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Manfred Steinfeld, founder of Shelby Williams Industries, dies

Contract industries pioneer, philanthropist and WWII hero

Manfred Steinfeld, 95, founder of Shelby Williams Industries, Jewish philanthropist and Contract Furniture Industry pioneer, died on June 30, 2019 in Florida. He was born on April 29, 1924 in Josbach, Germany.

manfred steinfeldThanks to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society of Chicago, Mr. Steinfeld escaped Nazi persecution and arrived in Chicago at the age of 14 to live with an aunt. After graduating from Hyde Park High School, he joined the army.

Mr. Steinfeld attended military intelligence school where his knowledge of German enabled him to become an expert on the German army. He was attached to the 82nd Airborne Division and distinguished himself as a paratrooper receiving the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star medals. He also was involved in translating the unconditional surrender document into German when the 21st German army group surrendered to the 82nd Airborne on May 2, 1945.

After the war, he learned that his mother and sister, who remained behind in Germany died in 1945 at a concentration camp. His younger brother, Naftali, who had been sent to Palestine, died fighting for the creation of a Jewish homeland.

Mr. Steinfeld graduated from Roosevelt University in 1948 with a business degree. At the start of the Korean War, he was recalled to active service.

Then in 1954 Mr. Steinfeld and a partner purchased a bankrupt furniture company in Chicago and renamed it Shelby Williams Industries. The company built its reputation on producing furniture that met the specific requirements and schedules of designers serving the hotel and restaurant industry. At the end of its first year in operation, the company reported nearly $400,000 in sales.

As sales steadily grew, in 1962 Mr. Steinfeld expanded manufacturing facilities in Morristown, TN. Three years later the company went public. It was later purchased by RCA and in 1976 Mr. Steinfeld repurchased the company. In 1983, he took Shelby Williams public again becoming one of the few companies to go from private to public to private and then public again.

Shelby Williams was credited with developing the first tubular stacking chair which became a standard in banquet facilities and public spaces around the world. The company grew through acquisitions which included Thonet Industries, the Austrian company founded by Michael Thonet, developer of the bentwood furniture process. The acquisition included 40 Thonet antique pieces. Mr. Steinfeld added additional pieces, building one of the largest collections of original Thonet furniture.

Mr. Steinfeld co-founded the Contract Manufacturers Association which laid the foundation for the Contract Furniture Industry. A few years later in 1968 with support from the Merchandise Mart, he helped organize the industry’s first trade show. The show later became NEOCON®, the National Exposition of Contract Furnishings and the largest exposition for commercial interiors in North American.

In 1999 when Mr. Steinfeld sold Shelby Williams, he reported that the company was profitable every one of its 46 years in business, reaching $165 million in sales and doing business in 87 countries.

Five years later he returned to the industry he helped found. With several long-time colleagues, he started Daniel Paul Chairs, named for his late grandson. He also founded Stack Chair Depot and

Mr. Steinfeld has been honored for his leadership, business acumen and generosity. Among his honors are: the Horatio Alger Award for Distinguished Americans in 1981; American Jewish Committee Humanitarian Award of the Year in 1986; Holocaust Foundation of Illinois 8th Annual Humanitarian Award in 1993; the Lifetime Achievement Award, called “the Manny,” from Hospitality Design Magazine in 1999; and Julius Rosenwald Memorial Award from the Jewish Federation of Chicago in 2000. In 2014 the Steinfelds received the National Leadership Award from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

With his wife, Fern, many educational, cultural, religious, social service and medical institutions have benefited from their generosity. He • Provided funds for more than 500 scholarships for students attending the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN;
• Endowed the 20th Century Decorative American Arts Gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago and supported for the Bentwood Furniture Exhibition at the Art Institute featuring furniture from his collection;
• Established the Fifth Floor Gallery at Orchestra Hall, Chicago;
• Established of a Professorial Chair at the Weitzman Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel;
• Founder with his wife of the United States Holocaust Museum, Washington D.C.;
• Established and endowed the Manfred Steinfeld School of Hospitality Management at Roosevelt University of Chicago;
• Established the Danny Cunniff Leukemia Research Laboratory at Hadassah Hospital, Jerusalem, Israel in memory of his grandson; and
• Most recently provided a major gift for the establishment of the Fern F. Steinfeld Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement Center at Boca Regional hospital, Boca Raton, FL.

In addition to his philanthropic contributions, Mr. Steinfeld has volunteered his time and talent to numerous organizations. These include: Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau, Board of Directors; American Israeli Chamber of Commerce; University of Tennessee, Knoxville, member of its Development Council; Roosevelt University, Chicago, Life Member of the Board of Directors; Jewish Federation of Chicago, Board of Directors, Board Chairman from 1999-2000; Jewish United Fund, General Campaign Chair in 1987 and 1997 and elected a life trustee of the Art Institute in 2008.

Mr. Steinfeld’s remarkable life and personal and professional contributions have been documented in print, television and video. In 1992, the Art Institute in Chicago published a book called Against the Grain: Bentwood Furniture from the Collection of Fern and Manfred Steinfeld. Several years later, A Legacy of Style was published recounting the history of Shelby Williams Industries. He was featured in a documentary on CNN on successful business executives; the PBS TV show, “Profiles of Success;” and the Discovery Channel program, “Nightmare’s End” on the liberation of the concentration camps after World War II. The 2000 documentary "Victim & Victor," is a video biography of Mr. Steinfeld. The book, A Life Complete The Journey of Manfred Steinfeld, published in 2013, recounts the story of his amazing life. He was recently featured in the book Sons and Soldiers by Bruce Henderson about the Jews who escaped the Nazis and fought with the U.S. Army against Hitler.

He was preceded in death by his grandson, Danny Cunniff and is survived by his wife of 70 years, Fern (nee Goldman); children: Michael (Rosibel) and Paul (Sara) and Jill Cunniff (Timothy) and 10 grandchildren.

Published July 1, 2019

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