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Beneath a water tower, parallel to a gas station, one would never guess that inside this unassuming warehouse sitting at 260 E. Goodnight in Aransas Pass would house some of the most exquisite, handmade, and distinctive furniture in all of Texas. There is something exceedingly idealistic yet sensible about the furniture company Herb Lancaster has built. But, who is the man behind the brand?
Herb Lancaster is a renowned career furniture designer. His company, H Lancaster Co., wants to “Bringing Back Made in America.” These words might seem audacious to some, but the philosophy behind the phrase is the direct impact Lancaster desires to have on the economy; with the Coastal Bend as his focal point. It is about teaching independency as opposed to dependency - helping people build something with their own two hands.
“Six months after moving to Cuero, Texas, I walked into a grocery store. A woman was crying, and she approached me and said, ‘Sir, thank you so much. You do not know the impact you have had on my family by giving my husband a job. Thank you.’ This was not what I had set out to do. It was a byproduct. I had not thought about it that way until that day. Creating jobs and having the ability to provide people with job opportunities is a great blessing. My dream is, in the future, to have people lining up outside wanting an opportunity,” Lancaster shares.
This man is the primo example of traditional American exceptionalism. Ten years ago, he owned two factories under the imprint Lancaster Furniture and employed over 150 people. “Due to the downturn of the economy, I had to let almost all of my employees go. It was one of the most difficult times in my life.”
His affinity for repurposing furniture has been an ever present companion. “I remember when my mother, Solveig (who was from Sweden), and her friends would go the market and buy furniture. We lived in Houston at that time, and Houston is a port city, so all this furniture would come in from Europe. She asked me to put the pieces she purchased in the back of my truck and keep it in my garage wood shop away from my father. My father found out one day and he said, ‘Get it out of the house.’ So we took it to the shoe store and sold it there. We doubled what we bought it for. My father saw it, and suddenly, he started going to the market with my mother. They would bring the furniture back, and I would work on it, then and we would go sell it. I’d go out and help them select the furniture that I could refinish. We did this while I was in college. Eventually, we had the biggest antique stores around.”
There lies the bold and ambitious nature Lancaster possesses. It is not far-fetched to see the immediate impact of imported goods. Most of the furniture market, and other markets, are saturated with foreign manufactured goods. This could be attributed to the low cost of labor in those countries as opposed to in the United States. Admittedly, “The furniture business is a hard business to make a profit in.” Nonetheless, this does not deter Lancaster to venture out in this realm. This bold nature is not just boastful rhetoric. It is embedded in their practice as every piece of furniture is striking and unique with a price tag that rivals any competition. It also stems from the idealism that is exemplified by an audacious design. Yet functionality is never forgotten.
Displayed in the middle of the showroom is a 3 inch thick 10 ft. x 4 ft. piece of mahogany resting on a repurposed industrial machine. The marriage between both worlds of machine and mahogany meet in flawless unity and birth a concept only Lancaster could have seen. “In our previous factory in Cuero, this piece of machinery was used to build furniture. We decided to keep it, and now it’s the base of this furniture. It’s funny because the machine that used to build furniture is now a piece of furniture.”
“I just really enjoy visualizing something that can exist in my mind and then drawing it and watching the people that I work with turn it in to reality. That’s what I still do today. I mean, all my life I have been blessed with the ability of seeing things spatially and proportionally and then presenting it to someone who has furniture-making experience to bring it to life.”
Lancaster previously held production contracts with several department stores including Dillard's on nationwide collections. “Back in the 80s, Dillards was kind of like how Walmart is, very mundane. They wanted me to bring more of a residential flair and incorporate my antique feel.” Lancaster worked with and has worked with the likes of Tommy Hilfiger, personally, on numerous shows, to being a Chairman of the Workforce South Texas Division.
Lancaster’s portfolio is impressive. It includes acclaimed designer Tommy Hilfiger, skin care business tycoon Estée Lauder, and the luxurious Houstonian Hotel as clients. On the local commercial scene, numerous restaurants in Port Aransas have H Lancaster Co. furniture. His talent has been noticed by many for years. He has worked on a number of courthouse renovations across Texas, and he is an honoree of Dewitt County for exceptional work on their County Courthouse. On the state level, Lancaster’s work is seen by anyone who walks into the State Capitol building in Austin, Texas. Lancaster is also one to share his knowledge.
“I want to help someone build something with their hands. It helps create independence and self-confidence for individuals. This is the idea behind ‘Bringing Back Made in America.’ When George W. Bush was governor, he dissolved the Texas employment commission. His administration created the Texas Workforce commissions. There were seven regions, and I was chosen to Chair the seventh, which was the Golden Crescent region and Victoria was our central point. The Victoria College system was our physical agent for continuing education teaching mothers with dependent children and vocational studies,” Lancaster said.
For all of Lancaster’s successes, he’s remained incredibly humble and refers back to the company, not himself. He has been designing furniture for a long time, with no plans to expand in to the fabric business in the future. Lancaster is a man with strong convictions who decides to apply his beliefs in a more practical way. “I am a very pragmatic man. I do what I do for very pragmatic reasons. It looks good, it sells and people love it.”