spot_img
Wednesday, May 22, 2024

How nice guy Bob Timberlake became a global phenomenon

A May 1965 article in Life magazine about famed artist Andrew Wyeth turned Bob Timberlake from the manager of his family’s gas business and other interests into a world-famous artist and furniture designer.

After reading the article and being impressed with Wyeth’s style, Timberlake met the subject of a Wyeth painting called “The Children’s Doctor” at an art show. (Dr. Margaret Handy had treated Wyeth’s children.) Timberlake had begun painting in the basement after his kids went to bed, but he didn’t know how to channel his passion. So in February 1969, he called Dr. Handy, who told him to call “Andy.”

Nervously, Timberlake dialed, and Wyeth answered. After a short explanation, the famous painter replied, “Well, when can you be up here?”

That weekend, Timberlake drove to Wyeth’s studio in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and showed his paintings. One was called “The Old Feezor Place,” an acrylic painting that Timberlake still possesses. “He looked at mine and said, ‘You’ve obviously got a wonderful talent. You ought to figure out a way to do it.’”

Nearly six decades later, Timberlake’s work is globally renowned. Based in his hometown of Lexington, his paintings have sold out exhibits around the world, selling for millions, and his Lexington Furniture “World of Bob Timberlake” line has sold an estimated $2.2 billion, an industry record. He’s licensed designs for everything from rugs and lamps to ceramic tile, doors, floors, fixture lighting, roofing, windows, hardware, paint and stain, bringing in millions more.

His books, mainly depicting his art but also a 1999 memoir, are best-sellers. Collectors search for his paintings, tables and chairs at garage sales, hoping to strike it rich by owning an original from a man who looks like the quintessential grandfather, having never said an unkind word, according to one of his granddaughters.

“He is just a singular personality,” says Jerry Epperson, managing director of the Richmond, Virginia-based Mann, Armistead & Epperson and a notable industry analyst. “He’s warm. You can’t help but love him. I wish there were more Bob Timberlakes in my life.”

At his Lexington gallery, open Wednesday through Sunday, several thousand shoppers visit each week, perusing Timberlake prints and originals while their creator walks the floor, unnoticed by many of those milling around. A drawing of a kitchen stove is listed for $1,150. A six-pack of Timberlake note cards goes for $11.95. A cherry coffee table costs $299 while his monthly doodle sheets that show his creative mind at work fetch $995. A sunflower throw pillow is listed at $29. Canoes hang from the ceiling.

Timberlake, whose glasses hang around his neck, apologizes to guests in the gallery, noting that the past weekend cleaned out some inventory. Timberlake often gives some of his work to nonprofits for fund-raising efforts.

“He’s just a very unselfish man,” says Rockingham lawyer Bill Webb, a friend and quail hunting partner for the past 20 years. “He’s not driven by money. He’s a North Carolina icon in the Hugh Morton and Bill Friday model. Those level of people are fewer and fewer. He’s the finest man I have ever known.”

Timberlake professes not to know how much money he’s made during his 53 years as an artist.

“It’s my reward to have people tell me that they have a painting in their room,” he says. “The furniture has turned out to be like the paintings. People tell me what it reminds them of, and what they feel when they’re in a house with that furniture.”

At 86, Timberlake shows no signs of slowing down. He still works eight to 10 hours a day in the studio in the back of his Lexington gallery, and says he’d work longer if his family would let him.

At one table, he’s designing furniture. At another table, Timberlake doodles and writes down ideas for new paintings. He and his son Dan, who handles the business dealings, decline to discuss business specifics other than to expect an announcement in early 2024.  Succession at Bob Timberlake Inc., and its future structure, is being discussed, but there are no firm plans.

An entrepreneur at heart

Timberlake’s father, Casper, pushed Bob and his brother Tim, who was five years older, to be entrepreneurial. When Bob was 10, he and his brother spent the summer building a lake cabin, using parts of a torn-down house on South Main Street in Lexington to build an office for the family’s gas business. At 15, Timberlake built a chest that won Ford Motor’s Industrial Art Contest. “We were thrown into situations to create and use our imaginations and creativity,” he says.

That same year, he built a 1931 Plymouth Roadster, taking parts from nine other cars. The vehicle was later sold to buy his wife Kay’s wedding ring in 1957.

Eddie Smith, the CEO of Grady-White boats in Greenville, grew up two blocks away in Lexington. He idolized Timberlake for building the hot rod. “That was right at the age I was getting car crazy,” says Smith. “He would come by the house, and it was just a piece of art. It was just the coolest thing I had ever seen.”

Timberlake graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in 1959 with a degree in industrial relations and returned home to work in the family businesses, which included a funeral home and a furniture store. But he grew restless. “My brother Tim was very capable of running everything we’ve got,” says Timberlake. “And I could see running out of things to challenge myself.” Tim ran the family gas business, Carolane Propane, until it was sold in 1995, then he retired.

Doodling and sketching came second hand to Timberlake. In 1965, he came across the Life article about Wyeth. “And a light bulb, honestly, just as you pull a chain — ching, ching — went off in my head. All of the things he was saying, his feelings, why he did the paintings, it was so familiar it was scary.”

It wasn’t until the visit to Wyeth four years later, however, that Timberlake acted. From February 1969 to January 1970, Timberlake painted in the basement. In May 1970, he took 23 paintings to the Winston-Salem Gallery of Fine Arts in Old Salem and sold them all for $18,500. He knew then that he’d found his calling. There’d be no more working at the gas company.

In January 1971, he aimed for the big time. Timberlake and his dad traveled to New York with seven new paintings to show to galleries. Although he had an appointment with the Kennedy Gallery on Madison Avenue, Timberlake took a taxi to the famed industrialist Armand Hammer’s gallery on 57th Street and knocked on the door. Timberlake was showing the paintings to a gallery staffer when Hammer’s brother, Viktor, walked by, took a quick look, and said, “Can you leave these?”

They sold immediately, and the Hammers wanted more. It took until April 1973 before Timberlake could produce enough for a major exhibit of 25 paintings. Although it was Easter, and income tax returns were due the next day, the exhibit sold out the day before it opened, marking a first for the Hammer Gallery. Over the years, Timberlake had six more showings there.

His work quickly attracted global interest, aided by displays at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, Frye Museum in Seattle and Isetan Gallery in Tokyo. In 1974, he exhibited at the Artists of America show with Norman Rockwell.

Eyes like cameras

Timberlake calls his artistic process as simply determining which ideas in his head he’s going to act upon. “My eyes were like cameras,” he says about those early years. “I was storing all this stuff — moss growing on the side of an oak tree, ants fighting in the woods, squirrel nests. I was storing and capturing all of that stuff. The creative process is continuous. It’s like writing a book, reading the book and then illustrating the book.”

For many years, Timberlake would retreat to a barn south of Lexington to paint and sketch. He bought the Shoaf Barn, which had been built in 1809, in 1986 and renovated it into a cabin. Two years ago, he moved his main work studio to the back of the gallery, just
off Interstate 85.

Bob Timberlake and his granddaughter, Evanne.

In 1989, Timberlake was approached by former CEO Jeff Young of Lexington Furniture about designing a line of desks, chairs, beds and tables. The “World of Bob Timberlake” line was introduced in October 1990. Within three months, it was selling at the famed Harrods department store in London. Young expected $6 million in first-year wholesale sales, but Lexington pulled in $26 million. The number kept increasing, topping $100 million annually for more than a decade. Young says the line was the most successful in the industry’s history. Furniture pundits called it the “antiques of the future.”

Young remembers visiting furniture stores with Timberlake and being amazed to see customers lining up outside, waiting to get the designer’s autograph. “It just had a downhome appeal that nobody else had,” says Young. “We hoped that we would strike a nerve with a downhome look that was not pumped up by marketing.”

Today, pieces from the line sell on Etsy. A king-size bed goes for $2,500 while a walnut cabinet lists for $1,495. Young, who left Lexington Furniture in 1999, stepped down as head of Markor International Home at the end of 2022. Lexington is now owned by Shanghai-based Luolai Lifestyle Technology and Yixing Capital.

Timberlake declines to give the furniture style a name, though others call it Americana or country. “It was a chair that looked like your grandfather sat in it and made it just for you,” he says, noting that he required Lexington to keep knots and other imperfections in the wood. “Or made that table for your home. What do you call that? Personal. Everything we were doing was real. It wasn’t fake.”

Timberlake released seven additional lines, including Riverwood in 1999, Lodge in 2000 and GrandKids in 2001 and Vintage Reserve in 2002. In 1997, he introduced a collection of 24 home plans, with the first Timberlake show home in High Point. Other show homes were built as far away as Utah. The designs were made available through Southern Living. His Lexington gallery opened in 1997 and another opened in Blowing Rock in 2001.

In December 2010, Timberlake’s license with Lexington expired, after he objected to the company’s use of Chinese manufacturing.  His contract gave him the right to OK the furniture before it was sold. He recalls telling Lexington, “If you make it in China, I’m not going to approve it.” (At one time, four of the company’s 16 plants in North Carolina were devoted to the Timberlake line.) The next year he started working with Hickory-based Century Furniture, which made the furniture until the end of 2019.

Stamps and wine labels

Timberlake has written nine books, including two cookbooks and one with noted CBS “Sunday Morning” host Charles Kuralt. He partnered with Shaw Living to produce a line of rugs. Door hardware and bath accessories were his Longleaf Collection. He partnered with Statesville-based Dixie Seating Company to produce wood rockers. Plantation Dog Foods made a premium Timberlake premium dog food. He’s designed four stamps for the U.S. Postal Service and the wine labels for Shelton Vineyards in Dobson. His friend Eddie Smith remembers opening a Bass Pro catalog one day and seeing a line of Timberlake luggage for sale.

When COVID-19 hit in 2020, the Timberlake’s scaled back on the licensing, letting the contracts expire and returning the company’s focus to his dad’s art. “Nobody wants to know who I am,” says Dan Timberlake. “I’m in the back with my dog.” Says his dad: “Dan keeps me out of trouble. He keeps me to where I can create. Dan is the guard at the gate.”

Both Timberlakes remain circumspect about the company’s plans. Bob Timberlake acknowledges work on a book about his friendships. “When I’m doing a book, I’m writing the words, I’m picking the paper, creating the design,” he says. As for the furniture he’s designing, Timberlake says, “We are looking to change, but change in a way that has quality and character, our character. People will know our furniture.”

As for the company’s future, a granddaughter, Evanne Timberlake, worked for Bob Timberlake Inc. as a design consultant and director of retail, art and furniture. She left in 2021 to earn an MBA at UNC Chapel Hill and now works for Amazon.com in Washington, D.C. Says Bob Timberlake: “I want her to be happy. I know so many people who know her potential. So whatever she wants to do.”

That, says his friends, is what makes Bob Timberlake special. He’s always thinking about others and not himself.

“He’s just the nicest, most humble, thoughtful, most generous person I have ever known,” says Smith, his childhood friend. “He’s just an amazing person.”

Chris Roush
Chris Roush
Chris Roush is executive editor of Business North Carolina. He can be reached at croush@businessnc.com.

Related Articles

TRENDING NOW

Newsletters