Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams broke up years ago, but their home-furnishing company and friendship have grown since.
“Conventional” is not a word you’d associate with Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams, either as it applies to their shared business or their personal lives. From 1988 to 2002, the two were a couple in Taylorsville, North Carolina, working to grow the Mitchell Gold home-furnishing company—with Gold in control of the marketing and Williams in control of the creative designs. In 2002, their relationship as a couple ended, though their business partnership continued. Three years after they split, the company known as Mitchell Gold became Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams. Why? Because Gold, 60, thought it would be good karma to finally recognize the contributions of his ex-partner with a dual masthead. Usually people are trying to erase the name of an ex from their lives, not put it up on a marquee next to their own. The dynamic between Gold and Williams, 49, is definitely unconventional, but they have always had an eye towards creating good karma; and their commitment to social awareness and environmental protection helps explain the long-term success of a residential and commercial furniture manufacturer with nearly $100 million in yearly sales.
“When we first started the company, I happened to be reading The New York Times and there was a front page story about how the ozone layer was depleting,” Gold says. “And it said one of the biggest abusers was the furniture industry in North Carolina because of manufacturing foam. And when foam is manufactured it emits CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) into the air and depletes the ozone layer. I always remember calling Bob from a payphone with a phone credit card and saying to him, ‘This is crazy, we’re getting into a business that is horrible for the environment.’ And no pun intended, but we’re good men, and we didn’t want to do something that is going hurt the environment.”
Consequently they found a foam manufacturer that does not create CFCs. They also committed the company to using wood that grows back quickly and to using recyclable packaging on all their furniture.
“So we set out to really learn how we could manufacture furniture in an environmentally responsible way. Everything we do is with an eye towards honoring the environment,” says Gold, who serves on the board of the Sustainable Furnishings Council, which helps monitor the environment impacts of other furniture producers.
Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams has 17 retail stores across the country and its products are also carried by national chains including Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware, and Williams Sonoma Home. Its product line includes slip-covered and tailored upholstery, leather, sectionals, beds, ottomans, recliners, and chairs, as well as case goods, lighting, rugs, and photography by Tipper Gore, a close friend.
Williams describes the company’s aesthetic sensibility as “soft modern,” with the hard, boxy look of contemporary furniture softened by flourishes like comfortable slipcovers.
“Right from the beginning, as basic as this sounds, we wanted to make comfortable furniture,” Gold says. “And in 1989, the word ‘comfort’ was really not used by any furniture manufacturers. And we had a real idea of what comfort meant.”
Even when their relationship as a couple ended in 2002, Gold and Williams continued to see eye-to-eye on business matters.
“It’s sad when you’re together with somebody and the relationship ends, but we fortunately didn’t hate each other about it and we kind of understood what was taking place,” Gold says. “We like each other. We’re still best friends. He and his partner, me and mine, we go out to dinner together, we travel sometimes together. There’s not really a challenge to us about it.”
They admit that’s unusual.
“I think a lot of people aren’t able to do what we’ve done,” says Gold, who definitely tends to do more of the talking.
With their financial success, Gold and Williams have been able to make a profound and positive impact on raising social awareness about issues of importance to them, including the ongoing oppression of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT) community in many sectors of American life.
In 2005 Gold established Faith in America, a non-profit organization whose three-fold mission is to educate the people about the harm caused to gay Americans when religion-based bigotry and prejudice is used to justify condemnation, discrimination and violence; to challenge such oppression by anyone who promotes it or attempts to justify it; and to confront the social respectability and acceptability afforded to Americans who cite religion-based bigotry to oppress gay Americans.
“A lot of the advocacy organizations just try to ignore educating people about the harm that their religious beliefs cause other people. As a result you have a lot of people who’ve been hurt by their parents’ and their church’s religious teachings,” Gold says. “And their reaction to it is to completely throw it away and to completely move away from any faith belief, and I understand all of that. And we need to talk about that. We don’t need to get into a debate about scripture. But when you tell a 14-year-old gay kid that he’s a sinner and an abomination, that’s the kind of thing that gets a kid to hang themselves. When people understand that, they rethink their religious teachings. And that’s what we’re asking people to do, to challenge themselves.”