The Big Chill-Out Bone-tired baby boomers sit in on an American trend, plopping down disposable income, and their fannies, on recliners.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The rain is coming down in sheets and the sky over Glen Burnie is the color of boiled cabbage, but you don't care.

A hundred yards up Ritchie Highway, a late-model Honda Civic has hydroplaned into a Ford Taurus and the Taurus looks like it might be in the body shop until the Al Gore presidency, but you don't care about that, either. In fact, you don't care much about anything right now, because you're inside the vast, quiet, cocoon-like elegance of the La-Z-Boy Furniture Gallery, your body melted into a recliner so comfortable it may take a cattle prod to get you out of this baby.

Like Propecia and Prozac, Viagra and fen-phen, sports utility vehicles and endless, over-hyped goodbyes from our favorite sitcoms, the recliner is fast becoming a cultural icon for the baby boom generation.

Sales of recliners are up significantly: La-Z-Boy, the country's largest manufacturer, sold more than 1.5 million last year, up 7 percent from 1996. And according to Furniture Today, an industry publication, 45 percent of recliner buyers in 1997 were 35 to 54.

Which is why you, a graying boomer with bad knees and a schedule that leads to an all-encompassing weariness at the end of the day, have come here, in search of the Ultimate Recliner, the dream chair into which you can collapse each evening.

"Yes, yes, these are all nice," you say to sales manager Patty Wose, after plopping into your fourth recliner. "But let's cut to the chase, shall we? Let's see the one with all the bells and whistles."

Wose nods and smiles. Wordlessly, she leads you down a side aisle, where recliners in different styles and fabrics are lined up like planes on a carrier deck.

And suddenly, there it is: in the corner, gleaming in the soft lighting, a shimmering blue vision of sensual comfort, even decadence.

The Big Dog.

The Taj Mahal of recliners. Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for the last word in relaxation furniture, the sine qua non for nesting in the New Millennium: the Maxim.

Not just a recliner. A way of life.

As you sink into its deep, dark folds and recline into a position that might be the most comfortable you've ever experienced, a pulsating series of vibrations washes over different parts of your back and hips.

Your eyes begin to close.

"The telephone answering machine is right here," says Wose, pointing to the chair's right arm.

But it sounds like she's speaking underwater; you're already starting to drift off. And you think: Boy, it wouldn't take a whole lot of arm-twisting to get used to this.

A growth industry

From all the available evidence, recliners are in a remarkable ascendancy.

In a recent front page story, the New York Times reported that 7 million Americans -- not just baby boomers -- visited their recliners last year for some serious down time.

La-Z-Boy, still the undisputed king of the business, recently passed the $1 billion threshold in sales. And sales of other "motion furniture" -- upscale cousins of recliners, namely sofas, sectionals and love seats with hydraulic parts that move or recline -- have soared 85 percent in the past seven years.

In a recent issue, Consumer Reports magazine even rated a dozen popular makes and models of recliners (the La-Z-Boy Anderson, which retails for between $300 and $350, topped the list) and detailed shopping strategies for selecting the perfect chair in which to do nothing.

What does it all mean?

"There's no question [the role of recliners] is expanding, and the reasons are myriad," says Kimberly Wray, editorial director at Highpoints magazine, a furniture industry publication. "But one reason is definitely that people are working their tails off, and they want something to relax in."

Recliners also fit in with the modern reconfiguration of many American homes.

"With the advent of great rooms" -- family-oriented and less formal than traditional living rooms -- "[and] home theater and just the 'casualization' of lifestyles, people are entertaining far less formally," says John Case, La-Z-Boy's vice president for marketing.

The so-called "slackers" of today also are helping fuel the boom in recliner sales; 17 percent of those who bought recliners last year were ages 25-34.

"This generation is far more inclined to relax," says Case, himself a baby boomer. "In 1946, we were the first TV generation; we're well into the second TV generation now. The idea of watching TV for six or seven hours is not an uncommon activity.

"As long as you're going to do that, what's the optimum level of comfort? They know it's a recliner."

Marketing for women

Finally, there is this: Research conducted by La-Z-Boy indicates that more than 50 percent of its recliner users are women.

This is a startling figure, given the stereotype of the big fat guy coming home from work, grabbing a beer from the fridge and plopping into his recliner in his undershirt.

"The image that [the typical user] is the guy coming home and sitting in his chair and it's only his chair is as stereotyped as Archie Bunker," says Case.

Still, the industry is realizing that the recliner men lust after -- cavernous, high-backed, imposing (think King Arthur's throne, only with a footrest) -- is one most women don't exactly want parked next to the baby grand piano.

Wray puts it more delicately: "A lot of manufacturers are looking to attract a female consumer who doesn't necessarily want to look like she has a Winnebago in the driveway.

"Plus, have you ever seen a woman get out of one of those chairs?" she adds. "There's no graceful way to do it."

Since women purchase 95 percent of the furniture in this country, recliner manufacturers can't afford to ignore their needs. With that in mind, La-Z-Boy recently unveiled its "Cosmopolitan Collection."

The collection features smaller recliners designed to look more like traditional wing chairs and club chairs. Instead of a handle on the side, it has a simple pull-up latch to operate the foot rest.

Speaking from La-Z-Boy headquarters in Monroe, Mich., Case says his company recently conducted some "interesting value-based research," which included intensive interviews with potential recliner buyers that lasted up to two hours.

"We discovered there's a lot of emotion that comes into play with a recliner vs. other types of furniture," Case says. "With a recliner, you're more apt to ask if it's OK to sit there. It's identified as someone's personal space, not just a piece of furniture.

"People relate to it as their personal space. They have great memories of recliners. They might have rocked their children in a recliner or seen their favorite movie in a recliner, whatever."

Those are the types of memories that Jim Clancy, 35, wants to have.

Clancy, a federal employee, is in the process of moving his wife and three children from Baltimore County to central Pennsylvania. He's also shopping for a recliner.

He says what he wants for his new home is simple: "A two-car garage, a flat back yard and my own dedicated corner of the family room for my recliner."

This recliner will be large. It will be leather. It will be an in-your-face piece of furniture, not some dopey knickknack of a frog reading a newspaper, or a delicate end table with a doily like your grandma used to have.

In Monroe, Mich., such talk brings a smile to the face of John Case.

It reminds him of the La-Z-Boy corporate video, which boasts that the company, which developed the first reclining chair back in 1928, has now produced enough recliners to outfit every home in the United States.

As Case relates this, you can almost see the American flag superimposed over the La-Z-Boy logo, and hear a John Phillip Sousa march playing in the background.

Bells and whistles

Back in the La-Z-Boy gallery on Ritchie Highway, you are deep within the luxurious folds of the Maxim, in danger of slipping into the REM phase of sleep, when Patty Wose begins ticking off all the things that makes this top-of-the-line recliner so alluring.

First is its sheer size: 43 inches high, 40 inches wide, 41 inches deep. (Actually, La-Z-Boy offers an even larger recliner, the Everest, which is 6-plus inches wider in the seat and an inch deeper.)

"Try the handle for the footrest," she says, and you do, and it's smooth, effortless, like shifting through the gears on a Lamborghini.

Open the left arm and there's a deep-pocket storage area for magazines and a drink-holder. Open the right arm and you find a speaker phone, answering machine and jacks for headphones and your laptop.

A keypad allows you to regulate high or low heat to the small of your back. It also lets you control the body massage the chair gives your upper back, lower back and buttocks, if you so desire.

(As Wose punches commands into the keypad, you discover there's something oddly disconcerting about sitting in a chair and feeling vibrations coursing through your rear end. But, hey, everyone's different.)

Sadly, the Maxim does not also contain a small refrigerator or commode, making it necessary for whoever is lounging in it to occasionally get up.

Still, all this can be yours by plunking down $1,040 -- although at the moment, this Maxim, upholstered with a fabric called "capretto," designed to look like leather, is on sale for $799.

Understand, the Maxim is not La-Z-Boy's top seller. That distinction belongs to the more modestly priced Cardinal. But chairs with heat and massage do account for 20 percent of La-Z-Boy recliner sales.

The Maxim, though, is the showroom neck-snapper for most men, the one they all seem to notice, the one that quickens their breathing, the one whose arms and back they touch lovingly, the one they drag their wives back to see.

As you sit there in this huge, comfortable chair, so relaxed you could fall asleep, you remember something John Case said: Each time La-Z-Boy introduces a new recliner, or a new "enhancement" on an existing recliner, the chair is subjected to rigorous testing.

Much of this is done by machines -- one, for example, repeatedly drops a 100-pound weight on the seat to gauge the chair's ability to withstand wear and tear.

But human testers are also brought in, people who literally operate the chair for eight hours a day, hitting the recline mechanism, the footrest handle, and so on, thousands and thousands of times.

And as your eyes start to close again, you wonder: "Where do those people find the energy?"

Top-rated recliners

In its February issue, Consumer Reports magazine tested and rated a dozen recliner models. Here are the three top-rated models in the two categories they identified: rocker-recliners (which rock, swivel, or both) and "wall-savers" (which generally don't do either and can be located closer to walls).

RATING .. .. .. BRAND AND MODEL .. .. .. .. .. .. PRICE*

Rocker-Recliners

E;1 ... ... .. .. La-Z-Boy "Anderson" 005-234 .. .. $300-350

2 ... ... .. .. Flexsteel "Hartford" 553R-51 . .. $450-550

3 ... ... .. .. Action Lane "Parliament" 11814 .. $500-600

Wall-savers

E;1 ... ... .. .. Berkline "Triumph" 208-46N ... .. $400-500

2 ... ... .. .. La-Z-Boy "Grand Canyon" 015-560 . $600-650

3 ... ... .. .. Action Lane "Drifter" 4007 ... .. $500-600

*Manufacturer's estimated range for the chair in low to mid-grade fabric; better fabric increases cost.

Pub Date: 5/27/98

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