Recliners have stubbornly withstood the test of time. A prominent fixture in American culture (and living rooms), these chairs have often put comfort over aesthetics since their invention in the 1920s. Their pop culture relevance may have peaked in the late 1990s with shows like Fraiser and Friends, but they’re likely to remain a familiar source of comfort, albeit at times unseemly, for years to come.
The story of the recliner is a quintessentially American one. (There’s some evidence that Napolean III had a recliner, but it wasn’t quite the same thing so we’ll go ahead and take credit). It begins in Monroe, Michigan, in 1922, when two young cousins — Edward and Edwin or “The Eds” for short — decided to quit their jobs and start a furniture company. In 1929, they created and patented the first mechanical reclining chair, using orange crates for the original mockup. They had invented the first reclining mechanism that adjusted to the contour of the body both sitting up and leaning back. A year later, the first upholstered version was released and named “La-Z-Boy.”
The market crashed in 1929 and plunged the nation into depression, but the cousins persevered, supporting their local economy and at times even accepting payment for furniture in the form of wheat, chickens, cows and the like. At the same time, a furniture engineer named Daniel F Caldemeyer had invented a recliner that was later used by NASA and President Johnson. We have him to thank for the foot rest.
Soon, another competitor entered the fray: BarcaLounger in Buffalo, New York. To this day, La-Z-Boy and BarcaLounger are the most recognizable names in the reclining world and they’ve been duking it out since 1940.
A Design Conundrum
The classic plush recliner is not generally considered a thing of beauty. It can even be a source of marital tension – a visual representation of the age-old battle between aesthetics and comfort. Luckily for the more design-conscious, though, both La-z-boy and BarcaLounger do offer sleeker, more modern iterations of the timeless classic to maximize comfort and style. Other furniture companies have followed suit because, let’s face it, who doesn’t like to put their feet up fashionably?
While there may still be a place for big fluffy recliners in the home – a TV room, study, or den, for example – there are many ways to incorporate modern recliners into a well-designed living space.
The Future of Reclining
As our lives become more and more sedentary, we’re likely to be reclining more, not less, which is good news for those in the furniture business. In addition to modernizing their designs, recliners are becoming more high-tech and sleeker in style like those designed by Milo Baughman. It’s pretty commonplace these days for a recliner to have a built-in remote control and maybe even a stereo system or iPod dock. Some are wired for Bluetooth, game consoles and even snack bars.
Massage mechanisms are also getting more and more hi-tech. Chairs come with a plethora of options targeting different areas of the body with different speeds and combinations. In 2010, the company Human Touch released a massage recliner that is controlled by an iPhone app that allows you to program your own custom massages and access health and fitness information (a little ironic for a piece of furniture called the recliner, but cool nonetheless.) In the future, experts say, recliners will be able to sense the lounger’s center of gravity so that she feels like she’s floating on air. Now that’s what we call relaxation.
Some Style Tips
Fear not, seekers of comfort! You can make it work. After almost a century of recliners, there are plenty of makes and models to choose from. For example, this floral beauty complete with fringe, for sale on Krrb.
- If your budget allows, use custom upholstery to blend the chairs into the décor.
- It’s probably not a good idea to place the big guys smack in the middle of the room, á la Joey and Chandler. If you do go with the plush model, make sure it balances with the rest of the furniture and doesn’t call too much attention to itself.
- Choose a style to match your décor. If you’ve decorated a modern home, go sleek. More traditional design can incorporate classy leather numbers like this one.
- If it’s really not working out but you don’t want to sacrifice horizontal sitting, consider a matching chair and ottoman or a chaise lounge instead. Here’s a sleek chaise with a steel frame.