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The reclining chair goes mainstream

Published August 24, 2006

Back when I was 21, I moved to New York to work as an editorial assistant at a fashion magazine. Slave wages and soaring real estate prices meant sharing a cramped apartment with two friends, writers who were also willing to live on the cheap.

We found much of our furniture on the street, combing curb-side trash heaps for chests, desks and chairs that stylish New Yorkers parted with regularly for the latest interior design trends.

A French co-worker made a dining room table from a massive woven aluminum trash can and a piece of glass. I salvaged two dressers from the garbage not far from our walkup flat. But my two male roommates, both broke and recent college grads, found in a trash heap what amounted to the Holy Grail:

A reclining chair.

It was probably the ugliest thing I had ever seen in my life, made of a cheap woodlike substance embellished with ornately carved curlicues and upholstered in red fake plush fabric that looked like it belonged in one of those scary adult movie houses that once populated Times Square.

It was so uniquely horrible that all these years later I can still see it with perfect clarity, thankful that I no longer have to try to somehow meld it into my decor. But the guys ... well, they loved it, sinking dramatically into its hideous, poofy depths for a long read when they got home from their proofreading and editing jobs.

The other day I was thinking about all this and realized that reclining chairs used to be the great American symbol of ugliness and masculine comfort.

Invented in the early 19th century marketed as elevating, revolving and recumbent chairs, they were perfected in the late 1920s by La-Z-Boy founders Edwin J. Shoemaker and Edward Knabusch, who designed a quality reclining mechanism that they wisely guaranteed for the life of the chair.

For years, they came only in bulky shapes and unimaginative upholstery, with protruding handles on the sides that made them look suspiciously like pickup truck seats.

Women hated them. Men loved them.

Men trading bachelorhood for marriage were usually instructed by their betrothed to leave the La-Z-Boy behind along with the tapestry of the poker-playing dogs.

(As an example, my mother never let my father have one, no matter how much he begged.)

But in recent years, the reclining chair has shed its stigma, thanks in part to clever makeovers by major manufacturers like the Monroe, Mich.-based La-Z-Boy.

Good looking, well-shaped and more comfortable than ever, reclining chairs have found their way into media rooms and great rooms, and nestled in master bedroom suites as reading chairs.

Todd Oldham has designed some devilishly handsome recliners for La-Z-Boy (which still manufactures the old-fashioned handle-style as well).

Cindy Crawford got into the act for Rooms To Go, with a recliner that is tailored and feminine and undoubtedly very appealing to women.

Recliners are even showing up at Costco and at Wal-Mart, which is selling a simple mission-style version that comes with an ottoman.

You can even fall asleep in a "massaging" recliner at the hair salon or relax in a wooden version on your patio.

The point is that the reclining chair has entered a whole new realm, offering sleek, nostalgic comfort that looks good at the same time.

"We have a lot of women who love them now, even the kind with the handles, because we've made a lot of effort to think about the female consumer at the mid price point," said Penny Eudy, a product manager for upholstery at La-Z-Boy. "Women want sleek clean lines and a more stylized chair."

Yes, indeed, we like them pretty.

That's why the company offers a Designer's Choice Collection featuring the "push-back" style recliner with no handles on the sides, as well as more than 1,000 upholstery choices and a wide selection of leather.

Eudy jokes that a woman might take a man along on a furniture-finding mission, but in the end she's going to choose what goes in the living room, even the La-Z-Boy.

"Women are making 90 percent of the household purchasing decisions," she said.

So that recliner better be comfortable, Eudy said, not to mention "stylish, streamlined and contemporary."

For the lady of the house, of course.

And where exactly is that hideous red recliner from my youth in New York?

I have no idea, but I'm pretty certain my roommates and I abandoned it when we went our separate ways in life.

No doubt the guys really miss it.

Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at

[Last modified August 23, 2006, 20:12:08]

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