Thanks to reader Jan, who tipped us that Flexsteel has reintroduced a refreshed version of their famous Thunderbird sofa. Ouch, this is 2018 news that I missed — but here we go! I reached out to Flexsteel to find out more — they were fantastic about providing images, both historical and new. And, I talked recently to the designer in charge of the project, Alek Eglinton, who told me about the changes made (and why) and about his enthusiasm for being part of the team that has brought this famous design back to the market. All photos courtesy Flexsteel — many thanks!
According to my research using my subscription at newspapers.com, the Flexsteel line was previewed at the 1965 International Home Furnishings Market in Chicago. This newspaper report on the Market Preview is from June 20, 1965. The first newspaper advertisement for the line that I could find was for March 13, 1966.
Above: The Flexsteel Thunderbird sofa, redesigned for the contemporary market.
Okay, so first off, and to get this out of way: I suspect some readers will ask: Why didn’t they just recreate the original 1965 design as it was? As I talked this through with Alek, he explained that to sell into today’s market, some changes realistically needed to be made. I totally respect and understand this, and am simply grateful that we have another mid century modern style sofa to choose from!
Accordingly, readers, may I respectfully request that if you aren’t particularly fond of the changes made, you take a pass on posting a critique this time around? There are other sofa options out there if you don’t prefer this particular design adaption. Thank you in advance for helping to keep the blog upbeat! xo pam
Changes to make the Thunderbird sofa more appealing to a wider market today:
- Length shortened — The updated Flexsteel Thunderbird sofa is 101″ long vs. the original 115″. 115″ is just too big for most homes.
- Cushions cushier — The narrow trapezoid-shaped back cushions on the ’65 Thunderbird were indeed snazzy looking, but today’s customers really want to nest in their sofas, so the back cushions were made to fill out the space and are thicker.
- Sits higher — Some mid century modern sofas back in the day sat quite low. The updated Flexsteel sits at 21″, a sweet spot.
- Upholstered front rail / wedge edge — added for comfort so that the back of your knees/calves don’t hit a hard edge when you sit down.
- Wood changed — to a more sustainable rubberwood, stained in walnut to emulate the original design.
Above: There’s also a coordinating Flexsteel Thunderbird chair and ottoman. I really like how choosing a two-tone upholstery ups the snazzy factor — you saw this done, back in the day with the Thunderbird and similar designs.
The story behind bringing the Flexsteel Thunderbird back to market
Alek Eglinton, Senior Designer at Flexsteel, was the design lead on the Thunderbird project. He did the research to pitch bringing it back to market and then, he did the careful redesign. Alek joined Flexsteel in 2013 and remembers:
The one thing I knew of Flexsteel even before I came here, they had this really cool sofa, this Thunderbird sofa.
How would he not be fascinated by the idea of bringing it back?
Fast forward over the next few years… Alek kept seeing vintage Flexsteel Thunderbird sofas for sale for $3,000 and $4,000 at etsy and other places. On top of this, he had a major opportunity: Some company archives in a 100-year-old-factory complex needed cleaning out, stat! So, Alek rolled up his sleeves and found some great Thunderbird artifacts.
History in hand, and mid century modern mania well under way, Alek and Marketing and all the other team members who would need to be involved at Flexsteel got the green light to move ahead.
After getting all the details in place, the new Flexsteel Thunderbird sofa, chair, and ottoman were introduced in the fall of 2018. That’s Alek, above, “at market” — the ginormous furniture maker trade show that takes place annually in North Carolina.
Why does Alek love the sofa so? He told me, with a bit of (to me) interesting designer-speak:
It’s so polarizing — the winged out arms and the solid walnut trim – simple and pretty sophisticated.
In this blog post the company also acknowledges the influence of Adrian Pearsall in popularizing this style of sofa. Methinks that Vladimar Kagan also was in the mix, in terms of using wood sculpturally (as well as structurally) in his sofa and (especially) chair designs.
Alas, even after searching through as much of the archives as he could, Alek could not determine who exactly designed the first Flexsteel Thunderbird sofas. The company was rocking busy back in the 1960s, there were “tons” of furniture designs, likely with “pretty decent size team” of designers, he guesses. Employees who had been working at the factory 40 years or more also told Alek: Flexsteel Thunderbird sofas were very popular back in the day — the company ran them on the lines all the time.
Re the photo above, Flexsteel also sent me a vintage photo of what Alek called the “tight-back” version of the Thunderbird. It gives Alek another twinkle in his eye:
The tight-back version was a really good one – I like that one a lot. If we were ever to do another one, that’s what I would pull for.
Alek, we’re pulling for you to pull for it!
Many thanks to Flexsteel for bringing this option to market; to Alek for all his time providing more info; and to the PR team for their terrific response with photos and information. Thanks again to reader Jan, too, who says that her Flexsteel Thunderbird order — upholstery: “Curry — is in place. Oh, there are 1,200 upholstery choices!
Flexsteel has been headquartered in Dubuque since 1936. The company has roots back to 1893. Today’s Thunderbird product line is manufactured in Dublin, Georgia.