Reproduction Industrial Style Furniture Enters the Market

Two styles of reproduced glass-sided cabinets sold by Restoration Hardware. Left: with drawers, $995; right: $895.
Two styles of reproduced glass-sided cabinets sold by Restoration Hardware. Left: with drawers, $995; right: $895. | Source
Reproduction of a Toledo Steel stool.  Sold by Restoration Hardware, retail $345.
Reproduction of a Toledo Steel stool. Sold by Restoration Hardware, retail $345. | Source

Close copies of industrial-styled furniture began appearing on a broad scale in the American market in mid 2011.

Vintage industrial-styled furniture—also referred to as “loft” or “machine age”—includes the tables, chairs, desks, shelves, storage units, work benches, work stools, and other accessories originally used in workshops, factories and other commercial or business settings. Demand for vintage pieces in this category have far outpaced demand for more traditional antique styles and prices have increased roughly fivefold over the past five to six years.

While these new pieces all begin as legitimate products offered by highly respected retailers, all reproductions eventually, inevitably cause confusion in the antiques and collectibles market.

Among furniture being reproduced is a wide range of stools and chairs resembling vintage products of the Toledo Metal Furniture Company. Originals were designed and patented by founder Clement Uhl and made in Toledo, Ohio from around 1900 through the mid 1950s. Originals are considered classics of Machine Age design and can bring $350-$750 each depending on form, model and condition. Reproductions are priced from about $300 to $450.

The reproductions are very close copies down to the truss-rail leg assembly, a hall mark of authentic Uhl chairs. New chairs have solid wood seats and backs; the earliest originals had laminated plywood seats and backs but later switched to solid wood seats and backs. Some originals have remains of paper labels; some, but very far from all originals, may or may not have stamped patent numbers or factory nameplates. New chairs, made overseas, are required to be marked with the country of origin but that requirement is met with easily removed paper labels. Early originals were constructed primarily straight slotted bolt heads and rivets. Phillips head screws generally are as sign of either late original production or the current reproductions.

New stools and chairs come with either chrome finishes or are painted in typical industrial colors like olive drab or khaki. Many of the new finishes are intentionally distressed, or antiqued, at the factory so paint and finish wear should never be used as a test of age.

Another broad group of industrial furniture being reproduced is a series of glass-sided and metal framed cabinets commonly called pharmacy, medical, hospital or doctor’s cabinets. Originals were used to hold various medical supplies such as swabs, antiseptics, bandages, towels and other noncritical material. Most are oriented vertically with front faces doors or a combination of doors and drawers. As the industrial look rose in popularity, so did this style of vintage cabinets. Ten years ago these were considered slow movers and avoided by most dealers. Today, they command $200 and up for small sizes; larger more intricate pieces can bring over $1,000. New cabinets sell from $400 and up.

Vintage cabinets may or may not be marked. The most common marking is an inventory plate from a hospital, clinic or university. Similar plates from medical supply firms may also be found on some originals. Again, although the country of origin is required to appear on the new cabinets, the requirement is met by simple paper labels which are often missing. All the hardware—like hinges, handles and bits and pieces—on new cabinets is attached with Phillips head screws. The great majority of hardware on pre1940 originals is attached with straight slotted headed screws or rivets, not Phillips screws. All the new cabinets come with shiny chrome locks. Very few original cabinets had locks. The sides are glass and easily broken if someone really wants in the cabinet. Locks on new cabinets are mostly aesthetics, not for any practical reason.

New cabinets come in two finishes, white enamel and brushed steel. Original cabinets were never made in brushed unpainted steel because that finish couldn’t be practically maintained. Some original cabinets have a porcelain finish over steel but most were baked enamel. The most common original color is white but a hospital pale green was also made and occasionally a reddish beige. It’s not uncommon to find original cabinets repainted after they were removed from service. New cabinets have modern screw-type levelers on their feet. Feet on many originals were plain; any levelers were very plain and did not have plastic pads.

Many pieces of new industrial-styled furniture including Toledo stools and glass sided cabinets can be seen in most of the 100 retail outlets of Restoration Hardware or their website www.restorationhardware.com

There is nothing wrong with selling a reproduction as a modern decorative item. Misunderstandings arise only when a modern product is knowingly, or through either ignorance, sold as a vintage object. If you’re buying in the secondary market, be sure the seller clearly states the approximate date of production of the item purchased on your written receipt.

By Mark Chervenka for Ruby Lane

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