Michelle Obama selected a Vanguard Settee for Malia and Sasha
Conover, North Carolina - Doug Jones is focused as he wraps the sturdy wood frame with fabric. He's making a sofa for the First Family - Barack, Michelle, Malia and Sasha Obama. Jones has a long way to go and a short time to get there. The order came into Vanguard Furniture late Tuesday. It's Thursday morning, and the sofa must be on its way to Washington, D.C., in just a few hours. Today, the sofa will go to the White House.
"This sofa is built totally from scratch," said Steve Gaddy, manager of Vanguard's upholstery division. "We built the frame from the ground up. We'll ship it right after lunch," Gaddy said Thursday, "the fastest way possible." The piece Barack and Michelle Obama chose is a reproduction of an antique for their daughters, with different color fabric and buttons allowing a little fun to be sewn in.
"They chose one of the most time-consuming pieces we make," Gaddy said. All of Vanguard's furniture is custom-made. Store that sell Vanguard get the specifications from the customer and place the order. "It's personalized furniture," Hubbard said.
Turnaround from order to delivery is usually about 30 days. "This is not ordinary," Gaddy said about the rush order for the White House. "We made an exception for President Obama," interjected Dixon Mitchell, company president. He's checking on progress. On time, he's assured.
All the while, Jones is busy placing padding just so, smoothing the linen fabric and punctuating his movements with the rat-a-tat-tat of his staple gun. He's a master upholsterer, a 27-year employee at Vanguard. Jones says little, smiles often. "I enjoy what I do," he said. "Been here forever. It makes a big difference to be able to do what you like to do." The seat is done. Jones pushes long, thick needles through the back of the sofa. They're threaded with stout yard to tie down the buttons. The yard, of course, matches the fabric. Jones doesn't waste motion, and he doesn't stop moving. "I'll have something in the White House," he smiles without breaking his focus. The shop is a beehive of activity with the hum of the air handlers and staccato of the air-driven staplers keeping a steady, if uneven, beat.
The workers know the importance of the sofa, but they have their own specialities to produce. "We're busy," Gaddy said. "We're working." Recent years haven't been kind to the furniture industry. Thursday, however, saw assorted sized of sofas and chairs, some with woven fabric, some with leather, being framed up and covered. "Everybody's excited about having a pieces in the White House," Gaddy said. "It's our first one," Mitchell said.
"It takes four-and-a-half to five hours to upholster a piece like this," Mitchell said. "That's after the frame is finished." Jones never lets up, deftly placing the big needles with the kill of an acupuncture expert. Gaddy and Mitchell watch with approval. "We're honored to do this," Mitchell said. "The orders mean producing and shipping faster than normal, redoing your schedule. But everybody wants to beat the deadlines. This is special."
Jones allows himself a grin. It's a Vanguard sofa that's going to the White House, but his handiwork is what everyone will see.
- Excerpts from the Hickory Daily Record, by Larry Clark, published January 15, 2009