Hemingway furniture has legs

Pleased with its initial success, Thomasville plans to expand the collection, which is made up of designs inspired by the homes of the Nobel-winning author.

Published July 14, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Pleased with the success of its Ernest Hemingway Collection, Thomasville Furniture is planning to expand the line over the next couple of years. The collection's original 96 pieces were inspired by the writer's homes in Kenya, Key West, Fla., Ketchum, Idaho, and Havana; now the firm is adding a little continental flavor. "We realized that we didn't even touch Europe," Guy Walters, company vice president and general manager, told Salon Books gleefully. "I'm headed off to Paris, Barcelona and Madrid."

When it debuted last October at the International Home Furnishings Market in High Point, N.C., a major hunting ground for furniture retailers, the Hemingway line must have seemed truly exotic to the representatives of this very conventional industry. Though Arnold Palmer and Ralph Lauren have also marketed their names here, the Hemingway name conjures up a whole different lifestyle. At first, when the Hemingway family's licensing agent approached the 95-year-old firm, the writer's controversial image made Thomasville a little hesitant to take on the project.

"We did a market survey and asked a lot of touchy questions," recalls Walters, who also designed part of the line. "We asked people what came to mind when they thought of Hemingway." The choices the questionnaire offered included "suicide," "alcoholism" and "romantic." "They accepted him, warts and all. Actually, most women chose the term 'romantic,' and 90 percent of our customers are women. We wouldn't want to alienate them."

After the two sides struck a deal, Walters, who hadn't read Hemingway since high school, put himself through a crash course: "I read a whole bunch of his novels. I read three biographies. I went up to Boston to the J.F.K. Library and looked at 11,000 photographs in two and a half days. There weren't a lot that didn't involve guns and alcohol." He also spent some time with Hemingway's oldest son, Jack. "We've become pretty good friends."

Walters attributes the collection's momentum not only to the Hemingway mystique but also to the Hemingway attitude. "He wasn't a PC kind of person," Walters says. "I think everyone's a little tired of tiptoeing around everything. He didn't give a damn about that stuff. There are a lot of people to whom that idea appeals to today."

Purists who abhor the idea of a mass-marketed literary name face yet more bad news. Marla Metzner, the president of Fashion Licensing of America and the woman who brought the Hemingways and Thomasville together, has a new deal in the works between another furniture company and the heirs of F. Scott Fitzgerald. "It's imminent," she told Salon Books.

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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