Recliners roar out of the den

March 26, 1995|By Sharon Overton | Sharon Overton,Special to The Sun

Better styling and clever gadgetry are bringing the once-reviled recliner out of the den and into the mainstream.

Mention the word "recliner" and many people think of musty Herculon eyesores in shag-carpeted dens, something your Uncle Fred would sit on in his boxer shorts to watch World Championship Wrestling.

For many years, recliners have been the Rodney Dangerfields of the furniture world. And with good reason.

"A lot of them used to look really horrendous," says Greg Mullaney, president of Gardiners Furniture in Baltimore. "They looked like bloated Elvises."

But that image may be changing. In an effort to win over status-conscious customers, manufacturers are making reclining sofas and chairs that are civilized enough for the living room. Carved wooden legs and inconspicuous footrests are replacing the bulky ottomans of years past. Natural fabrics and leather upholstery are available in place of the usual bullet-proof synthetics and '70s-era velvets.

To please comfort-craving cocooners, manufacturers also are stuffing their products with complicated electronics and more moving parts than a Cuisinart.

The options are seemingly endless: full-body massage and built-in stereo, telephones, fold-away beds and universal remote controls. One manufacturer even experimented with a built-in mini-refrigerator but discontinued it, apparently because it created a fire hazard.

"We were joking that the next thing we'll see is a working toilet," an industry insider says.

While consumers haven't been quick to embrace all the new "functional enhancements," the strategy appears to be working.

With annual sales estimated at $2 billion, reclining, or so-called "motion" furniture now constitutes 25 percent of all upholstered furniture sold in this country.

Still, many people continue to see recliners as the chair of choice for Archie Bunker types and beer-guzzling good ol' boys.

"Its almost a class thing," says Anne Anderson, whose Severna Park saltbox is decorated with a mixture of contemporary furniture and "international flea-market" finds. "People that like to drink beer and smoke and watch football games had La-Z-Boys. You didn't expect when you went into the house of someone who was the director at the Walters Art Gallery that you would see one."

A couple of years ago, Ms. Anderson was redecorating her library and needed a pair of comfortable chairs for reading. She found two she liked in a light British-racing-green leather with Queen Anne legs. She didn't even realize they were recliners until a saleswoman pointed it out. "I started looking at recliners a little differently" after that, she says.

The true test came when she got the chairs home: "Someone my daughter's age looked at them and said, 'Cool.' "

To attract women and younger buyers, many manufacturers have been designing "motion" furniture that doesn't look as though it moves at all. They've scaled-down clunky ottomans (which had a bad habit of breaking when attacked by small children or large dogs), streamlined internal mechanisms and hidden levers. They've also incorporated more traditional styling give their products broader appeal.

Wing-chair recliners now are widely available with exposed Chippendale, ball-and-claw or cabriole legs, details that were unheard of just a few years ago. Companies like Barcalounger and Lane are offering recliners in popular Shaker and Mission styles.

Even European designers, who once might have thumbed their noses at such bourgeois American taste, are making sleek leather recliners that look at home in the most modern living rooms.

At the same time, other manufacturers are packing in options for customers who are less concerned with the way their furniture looks than with what it can do for them. Hidden drawers for magazines and video tapes, fold-down snack trays with cup holders, and telephone jacks concealed in armrests have been extremely popular, retailers say.

Side-by-side recliners with a center console and sectionals with 45- rather than 90-degree corners (so that everyone gets a view of the TV set) also have been big hits.

For customers who don't like the idea of built-ins, coffee tables are available with pop-up tops that can be adjusted to snack-tray or work-table height. And for those who've strained their backs reaching for the remote control, there are recliners that offer full-body massage.

First introduced roughly 20 years ago, the early heater-vibrators were known in the industry as "shake and bake" chairs and had much in common with the "magic fingers" found in cheap motels. Since then, the technology has improved considerably, manufacturers say. Companies such as La-Z-Boy, Berkline, Catnapper and Stratford now commonly include sophisticated massage units in their sectionals.

One company even offers a chair that simulates ancient Oriental massage techniques. For around $4,000 retail, Panasonic's Shiatsu Lounger delivers a variable-speed, 15-minute workout that rolls, taps and kneads the sitter from head to toe.

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