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Fulbright Industries

Fulbright Industries was a furniture manufacturing business in Fayetteville (Washington County) owned and operated by the local Fulbright family. In the early 1950s, Fulbright Industries produced distinctive modern furniture designed by a native of Fayetteville, the internationally renowned architect Edward Durell Stone.

Fulbright Industries was an outgrowth of Phipps Lumber Company, also in Fayetteville and owned by the Fulbright family since 1920. U.S. senator J. William Fulbright, scion of the Fulbright family, served as Phipps’s president. Phipps manufactured farm implements, including wooden plow handles and other tool components. In 1941, the Fulbrights purchased Springfield Wagon Company and subsequently moved the operation to Fayetteville, broadening the family’s manufacturing capabilities. As demand for wagons plummeted following World War II, production dwindled at Springfield Wagon. The Fulbright family thus developed Fulbright Industries in order to save the wood-working operation by diversification of its product offerings. In early 1950, this initiative led to the design and manufacture of the modern furniture line, to be marketed under the name Fulbright Industries. J. William Fulbright’s longstanding friendship with Edward Durell Stone, dating back to their childhood together in Fayetteville, served as the genesis of the line of furniture; Stone designed the furniture, and Fulbright manufactured it.

During the period of Fulbright Industries’ furniture production, very little architect-designed furniture was available in the United States. The Fulbright furniture reflected Stone’s modern aesthetic, as well as a unique regional character. The designs incorporated local materials, skills, and machinery available at the former Springfield Wagon facility. The employees of Phipps Lumber, working in combination with Springfield Wagon woodworkers, produced wood-framed furniture utilizing several shapes and forms already in their production. The “Plough-Handle Chair” (along with several other pieces) had curved legs utilizing modified plow handle blanks created by the company’s existing machinery. Similarly, the curved seat of the “Felloe Stool” utilized a series of felloes (wooden wagon-wheel segments) fastened onto a wood frame. Though a number of upholstery options ultimately became available, woven oak wood splints were most commonly used. The weaving of these strips was contracted to George Gibson, noted Arkansas craftsman and member of a venerable Ozark basket-making family.

Like his buildings of the period, the furniture Stone designed for Fulbright Industries was modern in appearance and devoid of decorative detail due to the use of manufactured agricultural utility components. Fulbright furniture has been compared to regional precedents and modern design classics such as George Nelson’s Platform Bench. Stone designed a number of similar pieces utilizing metal frames; however, these pieces were never produced.

The furniture’s association with both Stone and Fulbright attracted national press. Both men were gaining prominence in their respective fields: Fulbright had served in the U.S. House of Representatives and was in his first term as a U.S. senator when the venture was initiated, while Stone, known for his distinctive modern approach to architecture, had recently completed both the El Panama Hotel in Panama City, Panama, and the University of Arkansas Fine Arts Center. Both of these projects were widely publicized, and Fulbright furniture figured prominently in many of the published images. Press coverage of the furniture itself appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and design-oriented publications such as Interiors magazine, House Beautiful, and House and Garden.

Despite favorable attention from media, the furniture failed to meet sales expectations. Several issues contributed to the downfall of the venture: the location of the manufacturing facility in Arkansas created logistical challenges; revising the design of the furniture was time consuming, given the location of Stone’s primary office in New York City; and minor issues took weeks to resolve. Furniture samples had to be transported from Arkansas to locations around the East Coast. Too, the size and complexity of the furniture line grew quickly. What had been initially conceived as a limited line for exterior use grew into an extensive collection of interior furnishings with multiple finish options. The transition from wagon-wheel factory to furniture manufacturer was brief and cumbersome. Fulbright Industries had little time to upgrade machinery, skills, and methods of distribution. The furniture proved to be relatively expensive; this came as a result of a high degree of handwork required for many of the pieces.

By the end of 1952, it was clear the furniture was not a commercial success, and manufacturing of Fulbright furniture ended. After the demise of the furniture line, the company continued to operate into the 1970s, now under the name Fulbright Wood Products, producing a wide range of wood products and components for the furniture trade.

For additional information:
Edward Durell Stone Papers. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Hunting, Mary Anne. “From Craft to Industry: Furniture Designed by Edward Durell Stone for Senator Fulbright.” The Magazine Antiques (May 2004): 110–121.

J. William Fulbright Papers. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Stone, Edward Durell. The Evolution of an Architect. New York: Horizon Press, 1962.

Woods, Randall Bennett. Fulbright: A Biography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Catherine Wallack
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

Last Updated 1/11/2010

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