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Charleston Forge

Charleston Forge’s dedication to the rustic artistry of its custom handcrafted furniture is something consumers don’t see much anymore. The company is one of the country’s premier manufacturers of iron bakers racks, bar stools, dining tables, chairs and small iron furniture items, and its metal furniture is made in the mountains of North Carolina.

“The fact is, there are not a lot of others out there who are doing upper end metal products in the United States,” co-owner Rick Grant says. “Much of that went overseas, but we’ve been able to transform into a boutique manufacturer that still does products for furniture retailers’ showroom floors and also does a lot of custom work for designers. We can turn items around quickly, and we’re also involved in a lot of contract projects. Our ability to customize is what keeps us alive.”

Soul of an Artist

Founded in 1974 by co-owners Art and Susan Barber, the company today produces products with dozens of metal finishes and more than 50 premium fabric and leather options for upholstered goods. The skill of the craftspeople is what truly sets the products apart.

“We don’t have fancy production lines and conveyor belts,” Art Barber says. “Everything is made by hand by true artisans. They take pride in what they do, and we’ve made sure that our people have the right attitude and skills because not everyone can do what they can do. We have some people who have been here nearly all of our 30 years, and they mentor the young people on the floor.”

The company’s location in North Carolina is a bonus in the artistic area, because the Charleston Forge has been able to carve out relationships with local organizations and artists that have helped the company design products. “There are a lot of people in the region who have artistic talent, and we’ve developed relationships with several of them,” Grant says.

One of Charleston Forge’s strengths, outside of its artisanal attributes, is its ability to read and react to trends. For example, the company started out making scrolling bakers racks, but scrolling in general is no longer in the product line because customers aren’t looking for old-school styling anymore.

“We listen to the customers about what they want, and we’ve learned a lot from producing custom items,” Susan Barber says. “If we’re seeing a lot of similar requests coming in, then maybe that is something that should go onto the line. We’ve also seen success with items people can buy in a tough economy, adding to their home without spending a lot.”

Aside from the inspiration the company receives from its staff and regional partners, it also attends a lot of furniture and fabric shows to help it formulate ideas. Grant says the company is able to develop products and ideas because of relationships with many of the suppliers and manufacturers in the industry that are right in the company’s back door.

Recent additions to the product line include coffee tables, end tables and consoles. The company has also done some interesting custom projects recently, including welding and building some tables that were paired with copper tops for the Augusta National Golf Course, and working on a project for five-star, 500-room hotel in Chicago.

Adjustments to Make

One of the biggest adjustments Charleston Forge has had to make in the last decade has been the downturn in its retail business. The retail industry hasn’t been kind to furniture manufacturers like Charleston Forge over the last 10 years, and many American based furniture makers and sellers have gone out of business during that timeframe. Over the last year and a half or so, Grant says the company is seeing some improvement in its retail business, and the company has hired a new national sales manager to help the company make further progress in the retail sphere.

“However, a lot of our business on the consumer side is coming through the design community,” Grant says. “Designers like that they can work with small companies like us, because it helps them to remain relevant to their customers. The custom work, the contract side, flash sales and hospitality are also important to us. No single sales channel will allow us to survive as a manufacturer. We have to develop all kinds of business opportunities and niche channels.”

To help boost business in the coming months and years, the company is working now on the development of better sales aids, which recently includes working on and completing a new catalog that has been printed and is now being distributed.

“When that gets in hands of our customer base, it will make a big difference and be a real positive for us as everyone wants new and relevant sales material,” Art Barber says.

Other plans for Charleston Forge are focused on the Internet. The company plans to work on developing a new website to improve online interactivity as soon as the catalog is done. It has also brought in some new people to specialize in pursuing expanded social networking efforts.

Overall, the company is much like the products it creates: tempered by flame, molded and shaped into something beautiful and sturdy. To ensure its growth in the future, the new catalog and online efforts will help Charleston Forge to generate the cash flow it needs to stay creative and continuously improve.

“The Internet is a powerful tool, and we now have a team of people that are trained to help us take advantage of the web,” Art Barber says. “Our customer base is used to searching online, and improving our online presentation is something we can do now because we have the people and resources who can put us in a mode where we can organize and take advantage of the web.”

Photos by Tara Jackson

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