I get excited when I find Heywood-Wakefield furniture in my travels. Their modern designs, introduced in 1936 and in continuous production until 1966, encompass the entire period we think of today as “mid-century,” and played an important role in the evolution of furniture.
The Brothers Heywood
The five Heywood Brothers of Gardner Massachusetts made chairs with a foot powered lathe. By the 1860’s their business was known as Heywood Brothers & Company.
Meanwhile, a young grocer named Cyrus Wakefield collected reedy padding known as rattan, which at the time was discarded on the docks in Boston. He sold the soft insides to basket weavers, and the hard exterior to furniture makers, who used it for caned chair seats. Wakefield eventually bought his own clipper ships and brought the raw material back from the far east. After he passed, his nephew continued the Wakefield Company. By this time, the Heywoods were doing some very interesting things with rattan. A union seemed inevitable.
The first time Heywood and Wakefield tried to get together, they sought some shared factory space. Unfortunately, the Wakefields kept it for themselves instead of sharing, inciting bitterness that would last over a decade. It wasn’t until 15 years later that the two firms merged as Heywood Brothers & Wakefield Company. They used the iconic name Heywood-Wakefield beginning in 1921. By that time they were the world’s largest chair manufacturer (and rattan importer, too).
Heywood-Wakefield manufactured institutional furniture, for libraries, courthouses, and schools. They brought a unique vision even to these pieces; I can spot a Hey-Wake school or library chair at twenty paces. Their early adventures in rattan and cane are wonders. But it’s the modern pieces that ushered in a whole new world. They had more in common with French art moderne than with the ornate waterfall furniture in the US at the time. Check out the Niagara Vanity in the photo above, it’s long since been sold but it’s still fun to look at.