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Success story: Mitchell Gold & Bob Williams
Former life partners turned best friends clean up in the furniture biz

by David Moore
Q-Notes staff
TAYLORSVILLE, N.C. — Undisputed trend-setters in furniture industry, renowned furniture manufacturers Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams — both openly gay men — have pioneered numerous innovations focusing around the themes of comfort and style in residential and commercial settings.

The creations by the two man have become wildly popular and are sold through a select group of the country’s most popular furniture retailers, including Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware, Storehouse and Nordstrom’s, among others. In addition, individual retailers have started opening their own Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams showrooms in select markets across the country such as Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Miami and Atlanta.

Look closely at some of the retail stores and guest hotels you frequent — Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams furniture can be found as part of the chosen décor in places like Banana Republic and J. Crew and at hip hotel chains such as the W, Ritz Carlton, Sheraton and The Westin.

Indeed, the unique, highly stylized and versatile furnishings created by these two are so popular they’re literally popping up all over the place.

But what about the human side behind the creative and business success?
Besides running a $100 million company, Mitchell Gold is a board member of the Human Rights Campaign. In addition, he was very active in the 2004 Presidential campaign as a NC delegate to the Democratic Party, a personal friend and advisor to the Kerry/Edwards ticket, and a fundraiser who raised millions of dollars on behalf of the Democratic Party.

Where did Mitchell’s drive for success and willingness to break rules come from?
According to Gold, it all started in a conventional Trenton, N.J. home.

“I grew up in a very traditional American family. Both of my parents stayed married even though they didn’t get along,” Gold recalls with a chuckle. “I can look back at my parents to see where my early influences began. Both of them were very interesting individuals and they had great modern taste — so I was exposed to that at an early age.
“But one thing I remember distinctly — we were never allowed in the living room. One time when it was redone my brother and I were shown the room and then we didn’t get to see it again for another two years. They were very specific about how rooms were to used, and where the children could play.”

So did the early furniture deprivation technique impact his focus in later years?
“Oh definitely. Without a doubt.”

Gold is the first to admit that his years in school and college were nothing particularly out of the ordinary — but there did come a turning point.

“Going in to my senior year one day when I wasn’t too high on the pot I was smoking, I decided to run for student body president,” he recalls. “I won!

“Somehow the dean of the business college saw some potential there and arranged for me to have an interview with Bloomingdale’s. I interviewed for an assistant buyer’s position and I got the job. I started in domestics then went to personnel, lamps and finally furniture.”

By the time Gold got to the furniture department, the wheels were set in motion headed clearly towards his future.

“I love furniture,” Gold explains. “If I was a domestics buyer or a candy buyer you influence the way people sleep or eat. But with furniture - you influence the way they live.”

Then there’s the other half of the company — Bob Williams.
Co-founder and president of design, Williams started the company with Gold in 1989. Williams is responsible for designing the Company’s new upholstery, case good and lighting collections twice a year. He’s a board member of Equality North Carolina, as well as a board member of The Hickory Museum of Art.

Originally from East Texas, Williams met Gold in a New York club sometime around 1985 or ’86.

But the road to that moment was a long one.
“I spent 20 years growing up feeling very isolated and lonely,” Williams recalls of his Texas youth. “There were no role models. It was not the most fun and enjoyable environment to be in growing up.”

It wasn’t until several years later — when Williams was at Parsons – School of Design that he would come out. A few years more would pass before Williams took a job as art director for Seventeen Magazine and Gold and Williams would finally cross paths.
“At the time he was working for The Lane Company,” Williams says of Gold. “He got transferred to Hickory with Lane in 1987 and I went with him. We had actually been together a few years before we decided to do the company. That was 1989.”
So what was Williams’ reaction to Hickory after having spent the better part of a decade in New York City?

“It was fantastic,” he recalls. I felt right at home. It felt just like the little town I grew up in.”

Together as life and business partners, the two made the decision to go into the furniture business on their own.

“Through a friend of a friend we found a company in Taylorsville that was only using about 50 percent of their capacity,” Williams recalls. Riding the combination of William’s design talent and Gold’s savvy business skills and connections, an industry force was born.

Today, the company employees more than 700 individuals and operates out of 600,000 square feet of manufacturing and warehouse space. With over $100 million in sales, the company has captured media exposure in publications like Time, Fast Company and The Wall Street Journal, among others.

The environment they have created for their employees is legendary.
Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams features an on-site day care center (the first in the residential furniture industry), a trained corporate chef managing a health-conscious, gourmet cafe at the company’s headquarters, a concierge service for employees, annual health fairs and employee scholarship programs.

Despite all the success, the time eventually came when the men would go separate directions as romantic partners.

“We were together 14 years,” Gold says softly. “We haven’t been a couple for four years.”

Nevertheless, the two remain inextricably linked, through business affairs, shared ownership of property, a dog named Lulu and an enduring friendship.
“”He’s like my best friend in the world,” Gold says of Williams.
Gold remains a bachelor and is — according to the man himself — “single and on the prowl.”

Williams has since found a new partner.
“His name is Steven Heavner,” says Williams. Originally the two worked together on the Equality NC Board, although Heavner eventually stepped down. Now 41, Heavner has recently returned to school to major in business and marketing. The two work closely together with the Hickory-area AIDS organization ALPHA.

Both Gold and Williams are adamant about the importance of today’s LGBT youth.
Says Gold: “Coming to grips with my sexuality was a very black cloud over my existence. When I finally did come out and I came to grips with myself, I really started to flourish. I didn’t have such a tough life — but I really don’t want anybody who’s 15 to face the emotional crisis I faced.

“Coming out is a different experience for everyone. If you think you’re ready for it and your family can handle it — it’s always a good idea. But that’s not the case for everyone. Your family may not be supportive — you may not be in a place to take care of yourself financially. It’s important to gauge your own situation before you make that decision.

“For those people that are having a hard time coming out there is a lot of support on the internet. There’s incredible support from organizations like HRC and Time Out Youth. When I was a kid those options weren’t available.”

Williams concurs. “They have so many advantages that we didn’t have back then. You could maybe go to the library and look up stuff when I was a teen, but now there’s the internet. On TV back then there weren’t so many positive role models and on cable — right here in Hickory — Charter has Logo. I think it’s extremely important for people to know that’s out there.”

As for future plans beyond the furniture business, Gold is currently hard at work on the launching of the website www.faithinamerica.com, an internet site designed to bring an end to religion-based discrimination.

“The bottom line is, we’re taking on the religious right,” says Gold. “I’m a significant creator/founder. I’d like you to look at it and go, ‘It’s about time.’

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