Heritage Businesses in WNY / Kittinger Furniture Company
Survival through craftsmanship
A chair destined for an office in the US Capitol Building Opposite page: At top: ; above, a Kittinger furniture in various stages of production
Photos by Stephen Gabris
4675 Transit Road, Amherst
How old: 152 years
How many employees: 22
When Kittinger Furniture Company went up for sale in the mid-1990s, many prudent buyers turned down the prospect—but not for the reasons you might assume.
“What caused them to walk away was that we were still operating with an old-fashioned ideal,” explains Ray Bialkowski who, along with his wife Karen, a renowned WNY interior designer, took over the operation in 1996. “Our furniture was, and still is, made by hand. It doesn’t lend itself well to mass production. That’s why they didn’t want it. We make heirlooms.”
Karen and Ray Bialkowski
Bialkowski has always had a passion for building things from the ground up. It’s an enthusiasm that has propelled him from Kittinger’s sanding department, where he started back in 1979, to becoming a master cabinetmaker. But he came on board during a time of transition: 100 years into its existence, in 1966, the Kittinger family sold their company to General Interiors Corporation, thus beginning a half-dozen takeovers that included a few years under Maytag Corporation in the 1980s, as well as a stint with General Mills, who owned Kittinger when Bialkowski started. A federal indictment closed the doors of the Elmwood Avenue location in the mid-1990s, but, barely a year later, Bialkowski got some unexpected news.
“When a lawyer told us that the name and intellectual property were up for sale, we didn’t think we’d be able to get it,” he recalls. “But things turned out differently than we’d imagined. The bigger companies like Baker and Century—longtime competitors—walked away. I ended up being one of only two bidders.”
At the time, Bialkowski had started American Executive Furniture with many of the same craftsman he’d worked with, but he was thrilled at the prospect of resurrecting Kittinger. “It’s an incredibly well-respected name in this area and beyond. It’s synonymous with quality and a tradition of excellence in handcraftsmanship, which, unfortunately, is going by the wayside.” Bialkowski reestablished Kittinger in the TriMain building at 2495 Main Street, eventually moving the buisness to its current facility in Amherst.
Bialkowski has a healthy respect for competition, but, in many ways, his company remains singular. One of its biggest claims to fame is its longstanding relationship with the White House. In 1969, Nixon commissioned the company to build a conference room table for the Cabinet Room, which he paid for personally. Clinton had it restored in 1997. The company was also selected to build Obama’s “fireside chair” for his 2009 inauguration ceremony. In between, Kittinger created furniture that remains in the Roosevelt Room, the Green Room, the West Wing Lobby, the William Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, and the White House Dining Room.
Over the years, the Bialkowskis have attempted to update Kittinger to stay competitive, but they soon discovered that’s not what their customers want from them. And so, happily, those old-fashioned ideals are stronger than ever. That’s not to say that Kittinger is dated. Rather, it projects a timeless aesthetic that’s on full display at the Kittinger Gallery, a space that’s likened to a pedigreed Manhattan showroom, meticulously tended to by Karen.
“Since we’re known for our high-end, traditional furniture, one of the biggest challenges we’ve faced is how to create more modern styles,” he says. “We’d go to trade shows and develop ideas from things we saw there, and we spent a lot of money doing that for a while. But people would look at those pieces and say ‘That’s not Kittinger.’ So, instead, we now do a lot of customization—probably about sixty percent of our output. We take newer ideas, things that are out of the norm for us, and place them within the more recognizable Kittinger framework. I wouldn’t call it contemporary so much as transitional.”
In the end, the furniture and its history do most of the talking. So, while there’s plenty to boast about, Bialkowski projects an air of accomplishment that’s tempered with some refreshing humility.
“You’ll never hear me say we’re the best,” he says. “Because, really, you can only go down from there.”