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Better Sit Down for This: Recliners Are In

May 18, 1996|VALERIE J. NELSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A classic club chair with a '40s feel, the newly designed Fumo has a high back, plump cushion, sleek exotic wood side panels and a look so sophisticated it belies its very origins.

This is not your father's recliner.

It is an expensive chair with a hidden electric reclining mechanism, incognito footrest and a cosmopolitan pedigree. The Pace Collection has sold 50 of the recliners since they were introduced less than two months ago. One Los Angeles client bought the Fumo based on the picture alone.

At $5,900 in leather, this is not a previous generation's price tag, either. But the chair is part of a trend that finds designers across the price spectrum reinventing the traditional recliner, long the piece of furniture most likely to be ridiculed. As the baby boomers creak through middle age, you can almost hear the footrests flipping up en masse.

"Recliners like BarcaLounger work great, but they look like these big lumps of furniture. We wanted a luxurious chair that could fit into an expensive living room," says James Rosen, who designed the Fumo and is one of the owners of the Pace Collection, a company that carries "expensive, classic, contemporary" furniture in Los Angeles and New York showrooms as well as seven other cities across the United States.

Six million new recliners found homes last year, and a surprising number of them could pass for a chair without moving parts. Many incorporate elegant or modern styling, from Victorian to mission, classic to contemporary, and recline on cue from body weight instead of levers. Even the offerings of the much-maligned recliner kings, La-Z-Boy and BarcaLounger, have expanded to include styles that arguably make them look like anything but a recliner.

"The chair is coming more into what the modern world wants. They are not so recliner-looking. They are not so big and hulking and have a little more design to them now," says Julia Weisbrot, whose La-Z-Boy chairs sell from $199 to $1,500 at the West Coast Furniture Gallery in Westminster.

Most of their chairs sold today have a chaise cushion that extends from the seat to the floor, eliminating the separate footrest. Many also are fashioned to resemble traditional wingback chairs, with a concealed reclining mechanism.

"The younger, more affluent customers want a recliner but are buying a more disguised recliner," says John Case, vice president of marketing of the La-Z-Boy Chair Co., which lays claim to inventing the recliner in 1928 in Monroe, Mich. The company had $850 million in 1995 sales and has averaged double-digit growth for the past five years.

The increased popularity of reclining en famille is responsible for one of the industry's strongest categories, the sofa recliner, which can cost less than $1,000. With the sofa, recliners flank a stationary seat; buy two, and you can accommodate a family of four. And it cuts down on fights over the good chair.

The modern leather reclining sofa that is selling well at JANUS et Cie in the Pacific Design Center appears exceedingly simple yet has a novel design. Instead of a footrest, each long seat cushion pivots to the front to allow for reclining. The cushions rest on a metal frame "so refined, the metal work is like jewelry," says company president Janice Feldman of the $7,440 sofa.

Her contemporary chair recliners are marketed in eye-popping colors--lipstick-red leather with yellow piping or cobalt blue with orange piping--that turn a once sneered-at style into "a functional art object," Feldman says. Still, black remains her bestseller.

With leather recliners that start at $3,320--it's at least another $1,340 for the ottoman--Feldman cautions that "people should know these are made to last for generations.

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JANUS et Cie and the Pace Collection have found a niche for their ultra-chic chairs in the entertainment industry's private screening rooms around town. But recliners are also sneaking into rooms without even a TV screen.

C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, a Charleston, S.C.-based company that polls about 5,000 furniture consumers monthly for the industry, says the phenomenon of new homes with master suite sitting areas has helped sales as more and more consumers eschew putting a recliner in their formal living room in favor of putting one in the master bedroom.

"For years, the design community ran from the product category. They wouldn't sell it, wouldn't talk about it. Most designers looked at the reclining product as an ugly item, and there's a tendency for them to say that the category was beneath them," Beemer says.

The Pottery Barn catalog embraced the recliner for the first time in its winter '96 book. Hilary Billings, the catalog's director, sought to include a relatively affordable recliner, $699, because the company thought people would go for an updated version.

"We thought it would be a great idea to develop a recliner chair that fit stylistically more into the look of the room," says Billings of the wingback-style chair slipcovered in natural cotton duck. The company sold 130 in three months.

The varied designs certainly make the chairs more acceptable, but fatigue might be cementing their popularity. Beemer's research shows Americans are working longer days than ever, then racing home to their his-and-hers recliners. Now what would your father think of that?

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