North Carolina Town Hosts Home Furnishings Market

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions
on March 16, 2008
Stuart Englert Pam Stern owns a 1920 landmark in High Point, N.C.

Rick Workman pulls a piece of upholstery over a wooden chair frame and fastens the fabric to the wood with an air-powered staple gun at the Thayer Coggin Inc. furniture factory in High Point, N.C. (pop. 85,839).

Pop, pop, pop, pop sounds the gun as Workman, 55, repeatedly pulls the stapler's trigger. "There," he says, fastening a final staple to the kiln-dried maple frame. "That's how you make a chair seat. The next step is the back."

Across town, Andy Swaim, 43, and his cousin Rhonda Swaim-Warren, 47, welcome buyers to their Main Street furniture showroom, decorated with granite-topped tables, silk-covered sofas and elegant armoires manufactured by Swaim Inc., the family-owned business.

"It's a way of life," says Swaim-Warren, whose grandfather founded the company in 1945. "It's what we've always done; it's what we know."

Companies such as Swaim and Thayer Coggin help High Point retain its title as the Home Furnishings Capital of the World by building—and selling—durable, yet fashionable furniture that suits customers from around the world.

High Point has been synonymous with furniture since 1888 when Thomas Wrenn established the High Point Furniture Co. and began making wooden beds and cupboards from trees harvested from the state's vast hardwood forests.

Today, the city is home to a network of furniture manufacturers, suppliers, distributors and designers, the Bernice Bienenstock Furniture Library, and the biannual International Home Furnishings Market, which brings together 80,000 buyers and sellers for week-long trade shows each spring and fall.

Begun in 1909 as the Southern Furniture Market, the event has grown into the world's largest home furnishings trade show with more than 2,600 exhibitors displaying merchandise in 180 buildings, including the 3.5-million-square-foot International Home Furnishings Center.

The complex of showrooms is filled with aspen bedroom suites from Colorado, curio cabinets from China, leather loveseats from Ohio, pine tables from Peru, hand-woven rugs from India and upholstered recliners from Indiana that attract industry insiders from around the globe.

"It isn't just the products that they're looking at," says Brian Casey, 53, president of the High Point Market Authority, which hosts the annual trade shows. "High Point is the source for trends, fashion and innovations in the home furnishings industry."

While the market is closed to the public, High Point has 47 retail stores—from Adams Furniture to Zaki Oriental Rugs—to cater to shoppers drawn by the town's reputation for fine furniture and home décor.

Furnitureland South, in neighboring Jamestown (pop. 3,088), claims to have the world's largest selection of home furnishings, as well as the world's largest chest of drawers, an 85-foot-tall highboy that towers over the 1-million-square-foot store.

High Point has its own giant chest of drawers. Originally built in 1920 by the High Point Chamber of Commerce as a bureau of information, today the 38-foot-tall dresser has two 6-foot argyle socks dangling from a drawer. "It's the most photographed building in High Point," says Pam Stern, 46, who purchased the landmark in 2006 and plans to lease the building to market vendors or for social functions.

Meanwhile, back at Thayer Coggin Inc., Rick Workman, who has worked at the factory for 26 years, is busy upholstering chairs that are sturdy yet stylish, fashionable yet comfortable, details that keep the company—and High Point—at the forefront of the furniture industry.

"In terms of construction, we've never deviated from the way we made furniture in the 1950s," says CEO Royale Wiggin, 50, whose father founded his namesake company in 1953.

"Anything you make is worth making right," adds her mother Dot Coggin.