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Hearth & Home March 2020

L to R: Kai Side Table, Wailea Swivel Chair, and Anson Side Table.

Bernhardt Goes Casual

By Tom Lassiter

The 131-year-old family furniture business is known for its luxe look, high quality, and affordable price points.

The news late last summer that yet another interior furnishings manufacturer was launching a casual line simply didn’t raise many eyebrows among manufacturers and specialty retailers in the outdoor furnishings industry.

Such a move once would have created a stir, as the potential impact was weighed and debated. But in 2019, a move into the outdoor market by Bernhardt Furniture Company no longer stirred the worry pot.

Two other indoor furniture companies had already done that, diluting the shock value of any similar moves in the future.

Klaussner Home Furnishings’ entry several years ago into the casual space with Klaussner Outdoor prompted genuine surprise. People took notice, and rightly so. Klaussner Outdoor – under the leadership of Gary McCray and Teresa Buelin – rapidly established itself as an influential contender in the Outdoor Room market.

More recently, Ashley Furniture Industries’ launch of an outdoor line sent ripples throughout the casual furniture universe. The Outdoor by Ashley line shook things up, if for no other reason than Ashley is huge. The company bills itself as The No. 1 Furniture Manufacturer in the World. According to Dun & Bradstreet, Ashley has annual sales approaching $4 billion.

With nearly 1,000 Ashley HomeStores in North America, Central America, and Asia, the company has the potential to capture the attention of legions of consumers and their disposable income.

So the announcement before 2019’s Casual Market Chicago that Bernhardt Furniture Company was entering the outdoor furniture space wasn’t all that surprising. Outdoor furnishings are the fastest-growing category in the U.S. furniture market, according to longtime industry analyst Jerry Epperson. So it’s no wonder that interior furnishings companies want a piece of that action.

Bernhardt, founded in 1889, long has been a respected furniture brand. The company made its name with oak furniture built from lumber harvested in the foothills and mountains of western North Carolina and sold throughout the nation. After World War II, the company expanded into upholstered furnishings, for which it is well-known today.

Avanni Sectional and Tenerife Cocktail Table.

Opportunity beckoned Bernhardt to launch its outdoor line, said Steve Pilgrim, Bernhardt’s senior vice president of Sales.

Bernhardt dealers urged the company to create casual furniture, he said, because they had customers in their stores looking for outdoor furniture. Dealers, Pilgrim said, thought they could sell outdoor furniture that fit into the quality and price/value niche that Bernhardt had established for itself with its interior goods.

But equally if not more important, Bernhardt had been paying attention to the evolving American lifestyle and what homeowners are spending their money on.

“We’ve watched as consumers have continued to build these indoor/outdoor spaces, with new builds and redesigns,” Pilgrim said. “We felt like that was our consumer filling those types of spaces. It seemed to make sense for Bernhardt to consider entering the category.”

Furthermore, Pilgrim said, “We feel like we’ve got a lot to offer in terms of design and product leadership with our own look.”

And that’s how Bernhardt Exteriors came to be.

The line debuted to the furniture industry at the High Point Market last October. Consumers will get their first glimpses of Bernhardt Exteriors on the company’s website in early March, about the same time that product should be arriving in dealer showrooms.

Dealer response, Pilgrim said, “has been excellent. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and we’re going to have pretty broad distribution with our initial launch.”

Bernhardt Exteriors will have representation in casual furniture showrooms, with the design trade, and in residential furniture showrooms, he said.

The initial rollout of 70 SKUs includes upholstered seating, resin wicker, and a handful of tables, including dining and occasional tables, said Heather Eidenmiller, Bernhardt’s director of Brand Development.

Monterey Swivel Chair, Monterey Sofa, and Pacifica Round Cocktail Table.

Upholstered products will be made in North Carolina, where Bernhardt has eight manufacturing facilities. The company headquarters is in Lenoir, about 100 miles west of High Point, where the company has a 75,000 sq. ft. showroom.

Resin wicker products will be manufactured in Indonesia, Pilgrim said.

He said setting up manufacturing relationships in Asia for outdoor products was not difficult. Bernhardt already had teams in place in several Asian nations “that could manage the process for us and find the appropriate partners to work with.”

The initial resin wicker products will include typical weaves as well as more intricate herringbone weaves “that are pretty complex.” Bernhardt excels, Pilgrim said, “at giving a lot of look and a lot of value.” The company’s products, he said, often “look like something very expensive” but in reality are “more modest in price than what one might expect to pay.”

Eidenmiller said that particular value proposition is “what we’re known for at Bernhardt – an incredibly luxe look with high quality, but at a surprisingly affordable price point.”

Bernhardt Exteriors fits solidly into the transitional design category, Pilgrim said. If there is any modern European influence, he said, it might be found in the types of fabrics and other materials employed in the line’s upholstered furniture. These touches include fabrics with a softer hand and weaves using a thick polypropylene rope that gives upholstered products a distinctive visual texture.

Resin wicker is woven over aluminum frames, Pilgrim said. Upholstered products are constructed of marine-grade plywood with waterproof glue, stainless-steel fasteners, and aluminum legs. A waterproof barrier is placed over the arms, backs, and other exposed areas, he said, before any padding and upholstery fabric is added.

Bali Woven Rope Swivel Chair.

Bernhardt Exteriors uses two types of cushions. One is a quick-dry cushion of reticulated foam wrapped in another outdoor fiber. The cushion has a vent panel on the underside, allowing rainwater to pass through quickly.

The second cushion design employs a high-density foam wrapped in a waterproof bag that is then covered with fabric.

Bernhardt’s outdoor products will use fabrics from a number of leading vendors, including Glen Raven’s Sunbrella brand, Sattler’s Outdura brand, InsideOut, and Revolution brand fabrics from Specialty Textiles.

The line includes deep seating, stationary chairs, and motion chairs, such as swivel chat chairs. Tabletop options include terrazzo, cast stone, and glass-resin concrete. Bernhardt is “working with known entities” that have been producing tabletops for years, Pilgrim said.

Bernhardt will fill orders for the Exteriors line from its North Carolina facilities. Special orders are expected to ship within four weeks, Pilgrim said. That’s the typical production schedule Bernhardt meets for its interior furnishings.

“I would hope over time that we can do better than that,” he said.

General orders for resin wicker products will be shipped from North Carolina, but the company also will have a container program for merchants who wish to receive direct shipment of larger quantities.

Pilgrim pointed out that Bernhardt’s container plan is “not a low-price, container-driven model. We just want to make sure that if someone wants to buy containers, that we’re able to marry their interests with our capabilities.”

Grenada Drink Table.

Naples Metal Chair.

Miramar Round Cocktail Table.

Products in the Bernhardt Exteriors line will be pegged “in the middle to better price points, just as on the Bernhardt indoor line,” Pilgrim said. “We compete with all the players that are similarly situated,” such as “Lexington, Century, Summer Classics, Lee, and Brown Jordan at times.”

Pilgrim said Bernhardt’s competition is “quite a cast of characters that are quite good at what they do.” Yet he’s confident that there’s a place in the outdoor industry for what Bernhardt has to offer.

“We cross a lot of categories,” he said, “and are kind of unique in that way. We try to bring them a little bit of our own unique style. Our line is a little bit more eclectic than product that’s currently in the market. We think we have an opportunity.”

Bernhardt Exteriors is considering exhibiting at Casual Market Chicago but has not yet signed a lease, Pilgrim said. “We’ll be there eventually, I would think,” he added.

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