I love wood – from a walk in the woods under tree canopies – to the furniture and architecture they become.
I also love the rhythm of a factory – it hums, it is predictable, constant, and true. At least it was in the 1950’s when I started working for Steelcase Inc.
My father left Delft, Netherlands as a young boy in 1913 and came to Grand Rapids through Canada. The story is unclear whether he was running from a war or chasing a lovely girl – both are plausible.
Grand Rapids was a known Dutch community, so it was an obvious place to head toward. Familiar landscape, and familiar names. He never returned to Delft, never wanted to really. He was quite content to start a new life in Fischer station [you might know it as Ideal Park]. A train station, the Buist General Store, and Ideal Park made a fine place for a boy to explore. I was pretty little when my sister Dean brought me this museum. I have always been more of an ‘outdoor’ guy, so I don’t remember going often, but I remember that is was a special place.
Dad, his name was Aarend [folks called him Arie], worked for Hekman Furniture on Buchannan. When I was old enough I managed to get a job there working after school making fine furniture.
In 1952 I joined the Army and served in the Korean War. I was the 10th [and last] child of Arie and Johanna. My brothers – all three, served our country in World Wars I and II.
Now, I suppose you wonder what all this has to do with a wastebasket – hang on, this is my story…. I will get there.
The day I returned to Grand Rapids, I was on my way to Hekman to ask for my old job back, but first went to see my brothers who were working at Steelcase, a factory behind Hekman. I was hired on the spot. Steelcase wanted me to start right away but I convinced them to let me take a week-long vacation first. I spent most of the next five years in the paint department working with my brothers.
In the early 1900’s it occurred to folks [insurance companies especially] that cigar and pipe ashes in wicker wastebaskets were not a good combination. Fire proof safes made way to metal filing and storage. Metal Office Furniture Co would meet the needs of fire proof office furnishings. With new technologies in spot welding and steel fabrication, manufacturers could now create tight 90 degree corners out of steel to make waste baskets, desks, and files that did not burn. Thing is, folks still wanted the furniture to look like wood.
So – like the metal dashboards of cars, and hotel Servidors, Metal Office began using engraving equipment to put wood grains on metal furniture. They purchased equipment from Grand Rapids Panel Company that had earlier been used to put hardwood grains on softwood furniture. In 1958 I was offered the opportunity to learn this craft and apprenticed under Bill Eberts and when he retired I took over. A customer could select the wood species, finish color and size [there were two] – I remember the most popular being Walnut. The baskets were formed, welded, and then taken to the paint room where they sprayed a ground coat color and then we would put the grain pattern on with a hand roller. We would feather in the edges and then the baskets would be varnished.
We worked on ‘baskets’ between other jobs. Steelcase grained metal file cabinets and desks of all types including executive roll-top desks, secretarial desks that stored typewriters, and desk accessories including ash trays.
Before I retired in 1993, I restored many of the desks in the Steelcase Archives. Beautiful brass hardware from Keeler Brass, leather and linoleum tops for smooth writing surfaces, and many desk accessories including waste baskets. When I retired, Steelcase retired the graining department too.
William ‘Bill’ DeBruyn was a 40 year employee of Steelcase. It afforded him a lovely life. He and his wife Arlene raised two children in Kentwood, and he is now Grandpa to Emily and Kyle. You will see him at every Steelcase ‘retiree’ event.