Today's recliners are comfortably stylish

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There was a time when buying a reclining chair meant your taste in decorating was about as sophisticated as Archie Bunker's.

"Pop the beer can, kick back in your clunky recliner, and watch TV -- that's the image most people have always associated with reclining chairs," says Philip Cooper, director of merchandising for Barcalounger.

In the past decade manufacturers have been bending over backward, so to speak, to fight this image problem. "Fifteen years ago, recliners had a pretty bad reputation in terms of style and fabrics, especially among women clients," says Greg Logsdon, a designer with Texas furniture retailer Louis Shanks. "Today, I'm seeing a great deal of crossover with women -- the wing chair recliner is a clear favorite with women who, at one time, would never have even considered owning a recliner."

The news in recliners is the surprising variety of designs, from club chairs to sectional sofas, that marry comfort, utility and style -- yes, style. There are press-back models, which require a gentle push back and lock into several positions; chaise recliners, which, like chaises longues, have no gaps between chair seat and foot rest; models where the reclining mechanism is operated with a lever hidden between the cushion and the arm or a simple button (both considerably more discreet than the old handles); and sofas with reclining backs and foot rests.

Other chairs simply feature tilting seat backs, relying on accompanying ottomans to provide support for the legs. This is a big draw for some design fans, who don't care for the "dentist chair" look of a fully outstretched recliner in their living rooms.

Current decorating trends are making waves in the once predictable world of recliners. American country and lodge style a la Ralph Lauren are looks that homeowners, weary of the formality of '80s-era damask, tassels and gilding, have been eagerly embracing. Motion manufacturers are right in step.

Mission and Shaker?

Barcalounger is coming out with recliners modeled after two uniquely American furniture styles, mission and Shaker. "It's American history, the early craftsmen, revisited with modern technology," says Barcalounger's Phil Cooper. Similarly, La-Z-Boy, not exactly renowned for fashion-forward statements, plans to unveil mission-inspired chairs this fall. Already offering an adaptation from the now popular arts and crafts period is movie star Robert Redford's Sundance catalog, a direct-mail compendium of Wild West furnishings, accessories and clothes..

The Victorian era is another period that has generated a great deal of enthusiasm in the home design magazines and elsewhere. Perhaps that's because most Victorian furniture is now appreciated as antique, having passed the 100-year mark. And while designers aren't doing rooms up in head-to-toe Victorian fashion, they are using furniture from the 19th century more and more. There are no vintage recliners (two brothers, the founders of La-Z-Boy, concocted the idea in the 1920s) but modern choices do exist. A wonderful example is the Estate press-back recliner introduced last fall by Barcalounger. It has all the markings of a classic Victorian chair, including the telltale shape and silhouette and the turned wooden feet.

While the mania for iron, steel and other metals has swept through design circles in recent years, you won't find it embellishing recliners. You can, however, find wicker.

"Sun rooms are the No. 1 addition for homes today, and wicker is the natural product for that environment," says Tom Black, vice president of sales and merchandise for Wicker by Henry Link, a )) division of Lexington Furniture. The company's three recliners -- two in wicker, one in pencil rattan -- are especially popular in second homes, in areas along the coast, and in Florida. Not surprisingly, these are places where people want both wicker and a relaxing environment.

Cutting edge

The challenge of creating recliners on the cutting edge of style has been taken up by the Swedish furniture company IKEA, known for selling spare Scandinavian chic at a low price. Due to debut in IKEA's 12 U.S. stores this summer are two original designs: One of the recliners features a rolled arm, skirted bottom and a glider base; the other is a three-position press-back model in a biomorphic shape straight out of the 1950s. These are chairs hip enough to make it in Paris, and indeed that is what IKEA hopes will happen. The company intends to export the all-American phenomenon of the recliner to Europe.

Europe already produces some recliners, although they are not in the conventional big-chair mode at all. Two very sleek leather styles by the Italian company Natuzzi premiered this past spring exclusively at Bloomingdale's, and are selling very well, according to furniture buyer Moon Ho. "People are responding to them as fashion pieces," she says. A year ago Bloomingdale's decided to get in on the growing business in recliners by expanding its line to 16 models that mix and match with the store's other upholstered seating.

Even high-profile interior designers such as Greg Maire of DuBay & Maire Ltd. in Chicago use recliners in their decorating schemes. "One-third of our clients ask us for recliners. They're a bit sheepish about it -- but they want somewhere to put their feet up. A chair and ottoman just aren't as comfortable." Mr. Maire's usual choice: the contemporary TKO recliner from Cy Mann International, a curvaceous black leather number.

Of course, high style doesn't come cheap. Whereas recliners from IKEA are priced under $500 and those from Wicker by Henry Link are close to $700, Cy Mann's run as steep as $5,550 when upholstered in leather. So if your decorating budget can handle the hefty price tag, check out the many reclining chairs in the Cy Mann line, especially the Magnum, a swivel chair with a mechanical "memory" that remembers your favorite angle. "Recliners are ergonomically good for you," says Elyse Lacher, Cy Mann's president. "These are health chairs."

That's right, all you couch potatoes out there: Recliners are good for you, according to Dr. James W. Simmons, a member of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and a San Antonio-based specialist in spinal disorders. According to Dr. Simmons, activities like walking, standing and even sitting put pressure on the back's disks, pushing down on them like shock absorbers. Lying down helps the disks literally re-juice with the body's water that has slowly been squeezed out of them during the day. "It's better to lie in a recliner than to sit in a chair and watch television," Dr. Simmons says. "But don't do it with your neck in odd positions."

The feminine recliner

Most families are made up of at least two sets of sore backs, tired legs and achy feet. That's why there's a newer generation of smaller-scale chairs aimed at wooing reluctant female consumers. Barcalounger's line marketed to women includes petite recliners with cloyingly sweet names that include First Lady, Chablis and Rhapsody.

The surge of female interest in recliners is perhaps one reason why reclining sofas are flying out of stores these days. "The hottest category in the furniture business is what's called motion furniture: two recliners built into a sofa," reports Jim Krusinski, director of advertising and public relations for La-Z-Boy.

While La-Z-Boy sofas are as bulky as you might imagine -- according to Mr. Krusinski, "it's the nature of the beast" -- there are other companies that emphasize upscale design and detailing in motion furniture. MotionCraft by Sherrill has a list of more than 40 incliner sofas (where only the seat back moves) and modular sofas with inclining and fully reclining units.

Another alternative to La-Z-Boy and more fashionable than MotionCraft is Roche-Bobois. What is special about Roche-Bobois are the sleek modular shapes of the furniture and the trendy upholstery options, including exotic-looking woven kilim.

We always knew recliners were super-comfortable. Now that they come in an array of styles from American lodge to European chic, they look so good you don't have to be ashamed of them anymore.

Glenn Helmers, a contributing editor of Metropolitan Home, lives in New York.

) Universal Press Syndicate

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