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recliners restyled

No, it isn't your imagination. Yes, that really is a recliner.

The high-style, slender new chairs appearing in print advertisements and on showroom floors represent a new generation of chairs from industry leader La-Z-Boy, and the operative word there is "generation."

It was "generational backlash" that motivated the recliner manufacturer to develop a new line of slimmer, more stylish chairs, said Kevin Wixted, the company's director of marketing.

"While many of the parents of today grew up on the knees of dads or grandfathers in a La-Z-Boy recliner, they didn't necessarily want to have that exact chair in their home," he explained. "It was too big, too bulky, it was a not-stylish product of the previous generation. They wanted something different."

Hence the evolution of the product line to include trim, small-sized wingbacks; chairs like the Carlyle model, with sleek, curving, blond wood arms and legs that invoke the Heywood-Wakefield furniture of the '40s and '50s; and the buffed-up, slimmed-down black leather Kiva that offers more than an echo of the Eames chairs of the 1950s.

When customers walk into La-Z-Boy Furniture Galleries, they've seen these new lines of chairs on television commercials or in magazine ads. "It's almost as if they're not really sure that's a La-Z-Boy. They've got to see it for themselves," said Rick Abney, who manages two galleries in the Tampa Bay area. "They love 'em."

This new product line has been both blessing and burden to La-Z-Boy, which is based in Monroe, Mich. The company wants to attract new customers even as it satisfies its existing customers.

"We don't make fun of the recliner, we never will, we never would," said Wixted.

What some view as a big clunker, he sees as the product that built La-Z-Boy into the industry leader, with annual sales in excess of $2-billion. Overall, recliner sales represent about 5 percent of all furniture sales, the National Home Furnishings Association says. La-Z-Boy shares the market with such competitors as Barcalounger, Peoploungers, Klaussner/Sealy, Franklin and Action Lane.

A turn through the upscale shelter magazines shows that recliners are not simply a product of middle American design. The original Eames lounge chair and ottoman are still available from Herman Miller. (It's not a recliner, but its style is iconic.) Cassina, a Eurosleek designer of furniture based in Italy, offers what has to be the Ferrari of the recliner world, the Dodo, a sophisticated recliner that defies design criticism.

Trend-setters sneer, but there are a lot of people out there like Martin Crane, the father of Frasier Crane on the TV show, who love their big recliners and want them front and center. The company doesn't want to alienate those buyers, Wixted said, "in terms of what that product has meant to them, and, more important, what they have meant to us."

There's nothing wrong, he said, "with putting a little more style and fashion into your presentation as long as you don't go too far out to the left and alienate people who have been in your camp. But you do want to go a little farther afield than usual, to attract and shock and surprise people who will say, "That's a beautiful chair, I would never have guessed it was a La-Z-Boy product.' "

The leather Kiva model, which stands on a circular beech pedestal and has a separate ottoman, would not be a surprise in the Pottery Barn catalog in a sparely furnished urban loft. "It does look and feel extremely young," Wixted said, "but we've had a significant number of sales and interest from people age 50-plus. Once you sit in it, it's easy to get in, it's easy to get out."

The slimming and trimming of the recliner developed at the same time that big, formal (and seldom-used) living rooms began to disappear from homes and as architects began including sitting areas in master suites. A comfortable armchair is appropriate there, but not an overstuffed sprawler that eats up most of the space. The recliner industry needed to find a way to appeal to women, who initiate 85 percent of all furniture purchases. ("If you see a man in a furniture store, he's lost," Wixted said.)

As formal living rooms grew smaller, the challenge was to find a way to put a reclining chair there, or in alcoves, studies and other nooks and crannies. And the industry wanted to let women know that the reclining chair was not strictly the purview of the resident Alpha Male. Women, said Wixted, "can sit in a comfortable chair, put their feet up and relax, get into the zero-gravity position, and it doesn't have to be in a big, overstuffed, brown, clunky recliner. It can be in an elegant, nice, tailored wingback."

Earning the respect of the upscale buyer, both younger and older, is one challenge for La-Z-Boy. The company appeals to some buyers with the wily housebreaking raccoons, Wendall and Al, who yodel "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" in the television commercials, but it attempts to reach other buyers through sophisticated ads in upscale magazines such as Elle Decor and House Beautiful.

The other challenge is to win respect in the industry. Editors at the high-end lifestyle magazines still turn up their noses and pass La-Z-Boy by when they select furniture for their photo shoots. "We're working on product placement in the fancy magazines," Wixted said. "We do have a significant selection that's very stylish and fashionable, but we've got a way to go to get them to use us more."

Sometimes it helps to link a celebrity's name and face with a product. "We haven't come upon anyone at this point," Wixted said, but he did allow that the White House movie screening room "has a couple of rows of La-Z-Boy recliners."