made a showroom with product samples for customer viewing. The first traveling showroom, set up in the back of a trailer truck, was also one of Howard’s ideas.

Stories abound in the Wayland area about how “Mr. Gunlocke,” made a special investment in his employees. “Hair grows on Gunlocke time,” he famously said, and his company employed a barber to provide free services to its members. There was also a chapel, which still functions today.     

At one time, the majority of local high school graduates went to work Gunlocke, as had their fathers before them. Cars were scarce after World War II, so Howard would send a shuttle bus to nearby villages such as Perkinsville to pick his workers up. He gave many returning veterans a job, and knew every member by name.

Today, it’s not uncommon for three generations in one family to work alongside each other on the factory floor. Sandy Booth, the genealogy coordinator at the Wayland Historical Society, is a second-generation Gunlocke member. Her daughter is a third. Sandy’s father died after working there for 33 years. Mr. Gunlocke came to the funeral home, as he did when any company member died.

Up until the 1960s, members were paid in cash – $2 bills that were first put through a washing machine at the plant. “It came in a small brown envelope,” recalls Sandy. “As a kid, I can remember my father bringing his home on Fridays. He made a deal with me that whatever change was in his pay envelope was my allowance for the week. Many a Friday I waited anxiously as he opened the envelope and dumped out the bills and coins.”

An employee profit-sharing plan was instituted in 1941 and by June of 1950, more than half-a-million dollars in profits had already been paid out to Gunlocke members. One of those dollars was framed and is currently on display at the Wayland Historical Society.

A particularly memorable profit-sharing payout occurred in June of 1963, according to this write-up in the Wayland Register in Gunlocke’s archives. “For the third time in the history of the 23-year profit-sharing plan, the payment was made in cash. A Brinks’ armored vehicle and guard delivered the money. Throughout the day uniformed guards patrolled the office, and armed guards were on the factory roof and on top of a railroad boxcar on the factory siding. The payment was made up of the largest denomination bills available and there were 72 500-dollar bills, 673 100s, 175 50s, etc.” The armed men on the roof were Gunlocke employees, says a current member. His dad was one of them.

To mark its 100th year in business in 2002, Gunlocke made a donation to the Wayland Historical Society that included several pieces of furniture, vintage photos and historical documents. It is all housed in the society’s Gunlocke Room, which is open to the public.

Sending a new signal

The Gunlocke whistle was a big part of life in Wayland for years. It signaled the beginning and closing of the workday, and the lunch break at noon. Today, it blows at noon when a retiree or a member dies. It blows at 11 a.m. when the plant makes $500,000 in sales in a single day. Members get the news first via an email the first thing in the morning.

Gunlocke sets the pace in the industry for its environmentally efficient and conscious approach to manufacturing. It uses low-off gas emissions in its finishes, water-based varnishes, and an innovative “mushroom board” grown using mushrooms and corn husks – waste from a nearby farm. It’s way to make furniture but not leave a huge footprint on the Earth.

Although walnut and oak are the prime woods used, Gunlocke also offers a line of all-aluminum furniture. Other functional office arrangements use partial wood that designers incorporate into signature Gunlocke styles.

The salespeople collaborate with customers to determine the best furniture option for them, to make sure it provides optimum productivity, versatility, and space efficiency. Silea, for example, a popular line with lawyers – a large customer base – features drawers for large legal files and plenty of storage.

Gunlocke started manufacturing casegoods in the 1970s. Its tables, desks, credenzas and bookcases furnish private offices and open office space, as well as casual conference areas for quick touchdown meetings.

A popular section on the company’s s website is “My Gunlocke Chair,” where owners share stories about their particular chairs. It brings Gunlocke full circle with a sense of deep satisfaction in a job well done.


The Gunlocke Company

One Gunlocke Drive, Wayland, NY 14572
Phone: 800-828-6300
Fax: 585-728-8350
gunlocke.com