Nov 8, 2013
11:44 AM

Hitchcock Furniture Tradition Alive and Well; New Wilton Design Showroom

Hitchcock Furniture Tradition Alive and Well; New Wilton Design Showroom

Some things, thankfully, never change. Furniture made by The Hitchcock Chair Co., Ltd., is one of those things.

Nearly 200 years after Lambert Hitchcock arrived in what is now the Riverton section of Barkhamsted and set up a factory on the banks of the Farmington River, the line of traditional designs with an unmistakable New England glow continues on its rock-solid course. (The village came to be called Hitchcocksville during the 19th century in a tribute to the craftsmen/businessman’s success.)

“The Hitchcock Classic Collection features beautiful stencils applied over paint or clear finishes,” the company said in announcing the grand opening of a new design showroom on Route 7 in Wilton.

“This showroom features pieces made by two historic New England furniture makers, The Hitchcock Chair Co., Ltd. and Eldred Wheeler,” the release explained. “The business owners, Rick Swenson, Gary Hath, and David McCarthy are hosting an invitation-only reception on Friday, Nov. 8, followed by a special Grand Opening, Fall Furniture Giveaway sale. As part of the Grand Opening Celebration, customers can receive free items, including chairs, mirrors, nightstands, and candle stands, with every order of $500 or more placed by Nov. 23.”

What is Hitchcock furniture today? It’s much like it was when Lambert Hitchcock, inspired by the mass production in Connecticut’s clock-making industry, established his factory in Riverton.

“Up to 20 layers of stencils are used to create distinctive designs for each chair. Finishing touches, such as stripes and bands, are hand-painted on legs and spindles. Rush seats are woven one at a time using natural cattails leaves.” That’s a description of the current status, but it just as easily could describe the early Hitchcock process.

These days, “The Pleasant Hill line features the simplicity of beautiful Shaker design made in solid cherry, while the third line, Country Heritage, emphasizes country French influences created using soft maple. Each finished product reflects the care and talent of the artisans involved.”

Hitchcock created a legendary identity for his furniture through the application of elaborate stencil designs with complementary striping and banding to accent the contours, the company notes, and that approach dovetails perfectly with the ethos of the Eldred Wheeler line.

“The craftsmen at Eldred Wheeler are experts in creating 18th century reproductions using many of the same techniques that were perfected in colonial America,” the release says. “Tiger maple and cherry are hand-selected for each piece, and are hand-planed and scraped to give them an authentic appearance. Fans, shells, or baskets are hand-carved to add accents to the pieces. A special stain and shellac finish is then applied to bring out the unique beauty and grain of the wood.”

During the kick-off weekend, the Wilton showroom, on Route 7 at Hollyhock Lane, will be open special hours: Saturday, Nov. 9, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, Nov.10, from noon to 4 p.m. For more information and regular hours, contact The Hitchcock Chair Co. at 860-738-9958 or Eldred Wheeler at 203-529-3100.

 As for Hitchcock’s rise and his legacy, a Litchfield County Times story by Kathryn Boughton had this to say when Swenson and Hath re-launched the historic business in 2011 after it had succumbed in the early 2000’s to the modern economy and changing tastes:

In 1818, an ambitious young man moved to the banks of the Farmington River in what is now the village of Riverton, leaving behind his years of apprenticeship to Litchfield furniture maker Silas Cheney. Lambert Hitchcock, inspired by the movement toward mass production in the clock industry that was sweeping Connecticut, soon set up a modest factory in a hamlet that became known as Hitchcocksville.
There, he revolutionized the furniture industry, bringing the elements of mass production to a business that historically had relied on the craftsmanship of individual artisans. Hitchcock instead had different craftsman turn different parts of the chairs that were then quickly assembled by still other craftsmen. He began making chair parts from maple, birch and oak and, instead of carving or inlaying designs, used a stenciling technique to embellish the dark finishes. The company was thus able to produce 15,000 chairs per year.
It was a novel idea and quickly depressed the cost of furniture to such an extent that people of modest means across the country were able to afford to have chairs in their houses rather than crude, homemade stools. From 1825 until his death in 1852, Lambert Hitchcock made and lost a fortune. He knew how to manufacture and he was a good promoter, but he was an unsuccessful businessman and he ended up broke in Unionville. By the time of the Civil War, the firm he founded was out of business .
His factory had been silent for decades when John Tarrant Kenney came upon the abandoned building in 1946. He wrote a book about Hitchcock chairs and started the company anew in the same location. The business stumbled forward through several financial incarnations until 2006 when, bitterly, it was forced to close one more time because of competition with low-cost overseas furniture manufacturers. The very concept of reduced cost of production introduced by Lambert Hitchcock 180 years before seemed to have come to haunt his enterprise.
But Hitchcock Furniture refuses to die. “It is too good a product to let it wither on the vine,” said Rick Swenson, co-owner of the newly nascent line. Mr. Swenson, his partner, Gary Hath of Canton, and their wives, Nancy and Mary Ann, have resurrected the name and the classic furniture line using the same plans and finishes to produce a wide variety of tables, cupboards, chairs, beds and the like, which they are marketing from a 19th-century building in Riverton, a section of the town of Barkhamsted. (Left, Nancy and Rick Swenson.)
“We’re gearing up for a grand opening in July,” Mr. Swenson said this week, adding that the partners have been selling Hitchcock furniture for some time following a “soft opening.”

That soft opening spawned a new era for the Hitchcock line successful enough that Hitchcock is now growing through the partnership with Eldred Wheeler—and just in time for New England families to spruce up their dining rooms, or even redecorate, before the holidays and all the guests arrive.

See the full story on the revitalization of Hitchcock at The Litchfield County Times online, and for more on see the websites of Hitchcock and Eldred Wheeler.



Hitchcock Furniture Tradition Alive and Well; New Wilton Design Showroom

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