This isn’t your grandmother’s davenport.
Well actually it just might be your grandmother’s sofa or at least someone else’s.
Walking into the second-floor showroom of Sweet Modern in downtown Akron is like stepping back in time. The furniture and furnishings in the showroom hark back to the late 1940s to the groovy early ’70s.
The furniture is in pristine condition and looks like brand new.
It is brand new — well sort of.
All the furniture and a warehouse full of other relics of a bygone era across town all started as a hobby for an Akron couple.
Sweet Modern’s founders, Ronald Higgins and Adam Krutko, started acquiring midcentury modern furniture as a hobby to furnish their own home in Highland Square.
Higgins said they enjoyed the hunt for the style of furniture known for its classic clean design and durability.
But they soon realized that finding the furniture that was primarily made in America was a bit like finding a needle in a thrift store or an estate sale.
And once you did find a piece to your particular liking, restoring it to its former glory took some muscle and some ingenuity.
“It’s a long process,” Higgins said. “We made a lot of mistakes with our furniture early on.”
But they found few, if any, places that specialized in restoring such pieces.
The couple figured there must be some kindred spirits out there, so they started their own homegrown business selling their spare treasures online.
Soon Higgins, who owns a website development company that rents out space in a large building at East Market and North Summit streets, decided to start using some of his spare unused space to flip the furniture they would find.
He figured he had plenty of open space, considering the building once housed a bowling alley and a pool hall.
Much to their surprise, Higgins said, they found there were a number of folks out there who shared their taste in furnishings, as customers began venturing in once the business opened its doors to the public in late 2018.
And instead of simply putting the furniture they found back up for sale, Higgins said, they brought in a handful of workers to completely restore the pieces back to their original condition.
The formula of only selling fully restored pieces has been a perfect formula.
Stripped down, fully restored
But this restoration work is not a simple task.
Wooden chairs are completely stripped down to bare wood, re-glued, repaired and then refinished.
Couches and upholstered chairs are also taken down to the wooden frames.
They try to save whatever they can and even make beds for Akron-area animal shelters using the old foam stuffing that still has some life in it and leftover upholstery.
Structural repairs are made if needed to the chairs and couches, and then new foam padding is attached, along with new fabric upholstery.
It can be a tedious process that takes days if not weeks to complete, and it is all done in a workshop tucked not far from the second-floor showroom.
But what makes the furniture of this era special — aside from its design — is the craftsmanship that went into the making of each piece.
This furniture back in the day, Higgins said, was not cheap and was built to last.
Buying a couch was a major purchase for a family, and that’s why many of these pieces have hung around for so long.
One of these couches may have started its life in someone’s living room then found itself relegated to the basement and eventually off to a college dorm, only to return back home.
“When Grandma bought this piece of furniture she never intended to get rid of it in three or five years,” Higgins said. “She bought it to last a lifetime.”
So when Grandma does pass away the couch is usually still in the family home.
And that’s where Sweet Modern steps in.
Krutko said sometimes someone in the family will recognize that a piece they have is a great example of midcentury modern furniture and will contact the store to see if they’re interested in acquiring it.
But Krutko points out for every 10 calls they get, just one is an ideal candidate to be restored and make it to the sales floor.
They also have a network of so-called pickers throughout the country who keep a watchful eye out for such furniture and contact them when they find a special piece on the curb or at a garage sale or at an estate sale.
Venturing out, finding treasures
Sometimes Higgins and Krutko venture out themselves.
They did that recently when a family was settling their parents’ estate in Mount Vernon, north of Columbus.
Higgins doesn’t like the word hoarder, but this particular house was home to quite the collectors. He said they found a treasure trove of midcentury modern furniture in near-perfect condition hidden under boxes of other treasures and trinkets from a lifetime of collecting.
“This house was packed to the gills,” Higgins said. “It was exciting for us, because every time we uncovered something there was another piece of dreamy furniture.”
Sometimes they even find a hidden gem inside of a barn, as is the case of a piece they’re in the midst of restoring, as it suffered water damage after it was tucked away and forgotten.
They even found a piece of Akron history — an egg-like plastic chair that was briefly manufactured in the city in the early 1970s — on a farm in Iowa.
The nicer pieces are often found in older industrial cities — not unlike Akron and Detroit — where factories paid good wages for not only workers but managers who would purchase quality furnishings for their homes back in the 1950s and 1960s.
Krutko said they try to deliver much of the furniture themselves to ensure its safe arrival and then look for vintage furniture to bring back along the way home.
“We leave with a full truck and come back with a full truck of furniture,” he said.
For many, Higgins said, these pieces of furniture welcomed home newlyweds, newborns, graduates and eventually relatives mourning a lost grandparent who purchased it in the first place.
“There are times when we pick up a piece of furniture there are literally tears from the seller when we leave,” he said. “This furniture is a history lesson of the families who owned them and the cities they lived in that were booming at the time.”
Couches that were originally purchased for anywhere from a couple hundred bucks to as much as $2,500 now have a price tag in the showroom anywhere from $2,400 to as much as $8,000 fully restored.
That might seem like a lot for a used couch.
But Higgins points out that these couches have already lasted some 50-plus years and now that they have been restored there’s no reason they won’t last another 50 years —and that’s even with kids jumping on them and parents slumbering away while watching the Browns game.
Pandemic hits, adjustments made
The business was just starting to take off when the pandemic hit.
Higgins and Krutko feared the worst as businesses shut their doors amid concerns of spreading the virus and folks hunkered down at home.
As clients delayed projects in the web design side of his business ventures, Higgins said, he shifted those employees to the furniture side instead of laying them off.
The web designers set out to create an online inventory of every single piece of Sweet Modern’s furniture, not only in the showroom and shop but also in a 10,000-square-foot warehouse space they rent on East Voris Street in Akron, where they hold an open house the second Sunday of each month.
They feared all this work to move the bulk of the operation and sales online would be for naught because of the pandemic.
Higgins said the exact opposite happened.
It seems all those sudden stay-at-home workers wanted to upgrade their home offices and houses and furnish them with restored high-quality vintage furniture.
Sales spurred by online orders soon soared, with each month topping the last.
And the pace of furniture flying into the warehouse and then immediately out the door to the workshop to be restored hasn’t abated.
Higgins said the only negative impact from the pandemic has been a scarcity of supplies like chemicals and foam padding used in the restoration process. And like other businesses they could use another employee or two or three to keep up with demand for restored furniture.
Word spreads, business grows
As word has grown about the business, Higgins said, so have online followers on its website, https://sweetmodern.com/, and on social media, with folks checking in regularly to see what’s new in the warehouse and what is being worked on in the workshop.
A new buying trend has emerged too.
Higgins said clients have been interested in purchasing restored vintage furniture to furnish an entire house.
It seems working at home has prompted some professionals to abandon high-price small apartments in major cities to buy big, lower-price older homes in smaller, more affordable cities like Akron — and they need furniture to fill the new space.
Business has more than doubled from Sweet Modern’s first year, with no end in sight.
At any given time, there are anywhere from 500 to 1,000 pieces of furniture in the warehouse waiting for just the right buyer. And the wait for the furniture to be restored once a buyer picks it out is anywhere from four to five months.
Some customers are now even flying into Akron and making private appointments to wander around the warehouse to pick out pieces they want restored and then shipped off to places like California or back to the Carolinas where some of the furniture was originally manufactured.
Sweet Modern is even getting inquires from movie producers interested in acquiring period pieces for sets.
Higgins said what he likes most about the business is that it is breathing new life into something that might have otherwise been simply thrown to the curb.
“This was really the last generation of well-built furniture,” he said. “Most of the furniture manufactured today is really disposable. There is still some good furniture being made but it is really, really expensive.”
Craig Webb, who remembers his Nana calling the sofa a davenport, can be reached at [email protected]
What: Sweet Modern
Where: Showroom 2 N. Summit St. in downtown Akron. Warehouse (open to the public the second Sunday of the month) is at 111 E. Voris St. in Akron.
For more: Visit sweetmodern.com