November 21, 1997 in Features

Most Wanted List Consumers Are Ready To Buy New Furniture And The Industry Needs To Make Some Changes To Meet The Demand

Jura Koncius The Washington Post
 

The domestic version of the 10 Most Wanted List is in. Consumers are looking for sofas, recliners and beds; end tables, kids’ furniture and casual dining pieces; upholstered chairs, cocktail tables, entertainment centers and sleep sofas. And they want to buy them. Now.

According to a survey released here during the furniture industry’s twice-annual fashion week last month, Americans are interested in purchasing new furniture. But they can’t find pieces they like.

Brrrrinnnggg. That’s the sound of the alarm bell ringing. Just as the latest crop of curio cabinets, leather loungers and swivel gliders was being unveiled to store buyers, America’s Research Group was telling industry members that one-third of furniture shoppers are not finding the right models. Customers are either unwilling to trudge from store to store or are bored with the lack of new design directions, so they are putting money back into the household budget to use for other things, pollsters said.

In fact, manufacturers already are on the case: Many had brought in well-dressed reinforcements - big names from the fashion industry like Bill Blass, Nautica and Eddie Bauer - to create new collections that will, they hope, put the buzz back in the furniture business.

“This industry needs a major wake-up call to see if anyone is at home,” said Britt Beemer, founder of America’s Research Group, a South Carolina polling firm whose clients include major consumer-driven companies such as AT&T; and General Electric. His company polled adults who “definitely plan to purchase in the next year” to come up with this year’s shopping list.

Furniture folk have been living with lackluster sales since the 1980s. Baby boomers now in their prime are said to be spending money on high-tech toys, not furniture. And twentysomethings are known to pooh-pooh anything that smacks of the style of furniture sitting in their parents’ living rooms. Last year, consumers in general spent more dollars on electronics for the bedroom than on bedroom furniture, says Beemer.

So what’s a manufacturer to do? Some have sought the status of a designer label. In recent seasons, decorators such as Mark Hampton, Mario Buatta and Jacques Grange, and fashion designers such as Ralph Lauren and Alexander Julian have succeeded in transferring their distinctive identities to collections of home furnishings sold under their names.

This year, there are more, from the outdoorsy casual style of Eddie Bauer for The Lane Co. (where the sales force was all decked out in brushed chambray shirts, turtlenecks and khaki pants), to the more formal, large-scale pieces by Blass, well-known as a designer of classic and sophisticated American clothing.

“It’s got to be one person’s point of view,” said Blass, who introduced his first furniture collection for Pennsylvania House. “It’s my taste I’m selling here. This business has got to change. It’s not addressed the needs of the public. They no longer want rooms of dark brown furniture.” As an alternative, he’s offering a campaign chest with a black leatherlike crackle finish and an 18th-century English-style chest with satin marble top.

Traditional furniture stores, smarting from the success of specialty retailers of the new casual chic, such as Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn, are hoping brand names will bring additional cachet to their wares.

“By tying in with established names in the apparel industry and design world, many furniture manufacturers gain that added entree,” says Joseph P. Logan of the American Furniture Manufacturers Association. The trade group estimates that furniture shipments this year in the United States will rise about 5 percent, roughly the same increase as last year.

That’s not considered good enough in this upbeat economic climate, with a real-estate market rebounding, interest rates low, and people with bucks spending freely on big-ticket sport utility vehicles and status kitchens.

Whether the new cocktail tables and entertainment centers fulfill the need in American homes won’t be decided until this fresh furniture is delivered to retail stores next spring. Will consumers like the styles? Can they afford them at these prices?

It will take months on the sales floor to learn those answers. In the meantime, we’ve made a rigorous assessment of likely contenders, selecting mainstream pieces in each of the 10 Most Wanted categories. They are made by established furniture companies. They are not the most avant garde and may not be the most stylish. But like well-designed garments on fashion runways, these styles are likely to be widely copied. And knock-offs may bring the price points down in months to come.

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story:

Take a look at what’s on the shopping list for furniture this season

By Jura Koncius The Washington Post

Fabric sofa. The good news in the couch department: fat roll arms are out, clean lines are in.

Fabric recliner. New this year is “The McKinley,” a mammoth model four inches wider in the seat than standard recliners for “mountains of comfort.” Part of La-Z-Boy’s Summit Series, the basic model ($599) can be customized with a heat and massage system (button-controlled by zones) or a speakerphone with digital answering machine and computer hookup under the heavily padded flip-up arms. “God forbid you should have to move for the rest of your life,” said one La-Z-Boy employee.

Master bedroom bed. A great bed is often the starting point for a new household. So why not begin with something monumental?

End table. Small tables are a necessity in every room. “I need about three of these tables myself. Rooms with no place to put anything are such a pain in the neck,” said interior designer Mark Hampton.

Youth/children bedroom furniture. Baby-boomer parents are spending major amounts of money on furniture for their kids. The “Enchanted Armoire” in snow-white finish is aimed at the “little princess,” a category that provides vast marketing possibilities. The armoire ($1,400) by Lexington Furniture features a clothes bar and removable shelves plus a secret diary compartment and jewelry storage (of course). For boys, the woodsmen at Lexington have created a nautical Ship Ahoy collection.

Casual dining chairs. Now that many Americans sit at kitchen counters not only for their morning cappuccino and bagel but for lunch and dinner too, bar stools are the among the most desired dining chairs of the 1990s.

Upholstered chair. “We’re showing a lot of leg this market,” said Mitchell Gold, whose manufacturing firm bears his name. Sofas without skirts and upholstered chairs with exposed legs on wheels were among the hip showroom’s freshest looks.

Cocktail table. Whether it’s a spot to prop up martinis or stack copies of Vanity Fair, the cocktail or coffee table is a hard-working piece of living- or family-room furniture. So why not a model that tells time too? The first Eddie Bauer Lifestyles furniture collection from The Lane Co. includes a 40-inch diameter clock table displaying an Eddie Bauer black goose logo in the center. The over-scaled clock has Seiko workings. Made of pine and cherry wood, it costs $799. Is it time to go chop some more wood?

Entertainment center. A collection based on the work of the late furniture designer T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, who designed from 1946 to 1960 for the Widdicomb Furniture company, recognizes the current interest in collecting mid-20th-century modern.

Sleep sofa. Beds that pop out of nowhere continue to attract consumers. La-Z-Boy’s “Daphne” is available as a full-sized sleep sofa ($999), but it may be even more useful as a chair-and-a-half sleeper ($699). As a chair, it seats two people. It opens into a twin-size bed. A matching overscaled ottoman ($399) has a hidden compartment under the top cushion that can be used to hold bedding and pillows. Nobody has to know there is an extra bed unless you want to tell them.

This sidebar appeared with the story: Take a look at what’s on the shopping list for furniture this season By Jura Koncius The Washington Post

Fabric sofa. The good news in the couch department: fat roll arms are out, clean lines are in. Fabric recliner. New this year is “The McKinley,” a mammoth model four inches wider in the seat than standard recliners for “mountains of comfort.” Part of La-Z-Boy’s Summit Series, the basic model ($599) can be customized with a heat and massage system (button-controlled by zones) or a speakerphone with digital answering machine and computer hookup under the heavily padded flip-up arms. “God forbid you should have to move for the rest of your life,” said one La-Z-Boy employee. Master bedroom bed. A great bed is often the starting point for a new household. So why not begin with something monumental? End table. Small tables are a necessity in every room. “I need about three of these tables myself. Rooms with no place to put anything are such a pain in the neck,” said interior designer Mark Hampton. Youth/children bedroom furniture. Baby-boomer parents are spending major amounts of money on furniture for their kids. The “Enchanted Armoire” in snow-white finish is aimed at the “little princess,” a category that provides vast marketing possibilities. The armoire ($1,400) by Lexington Furniture features a clothes bar and removable shelves plus a secret diary compartment and jewelry storage (of course). For boys, the woodsmen at Lexington have created a nautical Ship Ahoy collection. Casual dining chairs. Now that many Americans sit at kitchen counters not only for their morning cappuccino and bagel but for lunch and dinner too, bar stools are the among the most desired dining chairs of the 1990s. Upholstered chair. “We’re showing a lot of leg this market,” said Mitchell Gold, whose manufacturing firm bears his name. Sofas without skirts and upholstered chairs with exposed legs on wheels were among the hip showroom’s freshest looks. Cocktail table. Whether it’s a spot to prop up martinis or stack copies of Vanity Fair, the cocktail or coffee table is a hard-working piece of living- or family-room furniture. So why not a model that tells time too? The first Eddie Bauer Lifestyles furniture collection from The Lane Co. includes a 40-inch diameter clock table displaying an Eddie Bauer black goose logo in the center. The over-scaled clock has Seiko workings. Made of pine and cherry wood, it costs $799. Is it time to go chop some more wood? Entertainment center. A collection based on the work of the late furniture designer T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, who designed from 1946 to 1960 for the Widdicomb Furniture company, recognizes the current interest in collecting mid-20th-century modern. Sleep sofa. Beds that pop out of nowhere continue to attract consumers. La-Z-Boy’s “Daphne” is available as a full-sized sleep sofa ($999), but it may be even more useful as a chair-and-a-half sleeper ($699). As a chair, it seats two people. It opens into a twin-size bed. A matching overscaled ottoman ($399) has a hidden compartment under the top cushion that can be used to hold bedding and pillows. Nobody has to know there is an extra bed unless you want to tell them.


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