Goshen College history professor Steve Nolt has made the study of Amish and Mennonite culture his lifes work so when he was looking to buy dining-room furniture, he naturally turned to the Amish.
We werent looking for Amish-made furniture per se, but we were looking for something custom-made, and they would be the suppliers around here, he says.
He and his wife ended up buying a maple-top table from one Amish woodworker and six chairs and a bench to match from another.
But a potential furniture buyer doesnt need insider knowledge to find Amish-crafted pieces, Nolt says.
In the wake of the economic downturn, more Amish are turning to furniture-making as a supplement or alternative to their traditional agrarian ways of making a living, he says. And, theyre finding new ways to offer their wares to a wider audience.
The shift to non-farm employment began in the 1970s, Nolt says, when northern Indiana Amish began working in factories, especially those making recreational vehicles. But when that industry, and the Amish staple of home construction, slumped toward the end of the last decade, more Amish adapted their skills to crafting furniture, he says.
Nolt says thats the story of one Amish craftsman he knows. The LaGrange County man makes medium-to-high end mattresses.
He had been working with mattresses in an RV factory, and in 2009 he was losing hours, and he decided to go into the business full-time, Nolt says.
One measure of the number of Amish furniture-makers can be seen in an Amish-published national directory of Amish-owned businesses. The latest edition has 13 pages devoted to Indiana makers of indoor and outdoor furniture, furniture components, cabinetry and trim work, sheds and home décor. Most Amish work in shops with six or fewer employees, with many employing only one or two, according to directory listings.
Another measure is the number of exhibitors in the annual three-day trade show of the Northern Indiana Woodcrafters Association, held each March in Howe.
Amy Coons, co-owner of Greentree Graphics, Middlebury, which does the groups marketing, says the show has grown from 40 exhibitors to about 85 in the last three or four years. About 90 percent of them are Amish, she says.
Show participants sell only to invited dealers – about 600 from around the nation and Canada are on its mailing list, Coons says. The group promotes the work Amish do collectively, but not individual makers, in keeping with their religious beliefs, she says.
Some guys will build custom pieces, but only if a dealer comes to them and asks. They say, We are wholesale. Rarely have I heard of a retail customer finding a persons shop and coming in and saying, Will you make this for me?
Woodcrafters Association board member Alvin Beechy Jr., speaking for AJs Furniture LLC in Topeka, which makes arts-and-crafts style furniture, says the business model works, offering ways for retail customers to buy the furniture, even if they dont live near or visit Amish country.
We feel because of the way we live, we can keep our overhead down more than the big manufacturers can. We feel we can produce quality-made items at a value that they can be resold again. The quality, the price, it all works, he says.
Larry Schnurr, owner of the Olde Oak Tree furniture store, 11535 Leo Road, and an attendee of the Howe show, specializes in selling Indiana Amish-made pieces.He says he buys 90 percent of his inventory from 40 to 60 families in the LaGrange, Elkhart and Goshen areas near Shipshewana.
Families often work together to make furniture, often in home basements, barns or plain, unmarked outbuildings, he says.
Mostly they specialize, Schnurr says. Maybe one guy or a couple of guys just make tables. A few make just chairs. One guy makes beds, and another makes chests of drawers to go with them. Some just make drawers, and some just turn spindles for chairs.
Schnurr says a big misconception about Amish furniture is that it comes only in certain styles. Instead, taking their cue from the larger furniture market, the Amish are now doing more of the Mission-style pieces that are most popular at his store, plus traditional, Queen Anne and even urban contemporary looks.
Most people think its only country, with tables and bow-back chairs, he says. People who look at furniture here wont see a lot of country style, with wheat carved into it and hearts.
Because of his relationship with Amish makers, his stores customers have the chance to custom-design pieces.
They choose the wood or stain color or paint or combinations, he says. Thats where you get things that dont look country. We just did one piece in an off-white and put a vintage-lace glaze on it and a cappuccino stain on top of that. No way does that look country. French country, maybe, or shabby chic.
About six months ago, Kittles furniture store, 614 Coliseum Blvd. E., began carrying pieces from Daniels Amish Collection made by Amish workers in a factory in eastern Ohio, says Sherry Simon, sales associate.
So far, the store has bedroom suites and a few occasional pieces, but reaction to the items has been awesome, she says, and the line may expand.
Its solid wood, Simon says, adding some pieces are done in quarter-sawn oak. Hardware and finishes can be customized, she says. Its just that look that people cant find anymore. Its for that certain percentage of people looking for really well-built furniture.
Kris Schlabauch of Legacy Home Furniture in Middlebury is one of several Amish who sell the work of about a dozen Amish craftsmen, mostly relatives and family acquaintances, at retail.
The family also sells furniture at an art and artisans complex on Chicago Avenue in Goshen.
Demand is growing, he says.
Its been a pretty good increase for us, he says. Im finding people are wanting more solid-wood, handcrafted, made-in-the-United-States furniture. Theyre willing to support businesses trying to make a living here.
Jackie Hughes, public relations manager for the Elkhart County Vacation and Visitors Bureau, says the regions reputation for furniture-making, just like its reputation for tasty food, helps boost tourism.
The bureaus website, www.amishcountry.org/things-to-do/shopping, allows visitors to search out retail furniture sellers. She says the bureau at one time had an audio guide to furniture makers, but its become too hard to keep updated because of the growth.
Its definitely a draw. People do come here from all over to look at furniture, to get ideas, to purchase furniture and to talk to Amish craftsmen, she says.
In a way, this is truly their ideal business model, Hughes adds. Theres a strong skill in working with wood and there are a lot of facets in making furniture. They are able to employ family members and those in their neighborhood.
They can run a business and stay close to home, rather than be vanned to a plant every day.