The Big Chill-Out Bone-tired baby boomers sit in on an American trend, plopping down disposable income, and their fannies, on recliners.

May 27, 1998|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

The rain is coming down in sheets and the sky over Glen Burnie is the color of boiled cabbage, but you don't care.

A hundred yards up Ritchie Highway, a late-model Honda Civic has hydroplaned into a Ford Taurus and the Taurus looks like it might be in the body shop until the Al Gore presidency, but you don't care about that, either. In fact, you don't care much about anything right now, because you're inside the vast, quiet, cocoon-like elegance of the La-Z-Boy Furniture Gallery, your body melted into a recliner so comfortable it may take a cattle prod to get you out of this baby.

Like Propecia and Prozac, Viagra and fen-phen, sports utility vehicles and endless, over-hyped goodbyes from our favorite sitcoms, the recliner is fast becoming a cultural icon for the baby boom generation.

Sales of recliners are up significantly: La-Z-Boy, the country's largest manufacturer, sold more than 1.5 million last year, up 7 percent from 1996. And according to Furniture Today, an industry publication, 45 percent of recliner buyers in 1997 were 35 to 54.

Which is why you, a graying boomer with bad knees and a schedule that leads to an all-encompassing weariness at the end of the day, have come here, in search of the Ultimate Recliner, the dream chair into which you can collapse each evening.

"Yes, yes, these are all nice," you say to sales manager Patty Wose, after plopping into your fourth recliner. "But let's cut to the chase, shall we? Let's see the one with all the bells and whistles."

Wose nods and smiles. Wordlessly, she leads you down a side aisle, where recliners in different styles and fabrics are lined up like planes on a carrier deck.

And suddenly, there it is: in the corner, gleaming in the soft lighting, a shimmering blue vision of sensual comfort, even decadence.

The Big Dog.

The Taj Mahal of recliners. Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for the last word in relaxation furniture, the sine qua non for nesting in the New Millennium: the Maxim.

Not just a recliner. A way of life.

As you sink into its deep, dark folds and recline into a position that might be the most comfortable you've ever experienced, a pulsating series of vibrations washes over different parts of your back and hips.

Your eyes begin to close.

"The telephone answering machine is right here," says Wose, pointing to the chair's right arm.

But it sounds like she's speaking underwater; you're already starting to drift off. And you think: Boy, it wouldn't take a whole lot of arm-twisting to get used to this.

A growth industry

From all the available evidence, recliners are in a remarkable ascendancy.

In a recent front page story, the New York Times reported that 7 million Americans -- not just baby boomers -- visited their recliners last year for some serious down time.

La-Z-Boy, still the undisputed king of the business, recently passed the $1 billion threshold in sales. And sales of other "motion furniture" -- upscale cousins of recliners, namely sofas, sectionals and love seats with hydraulic parts that move or recline -- have soared 85 percent in the past seven years.

In a recent issue, Consumer Reports magazine even rated a dozen popular makes and models of recliners (the La-Z-Boy Anderson, which retails for between $300 and $350, topped the list) and detailed shopping strategies for selecting the perfect chair in which to do nothing.

What does it all mean?

"There's no question [the role of recliners] is expanding, and the reasons are myriad," says Kimberly Wray, editorial director at Highpoints magazine, a furniture industry publication. "But one reason is definitely that people are working their tails off, and they want something to relax in."

Recliners also fit in with the modern reconfiguration of many American homes.

"With the advent of great rooms" -- family-oriented and less formal than traditional living rooms -- "[and] home theater and just the 'casualization' of lifestyles, people are entertaining far less formally," says John Case, La-Z-Boy's vice president for marketing.

The so-called "slackers" of today also are helping fuel the boom in recliner sales; 17 percent of those who bought recliners last year were ages 25-34.

"This generation is far more inclined to relax," says Case, himself a baby boomer. "In 1946, we were the first TV generation; we're well into the second TV generation now. The idea of watching TV for six or seven hours is not an uncommon activity.

"As long as you're going to do that, what's the optimum level of comfort? They know it's a recliner."

Marketing for women

Finally, there is this: Research conducted by La-Z-Boy indicates that more than 50 percent of its recliner users are women.

This is a startling figure, given the stereotype of the big fat guy coming home from work, grabbing a beer from the fridge and plopping into his recliner in his undershirt.

"The image that [the typical user] is the guy coming home and sitting in his chair and it's only his chair is as stereotyped as Archie Bunker," says Case.

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