Gay CEO on a Christian Loveseat
Furniture mogul Mitchell Gold eschews glitzy Democratic confabs for coffee talk with evangelicals
Gold’s chief advantage, Blankenhorn added, is his sheer approachability. “Maybe it’s because he’s in business and has to have relationships with his customers,” Blankenhorn added. “He’s a salesman.”
Taylorsville, where Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams is headquartered, is tucked away in hills dominated by church steeples above and emerald mines below. The steep driveway down to the 600,000-square-foot factory carries the cutesy postal address “One Comfortable Place.” The front door to the corporate offices is less noticeable than the off-kilter yellow schoolhouse façade that marks the entrance to the company’s on-site daycare center. (When I visited earlier this summer, tall stalks of corn planted by the children were being inspected by a groundskeeper with a full ZZ Top beard.) “We are in the country, my dear,” Gold told me. “At first I was like, oh my god, it’s like Deliverance.”
Gold, who grew up in the suburbs of Trenton, N.J., wound up in the South by accident. His mother, a schoolteacher, wanted him to be a lawyer, but when he graduated from Long Island University in 1974 with a degree in history, one of his professors set him up with an interview at Bloomingdale’s. “He said, ‘You don’t want to be a lawyer. Lawyers are such boring people, you belong in retail,’ ” Gold recounted. “So, I thought, ‘OK, I’ll go check it out.’ ”
He got an entry-level job with the department store and spent six years working his way up to furniture buyer, before leaving to work for one of his clients, Lane Furniture. By the mid-1980s, Gold was handling national accounts like JCPenney and Sears, but when Penney’s relocated to Plano, Texas, Lane’s president, Arthur Thompson, asked Gold to move to Lane’s headquarters outside Lynchburg, Va. One night, Gold, who didn’t know anyone in the area, decided to look for the gay bar in town. “I finally found a gay hotline in the blue pages and said, ‘I just moved here from New York, I’m in Lynchburg, there must be somewhere I can go,’ ” Gold said. “And the guy says, ‘Lynchburg is the headquarters of Jerry Falwell. There’s nothing.’ ”
After a year in Lynchburg, Gold moved to Hickory, N.C., which, he says, felt “like moving to Paris.” Lane had promoted him, and Gold asked Bob Williams, a graphic designer for Seventeen whom he had started dating in New York, to join him. “I grew up in Texas,” Williams told me over lunch with Gold at the company commissary, Cafe Lulu, named after their late English bulldog, “so it was almost like moving back home.”
At the time, the fastest-growing segment of Lane’s business was its upholstered dining furniture. “Rich people had fully upholstered chairs that designer showrooms made,” Gold recalled. “Lane had this division making them in 50 or a hundred fabrics, and they were better priced than the ones in the designer showrooms, and it was a cheap business to get into.” Gold decided they should start their own company and convinced Williams, who had trained at Parsons School of Design, to take on the design side. “He helped me pick some fabrics, and then it was like, ‘OK, let’s put the fabric on these chairs, and let’s get a showroom,’ ” Williams said. “I’d never done any of these things before.”
They incorporated in April 1989 as Mitchell Gold’s DesignLine. (Williams’ name was added in 2005, to cement their professional partnership after they split as a couple.) The new company began selling to JCPenney, Levitz, and Crate & Barrel, which was just beginning to move from housewares into furniture. “We sold 5,000 chairs before we even started manufacturing,” Gold told me. “We put on these beautiful florals, velvets. I would have put five different shades of beige, but Bob brought a wow factor to it.”
Gold and Williams hit the market just as home retailers were looking to capitalize on a phenomenon started by chain clothing retailers like the Gap: the casual buyer. “Mitchell was the first person to think about selling upholstery as an impulse item,” Glen Senk, the CEO of jeweler David Yurman, told me. When Gold and Williams were starting out, Senk was at Williams-Sonoma, where he was charged with reinventing their Pottery Barn brand, and Gold convinced him to try selling sofas. “It was a white slipcovered sofa, and we shot it in my apartment,” Senk said. “And I remember waking up the morning after the catalog broke and everything had changed.” The sofa led to a leather club chair, modeled on a Parisian flea-market find but more generously proportioned for suburban American spaces. It became one of Pottery Barn’s iconic products. “We didn’t invent slipcovers,” Gold said. “But Bob had this idea to tailor it and make it different sizes to fit with different homes.”
As the company grew, Gold—who had been student body president in college—began to get actively involved in politics. “Bill Clinton gets elected, and he says gays should be in the military, and next thing there’s this whole push back against it,” Gold told me. “Living here, when you hear the preachers talking, and the local news, it’s not quite what people up north are hearing.” By 1998, he had joined the national board of the Human Rights Campaign, while Williams volunteered for the Equality North Carolina board. The pair also started running ads featuring male couples with babies and children and teased the fall 2000 collection with the line, “We’re coming out September 15th.”
As they expanded—today, the company employs more than 600 people—employees would sometimes approach Williams and Gold with questions. “They’d say, ‘You’re gay, and my preacher said this or that,’ ” Gold said. “There were people who did not understand it.” Gold also began to get questions from people who needed support coming out: employees, friends, and sometimes strangers who were terrified of being ostracized not just by their families, but by their communities, people for whom the idea of leaving for New York or even nearby Charlotte felt like rejection rather than freedom.
As a teenager, Gold was privately wracked by anxiety over his sexuality. He knew he was a minority as a Jew and occasionally encountered mild anti-Semitism, but that never made him feel bad. “On the contrary,” Gold told me. “Because what I was learning in synagogue was that we were the chosen people.” But he heard his parents making fun of “the feygeles” and decided there was something wrong with him. “It was an enormous fear,” Gold said. He worried that his parents would send him for shock therapy—homosexuality was categorized as a mental disorder until 1973, when Gold was 22—and that he would never be able to get a job, let alone fall in love and have a family of his own. “It was torture, as a high-school kid, figuring out how I was going to act so no one knows, so that no one catches me,” Gold went on. He struggled with depression in high school and contemplated suicide.
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