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More furniture buyers are ready to assemble


Better design and bargain prices mean more Americans are buying furniture they put together themselves.

According to family legend at the Sauder Woodworking firm, the idea of "ready-to-assemble" furniture was born one day in 1951 ++ when a Detroit furniture salesman happened to pass through the small town of Archbold, Ohio.

There he met Erie Sauder, a devout Mennonite and maker of chicken coops and church pews. The salesman suggested that he build some snap-together tables for the Chicago furniture market. Forty-three years later, Sauder Woodworking is the nation's largest manufacturer of ready-to-assemble furniture, with more than $400 million in sales.

But even Erie Sauder might not have imagined the changes taking place in the industry today. Ready-to-assemble, or RTA, has become one of the fastest-growing segments of the home furnishings industry.

Loosely translated, "ready-to-assemble" means furniture that comes in a box with some assembly required. ("Some assembly" can range from tightening a few bolts to building a complicated cabinet with doors, drawers and moldings.) The term used to imply cheap, disposable furniture made of particle- or fiberboard, a molded mixture of sawdust and glue. But it has come to include a wide range of prices and styles, from make-do dormitory stuff to museum-quality design.

Some manufacturers even are making ready-to-assemble upholstered sofas and chairs that can be carried home in your car and snapped together in a matter of minutes.

Functional design at bargain prices is what attracts most people to the furniture-in-a-box concept. On average, ready-to-assemble furniture is 25- to 50-percent cheaper than comparable assembled pieces, sources say. The savings come from reduced labor costs, as well as lower shipping and warehousing expenses, since most pieces can be packed flat.

Even design professionals, who once might have turned up their noses at knock-down furniture, now are praising its practicality and versatility. Steve Cooper, building editor for Better Homes & Gardens, purchased his first RTA piece recently to fill a need for more storage space in his Des Moines home. He paid about $200 for a free-standing closet (it's not fancy enough to be called an "armoire," he says) at a local department store. Then he hauled it home in his car and let his 12-year-old son put it together. "It took him about three hours -- maybe less than that," Mr. Cooper says.

Mr. Cooper typically furnishes his home with antiques he refinishes himself. But in this case, he didn't want to put the time or expense into something that would be used for storing out-of-season clothes. Plus, the simulated oak cabinet blended well with the existing furniture in his son's bedroom. "It's not an heirloom," he says. "But it's certainly not unattractive at the same time."

In the past, people who bought ready-to-assemble furniture had to make do with what one industry insider describes as "white melamine cubical storage things that didn't have a lot of style." That's changing. Stores such as IKEA, the Sweden-based home furnishings retailer, have turned frugality into a fashion statement with well-designed ready-to-assemble furniture that fits most budgets. Now, RTA manufacturers are putting as much thought into how their products look as how much they cost.

With improved technology, manufacturers can make particleboard cabinets with raised-panel doors and curved moldings. Chemical etching can produce a surface that looks and feels almost like wood grain. As a result, sales of ready-to-assemble furniture have nearly doubled, to $1.3 billion since 1986 and are expected to increase to $2.15 billion in the next four years.

On the high end of the design scale are companies like Sitcom in San Francisco, which makes stylish RTA furniture. The company's first product, a chair that collapses into its own carrying case, is in the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. An $80 tubular bar stool can be seen on the set of the TV show "Frasier," which is sort of a shrine to modern design. (Sitcom's products are available in Baltimore at Uzzolo.)

The concept of ready-to-assemble furniture always has been popular in Europe, says Carlo Patti, owner/designer for Louisiana-based Atacab, which sells sleek steel-and-plywood pedestal tables, desks and television stands through stores such as Uzzolo and Nouveau Contemporary Goods, as well as in catalogs such as Spiegel and Objects by Design. As the idea gains acceptance in this country, he says, design is at the point where it's often difficult to distinguish RTA from "built" furniture.

Sauder Woodworking, which started out with a single snap-together table, now makes more than 400 different styles of ready-to-assemble furniture, ranging from $19 TV carts to $400 entertainment centers. Its products are sold mostly through mass-market stores such as Wal-Mart, Kmart and Sears, although home centers and better furniture stores are a growing market.

Like the rest of the RTA industry, much of Sauder's growth in recent years has been fueled by the boom in home electronics: People need places to store all their new television, stereo and computer equipment. RTA also appeals to the nation's growing number of do-it-yourselfers.

"Ultimately, what's the difference between you putting a bolt in on your living room floor and some guy doing it in a factory?" asks Steve Cooper, the Better Homes & Gardens editor. "It's all perception. When you get into highly crafted things, that changes. But for many kinds of items, it doesn't make a difference."

To ensure that its furniture will go together more easily than, say, your average bicycle, Sauder tests some of its products on sixth-graders. The company also has simplified the assembly process with innovations such as slide-on moldings, so that a 6-foot bookcase now can be completed with simple tools in 20 minutes.

Other RTA manufacturers also are working on making their products more user-friendly. O'Sullivan Industries, for example, is developing desks and entertainment centers that eliminate the need for tools altogether by using components that fit together with a high-density touch-fastener material.

But even with added convenience and better design, ready-to-assemble particleboard furniture obviously isn't for everyone. Some people will always see it as a cheap imitation, something you buy until you can afford the "real stuff." That doesn't bother Stanley Hura, a New York design consultant for Country Living and Woman's Day magazines. He sees nothing wrong with paying $600 for a ready-to-assemble bedroom or living room suite, which later can be shifted into the guest room or beach cottage as your tastes and budget change.

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