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Spencer Wood Morten Jr., Former CEO of Bassett Mirror Company, Dies at 94

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Spencer Wood Morten Jr., former president and CEO of decorative furniture source Bassett Mirror Company and a pioneer in the import sourcing of home furnishings components and products, died at age 94 on May 11.

Born on Oct. 24, 1922 in St. Louis, Morten served as a medic during World War II and received a bronze star for saving fellow soldiers’ lives. During the Battle of the Bulge, Morten deepened his commitment to Christianity after his prayers for protection were answered. Returning from war, Morten used the GI Bill to attend Washington and Lee University in Virginia, where he studied journalism and was a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity.

After graduation, Morten joined the advertising staff of the Martinsville Bulletin. While working at the newspaper, he met his future wife, Mary Elizabeth Bassett, granddaughter of Bassett Furniture Industries founder J.D. Bassett Sr. and daughter of William M. Bassett, then president of Bassett Furniture. Spencer and Mary Elizabeth married in 1949 and had four children: Sarah Fisher, Bill, Spencer III and Greg. Spencer Morten III is the current CEO and chairman of Bassett Mirror Company.

In 1951, Spencer Morten Jr. joined Bassett Mirror Company, which J.D. Bassett Sr. had founded in 1926 as a mirror source for Bassett Furniture’s bedroom and dining room lines. Morten became president and CEO of Bassett Mirror in the early 1960s and served in that capacity until the 1990s, when he became chairman. He retired from Bassett Mirror Company in the early 2000s.

During his 50-year career, Spencer Morten Jr. transformed Bassett Mirror Company from a small mirror specialist dedicated to supplying Bassett Furniture into a well-known national brand with its own network of retail and design customers. Venetian-style mirrors for use in bathrooms were one of the first products Bassett Mirror marketed on its own and from there it expanded into decorative mirrors for other rooms in the home as well as framed wall art, occasional tables, lamps and accent furniture. Throughout its history, the company has been well known for its innovative, fashion-forward styling and its quality decorative finishes, which include unique gold-leaf, bronzed and antiqued treatments.

A visionary entrepreneur, Morten was one of the first home furnishings CEOs to develop a network of global sources. He began in the 1950s by importing high-quality float glass for use in the company’s mirror production, working with Pilkington Brothers in England, the Saint-Gobain Company in France and Central Glass Co. in Japan.

Starting in the 1960s, Morten also forged sourcing arrangements with furniture producers in Scandinavia, Italy and other European countries, attending shows in Milan, Cologne and Barcelona and traveling to a number of foreign factories. He also spearheaded the acquisition of several production facilities in Canada, and established sourcing relationships in Mexico as well.

Through Morten’s leadership, Bassett Mirror became one of the first companies to introduce contemporary-styled, nickel-and chrome-finished tables from Europe to the U.S. market. The company sourced the table frames from Denmark, combining them with its domestically produced thick glass tops to serve emerging market demand. Bassett Mirror soon became the largest seller of chrome and glass occasional and dining tables in the U.S.

Bassett Mirror Company also was one of the first furniture manufacturers to use thermo-plastic injection molding for the production of mirror frames and furniture parts. Sensing an opportunity to use the technology to create the ornately shaped elements featured in Mediterranean furniture —one of the hottest U.S furniture styles in the late 1960s — Morten launched a new company called Dominion Ornamental. To produce the line, he built an 84,000-square-foot plant adjacent to Bassett Mirror’s main facility, and invested heavily in the equipment needed to produce mirror and picture frames, clock cases and furniture components made of polystyrene and polyurethane.

“The 1960s was the age of plastics,” said Spencer Morten III. “With this plant, we could produce frames and furniture components that looked just like wood at a fraction of the cost. Other companies were unable to compete with us and, thanks to our great sales force, we grew to become the largest decorative mirror manufacturer in the country.”

By 1969, about 30 percent of the company’s total mirror production was going to Bassett Furniture Industries, and the remaining 70 percent was being sold to department stores, home furnishings stores and trading stamp premium suppliers. Over time, as the company continued to develop and expand its own base of retail customers, it developed a reputation for cutting-edge design and creative merchandising and display techniques.

When sourcing products for the company’s expanding line, Spencer Morten Jr. traveled to countries throughout the world. Often accompanied by his wife or children, Morten’s travels left him with a lifelong love of English tailoring and fine Italian dining.

“Nobody — and I mean not one person — was his equal while traveling,” recalls Spencer Morten III. “He went ‘top cabin’ and planned our day around incredible wine cellars and kitchens.”

Spencer Morten Jr.’s family, friends and co-workers knew him to be incredibly generous, genial and genuine.

“He treated his children and grandchildren to a world of fun and wonderment,” says Spencer Morten III. “His friends knew him to be inquisitive and a font of information. In a single day, he would listen raptly to his mechanic buddy (talk) about the carburetor on his truck, and later amuse a dinner party audience with a detailed recommendation about restaurants in Florence, Italy. He was open and honest in conversation, and clear with his decisions. Above all, he trusted his co-workers to manage the business and tolerated their honest mistakes. His professional support never wavered, and his personal love was profound and without conditions.”

A leader within the furniture industry and his community, Spencer Morten Jr. served on many corporate boards, but he was particularly proud of his service on numerous Baptist-affiliated boards in Virginia. After his retirement from Bassett Mirror Company, he was an active member of two congregations where he lived: Pocahontas Bassett Baptist Church in Virginia, and Christ Memorial Chapel in Hobe Sound, Florida.

Morten also was a collegial man of the highest order, and club memberships were very important to him. He was a Mason and Kiwanian, and a member of the Society of the Cincinnati and Chevaliers Du Tastevin. He also was an active member of the Bassett and Chatmoss Country Clubs in Virginia and the Jupiter Island and Hobe Sounds Yacht Clubs in Florida. In addition, he could be found almost every weekday morning at 10 o’clock having coffee with other World War II veterans in Virginia or Florida.

Along with his wife and four children, Morten is survived by nine grandchildren, one great-granddaughter and many nieces, nephews and cousins.

Memorial gifts can be made to the Bassett Historical Center at 3964 Fairystone Park Highway, Bassett, Virginia 24055.

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