WRITER | SARAH SPOHN
PHOTO | WOODARD FURNITURE
In 1866, Lyman Woodard and his three siblings set off on a cross-country trip. A temporary pitstop led to the purchase of a lumber-planing mill and the formation of a reputable furniture manufacturing company in the small town of Owosso. And so began Woodard Brothers, a furniture company founded upon unparalleled standards in master craftsmanship.
Bill Herren, creative director at Woodard Furniture, spoke about the company’s humble Michigan beginnings.
“The way I understand it, the Woodard brothers were on their way from New York to California,” Herren said. “They were delayed in Michigan due to some sort of plague that was going on. They started making coffins, which segued into wood furniture, and then into iron furniture. That’s how Woodard Furniture came about, and I think it was 154 years ago. The plant has been in Owosso ever since.”
The Woodard family is credited for handcrafting the first wrought iron furniture of its kind. This led to the creation of casual cast and tubular aluminum furniture designs for both indoor and outdoor environments. Their Orleans Collection, launched in 1940, holds the titles for the best-selling and longest-running design.
Their modern outdoor styles, manufactured over decades, have become timeless classics, garnering appearances in HGTV Magazine, Traditional Home, House Beautiful, Country Living, Midwest Living, and more. Their products have been included as historical artifacts in the Smithsonian and received the highest seal of approval – as both functional and beautiful décor pieces in the most notable homes.
“We’re in the rose garden of the White House. We have been, I think, since the Eisenhowers were there,” Herren said. “One day, I was watching something on the news, and there was President Obama sitting in one of our chairs.”
Woodard’s iron and aluminum outdoor furniture is mainly assembled and upholstered in the US, not something all other companies can boast. Although competitors use similar materials – aluminum, tubular aluminum, cast aluminum, and woven materials – Herren said it’s the level the company holds their products to that really sets them apart.
“It’s not so much that the materials are different or better than what other manufacturers use,” Herren said. “It’s that our quality standards are a lot higher than some other companies are. Company-wide, we have pretty high standards about what we accept.”
Woodard boasts an impressively low percentage of claims for customers who inquire about or request returns or refunds for their products. “We have a running commitment with the factory that we keep our claims down to 1 percent or less. Considering how much furniture we ship, that’s really saying a lot about why we pride ourselves on our quality,” Herren said.
The company, now headquartered in Texas, also prides itself on using Michigan resources, including labor, in its Owosso factory. In 1880, the company employed 30 men. Today, in the small town of around 15,000 residents, Woodard covers 7.5 acres and employs 140 people, some of whom have been there for four decades.
Their products have also lasted decades, spanning family generations, yet truly never going out of style. Recently, when Mid-Century Modern furniture became trendy in home décor again, the company brought back its Sculptura collection that was originally launched in 1956.
“We had started getting a lot of calls about it,” Herren said, “but didn’t have any of the original pieces here at the Texas headquarters. A customer who had some original Sculptura pieces contacted me, so we bought them and shipped them down here. The funny thing was that it was like little kids’ furniture in size. This was from the ‘50s and ‘60s, when everything was just a little bit smaller than it is now.”
Whether small or large, Woodard’s Furniture has found a sweet spot in securing its place among durable, long-lasting, handcrafted furniture – a legacy that is poised to continue for years to come.
“We’re hoping that we go another 150 years,” Herren said, “we’re very dedicated to Michigan – to Owosso. We’re very dedicated to keeping it there.”