Its no secret that Heywood-Wakefield is a well-known and well-loved line of vintage furniture among us retro folk — and for good reason. The line epitomizes the streamline modern style and coordinates with a variety of vintage and modern furniture styles. Add to that the solid wood construction and the warm glow of the finish, and it is easy to see why Heywood-Wakefield is so popular. And good news — Heywood-Wakefield is still being made today. We recently connected with Leonard Riforgiato, who, with his partner, bought the rights to the Heywood-Wakefield name in 1991 and revived production of the brand. Together they began recreating some of the hardest-to-find vintage styles. These include their best sellers, queen- and king-sized beds.
To learn more about the line of Heywood-Wakefield furniture made today, we asked Leonard to answer a few questions and provide us with more information about the revived Heywood-Wakefield company and how he got into the furniture business:
How did you get into the Heywood-Wakefield furniture business?
I started in 1984 doing a booth at Art Deco Weekend in Miami Beach, selling whatever 1950s and mid-century stuff I could find to the public and to antiques dealers as a “picker.” At that time, the South Beach Art Deco District was in its infancy; rents were dirt cheap, so I opened a store.
I soon noticed that any time I had Heywood-Wakefield furniture (which I had just found out about) it would sell fast, so I started specializing in it. Within a few years so did a lot of other people, and it became difficult to find reliable sources. When Gloria Estefan’s people came in one day and wanted 150 of the “dog bone” chairs for a restaurant, and I had three, I knew it was time for us to start manufacturing the stuff.
So my partner and I bought the name and trademark and intellectual property rights to the brand from the Bankruptcy court in New York and began the quest to find people who could build it today. By cute coincidence, the actual transfer became official on my birthday in 1991. It’s also very interesting to note that my partner is Andrew Capitman, the son of Barbara Capitman, who is credited with almost single-handedly saving the Art Deco District buildings from destruction beginning in the 1970s when she founded MDPL – the Miami Design Preservation League.
With so many vintage styles of Heywood-Wakefield furniture in the vintage resale market (since the furniture is so popular), how do you choose which styles to begin making again?
Originally, I picked the ones that were the most popular, but over time, I concentrated more on what I thought people might consider useful, and may not be able to get shopping for vintage. For instance, it shouldn’t surprise you to know that our fastest-selling product is queen- and king-sized beds. These didn’t exist the the ’40s and ’50s.
I also try to pick things that I can produce and sell at a price lower than the vintage. Our M 926 Desk/Vanity is a great example: a vintage one will set you back over $3000.00. Ours is $1795.00 at retail.
A third category is items developed or adapted from the original with a nod to modern usage. I expanded the stock M 326 Cabinet Bookcase into a sort of entertainment center that maintains the vintage look. I re-configured M 395 Record Cabinet to look the same on the outside but to accommodate things people are more likely to have today. I made some of the cocktail and dining tables bigger, and brought out a taller version of the M 321 Bookcase. By the way, you can custom-order sizes from us in some cases — such as the Madeline series of sofas.
Where are new Heywood-Wakefield furniture pieces made/how do the standards of construction compare with the original standards?
That’s a question I love to answer. EVERYTHING WE MAKE IS 100% PRODUCED IN THE UNITED STATES, and in fact our factory is about six miles from the original factory. All the wood items come from here, and the upholstered goods from North Carolina, where in my opinion, the upholsterers can’t be beat. (The factory that builds our stuff has clients in Japan, where consumers are super-picky.)
Since we got nothing when we bought the bankrupt company in the way of tooling, patterns, etc., we have reversed-engineered each piece by acquiring one, taking it apart and making our own patterns. Beginning about two years ago, we started using a CNC [computer-numerically-controlled] router to make the patterns, giving a uniformity of shapes and quality unachievable before — although many later and end stages of building the furniture still have to be done by hand. The CNC provides a real cost advantage that translates to a benefit for our customers. For example, the opening in our M 530 StyleMaster bed used to take about three hours to do, and would often have to be rejected if it didn’t come out well enough. The same thing takes 11 minutes on the CNC, and we get a perfect one every time. This helps us keep our prices down — and by the way, knowledgeable people in the furniture industry all consider our prices to be too low.
Other important aspects are these: We’ve redesigned the way dining table legs attach so that the tables look identical to the originals but are many times more stable and will not develop the “wobble” a lot of vintage tables show due to the old-fashioned “wood-on-wood” construction — a feature almost guaranteed to fail over time. (We use steel plates and bolts). Gluing and finishing technology are orders of magnitude superior to what they were in the ’50s: you can pour a five-gallon pail of the kind of stripper vintage shops use to strip Heywood-Wakefield furniture over one of our pieces and leave it there overnight, with no effect.
Another very important fact is that because we use a lighter-color finish, we have to use higher-rated lumber grades for our products. We pay extra at the saw mills for hand-selected “first cut” wood, then pay an additional fee to have these selected again for only the best grain pattern and color. It’s expensive but we feel it’s worth it.
But please note: I do not disparage the old furniture in any way. We are often stumped for days trying to figure out how they did some of the things they did, and I’m the first to say that the quality of the old stuff was incredibly high. I don’t say ours is higher, just that time does march on, and some things improve. In the meantime, we strive to match what came before.
Regarding the wood species used, we note from the website’s FAQs:
New Heywood-Wakefield, like old Heywood-Wakefield, is made from solid Northern Yellow Birch. There is a misconception among some people that Heywood-Wakefield furniture was made from maple, but except for some early 1930s styles, this is not the case.
How do you replicate finishes on your new HW products to match the original methods/color of the vintage original pieces?
We don’t. We realized right at the beginning that vintage finishes get exposed to all different sorts of conditions which have an effect on color, and that’s not to mention that there were differences in the old company’s finishes in the first place. If you’ve ever seen a piece of, say, Champagne, produced in Massachusetts in the 1940s, next to a piece from California in the same finish from the ’60s, often they’re not even close. To avoid the potential for numerous returns from dissatisfied customers, we came out with our own finish called Amber.
Before we bought the trademark, I re-finished hundreds of vintage pieces, and in the process I developed what I thought was a very attractive finish. If you strip and refinish old Heywood-Wakefield and refinish it in what most people call a “natural” finish, you will get a color very close to ours. Since many people do this, our finish fits in well with what they already have. But it’s important to note that a lot of our customers — maybe even a majority — are not vintage HW owners at all, but simply people who found us and like the style, and vintage owners are willing to accept differences, or simply re-finish their stuff to match ours, which I often work with their re-finishers to do.
We also offer custom color service. This means we’ll match anything: walnut, teak, mahogany… but only the color. The wood will still have its characteristic grain pattern.
Honestly, I just had a feeling. Kohinoor is a great style, and I had noticed more and more of it being offered for sale. Since as I said, our beds are our best-sellers, I wanted another bed in the line. We used to make the Sculptura as well, which didn’t really do so well, although I think that was due to a bad picture that made the finish look lousy. But in the case of the Kohinoor, it looks like I was right; it’s been selling well right from the initial availability. And actually, we’ll probably bring back the Sculptura before the end of the year.
Leonard also wanted to add:
Right from the start, we’ve had great respect for the old company. I was fortunate to meet and spend a lot of time with Joe Carr, Heywood-Wakefield’s last in-house designer, inventor of the famous Butterfly Dining Table. When we started I got innumerable calls and letters (no e-mail then!) from people who had worked for Heywood-Wakefield, or whose parents had. I spent a lot of time in Gardner at the museum, and made some good friends with people who had known the Heywood family all their lives (the Wakefields were from a different town). Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time, resources or, I’m sorry to say, the foresight to take notes and assembly the information from people, many of whom have died since we started. It would have made a great book.
We’ve been building this furniture just a few miles from the original factory since the beginning, and with our move two years ago to a newer, larger and more modern facility in Winchendon, only a few miles from Gardner, and with the US economy showing signs of finally improving, we expect to be able to do some creative things we’ve talked about for some time. This would include the introduction of some vintage styles (as we did with the Kohinoor bed), a “parts department” for people who need replacement chair arms, drawer pulls, table legs and so forth, as well as some new ideas, like round mirrors and furniture specifically designed for new trends in home entertainment.
In addition, I expect our quality and speed of order fulfillment to keep going up. My partner in the new factory is genuinely interested in our Heywood-Wakefield renaissance effort, and is one of the most talented and conscientious people I’ve every worked with. He has a tremendous feel for what he does; he likes the styles, and we work very well together. The best part is that it’s still a family operation; the plant is big enough to be modern and efficient but small enough that you will meet and interact with the principals any time you visit.
Leonard, thanks for taking the time to familiarize us with the new generation of this classic furniture line. It is always nice to see a quality, made in America product with vintage flair.
And indeed, we think your prices are very reasonable — a deal, even!
For more information about the company, or to see their furniture offerings, visit their website Heywood-Wakefield.com
[Disclosure / Pam notes: Heywood-Wakefield recently signed on as an advertiser to Retro Renovation. This story is not included as part of the deal, though. We just like the story. Read here to learn how we make money on this blog.]