From massage controls to built-in coolers, the basic recliner has been reincarnated dozens of times since the original—wood-slatted and intended for outdoor use—was built by cousins and La-Z-Boy co-founders Edwin Shoemaker and Edward Knabusch in 1928. The following year, they upholstered the chair, bringing it indoors and allowing people to relax in living rooms all year round.
La-Z-Boy Inc. has reinvented itself continually since then to keep up with evolving consumer preferences and to remain the No. 1 recognizable brand name among recliner manufacturers. But steady growth (320 stores nationwide and $1.2 billion in sales for the fiscal year ended 25 April) speaks of the home-grown brand’s longevity and the recliner’s enduring appeal.
Recliners are getting sleeker, quieter, softer and more durable. This year’s ComfortTouch model has 100 remote-controlled adjustment combinations for the seat and back with air-chamber technology. For the environmentally conscious, the EcoComfort models use soy-based foam cushions and are available in EcoSuede fabrics made of recycled water bottles. And in the fall, La-Z-Boy will offer a model called Chill, with an electric cooler in the arm, similar to the best-selling Oasis model the company discontinued in 2002. ”People value comfort and that’s what a La-Z-Boy recliner will give you,” says Paula Hoyas, vice-president, upholstery merchandising. ”It’s a place that’s yours.”
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That familiarity has helped the publicly traded company weather the recession, posting a $5.3 million profit for the quarter ended 25 April—its first net gain since January 2008. La-Z-Boy attributed the gain to cost-cutting measures, including the closing of 21 stores and galleries (it opened six) during the last fiscal.
La-Z-Boy’s strong name-brand recognition is unique and the company’s mid-market image means it appeals to the affluent as well as the budget-conscious, says Jerry Epperson, a managing director with investment firm Mann, Armistead and Epperson in Richmond, Virginia.
The publicly traded company is also poised to take advantage of baby boomers —77 million in number—who are becoming increasingly immobile and seeking relaxation, Epperson says. “We’re getting older and fatter every day, and those recliners are wonderful things,” he adds.
Never stop innovating
Based at La-Z-Boy’s headquarters in Monroe, Michigan, Hoyas leads a team of five designers and three project managers. Together, they constantly generate ideas for new recliner models, adding to a list of hundreds.
“You never stop innovating,” Hoyas says. “You never stop adding to the list.”
Some may be far-fetched: a chair with a master remote that allows users to control electronics nearby, for one. But the team is charged with monitoring trends and designing new models before competitors such as Lane and Flexsteel do.
And some recliners don’t even look like recliners.
“Quite frankly, you could walk past it and not ever know it reclines,” Hoyas says of a handful of La-Z-Boy models that feature high legs instead of the usual chair skirt. The standard recliners with a basic handle built into the side can adjust to 16 different positions while a more discreet piece can tolerate three.
A name nearly generic
La-Z-Boy has such strong brand recognition that the term has become generic for recliners, much like Kleenex for tissues and Scotch for tape, says Joe Carroll, publisher of industry weekly Furniture Today in High Point, North Carolina.
“Retailers want to carry it because it’s a name people recognize,” Carroll says. “The appeal, of course, is that they’re incredibly comfortable.”
But two other elements have been key to the chair’s longevity, industry observers say. Prices have remained stable, ranging from $299 for a basic chair to $1,999 for a leather-upholstered ComfortTouch model, and they pose little design risk because they match most other types of furniture.
The gender gap
Another challenge for La-Z-Boy is winning over the female demographic, which is not as partial to big, bulky “motion furniture”.
“Most guys want a recliner to sit in,” Carroll says. “Most women don’t want a recliner in their living room.”
As a compromise, Carroll and his wife purchased a high-leg recliner and an ottoman to disguise its mobile features. To appeal to female consumers, La-Z-Boy has given feminine names, such as Charlotte, Riley and Kimberly, to models with hidden reclining mechanisms. The company also offers hundreds of options for customizing leather and other fabrics to match home decor.
“Dad gets the comfort; mom gets the look,” says Ken Smith, managing partner with Smith Leonard PLLC in High Point.
Will demand for the recliner ever wane?
“Not as long as people come home from work with their butts whipped and want to settle into a comfy chair,” says Ray Allegrezza, editor of Furniture Today.
• 1928: First recliner is built in Monroe as a wood-slat folding porch chair
• 1929: Recliner is upholstered for indoor use and sells for $45.35. A contest is held to name the chair. La-Z-Boy is the winner
• 1952: First La-Z-Boy recliner with a built-in footrest is introduced
• 1956: La-Z-Boy Hi-Lo Matic recliner debuts with an adjustable back to accommodate different heights
• 1961: Reclina-Rocker boosts sales from $1.1 million to $52.7 million between 1961 and 1971
• 1975: Wall Recliner conserves space in living rooms across America, allowing chairs to open closer to walls
• 1988: High-leg lounger is introduced, lifting the chair off the floor and eliminating the recliner’s chair skirt
• 1999: The Oasis is the first recliner with a built-in beverage cooler, 10-motor massage system and built-in phone with caller ID
• 2002: La-Z-Boy goes high-fashion when Tommy Hilfiger, Nicole Miller, Todd Oldham and Cynthia Rowley help design new models
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES
Welcome to John Keats’ London house
The London house poet John Keats lived in from 1818 to 1820 reopened last week after a £500,000 renovation. Keats wrote his ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ and ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ in the house near Hampstead Heath, where he courted his neighbour Fanny Brawne. The house has been a museum since 1925, but closed for refurbishment in 2007. It has now been restored to its original décor, with displays including the poet’s death mask and the engagement ring he gave Brawne before he died of tuberculosis at 25. Obscure and ignored, it was only later that he was recognized as one of the great Romantics.
Good to know
The National Gallery in London will exhibit centuries of forgeries and wrongly attributed paintings next year. Some, mistaken as great masters (such as the supposed Rembrandt below, titled ‘An Old Man in an Armchair’), were unmasked by testing materials and techniques. Others, masterpieces altered to changing tastes, were uncovered through cleaning, such as Raphael’s ‘Madonna of the Pinks’, identified as genuine only in 1992. The exhibition, called ‘Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes And Discoveries’, will run from 30 June-12 September 2010.
These ancient buttons were photographed last week at the Museum of London. Over 2,500 buttons, ranging from the late 14th to the late 19th centuries, have been given to the museum by collector Tony Pilson, who spent 30 years scouring the banks of the Thames in London with his metal detector.
A comfort seating
If function follows form, you’ll want to furnish your office with designs that embody efficiency, such as the Tubular Brno Chair designed by modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1930. Its cantilevered stainless steel frame uses few materials. Yet minimalism does not belie comfort: The seat and back are made of supple Spinneybeck leather, in around 500 colours and textures, at a starting price of $1,137. Out of your range? Japanese brand Muji recently introduced a line of bentwood and tubular steel furniture in collaboration with German manufacturer Thonet. The Thonet Steel Pipe Chair (right), retails for $575.75.
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES
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