Scale offers opportunities in design
Cindy W. Hodnett -- Furniture Today, August 19, 2013
HIGH POINT - Small is big, less is more and fabric mix matters.
There is a notable movement underway in the upholstery world, and it could translate into a healthy revenue stream for manufacturers and retailers. And rather than simply offering the color of the moment or the pattern of the season, the growing demand for smaller-scale furniture represents a product category with staying power.
In a recent article published by the Urban Land Institute, author Trisha Riggs overviews the increasing popularity of an urban lifestyle, stating that the desire to live in a "walkable" community is strong among several age groups.
According to Riggs, a survey conducted by the Urban Land Institute shows that along with the expected popularity among Gen Y (those born between 1979 and 1995 and numbering 80 million in the U.S.), smaller residences offering a shorter commute are also increasing in appeal with Gen X (born between 1966 and 1978) and baby boomers (born between 1947 and 1965). Additionally, 59% of the Gen Y respondents to the survey said they prefer diversity in housing choices, and 62% prefer developments that offer a mix of shopping, dining and office space.
"The choices being made by these groups are upending long-held notions about what is considered traditional neighborhood development," said Urban Land Institute CEO Patrick L. Phillips in the report. "We've entered an era in land use that will be defined by development that conserves land and energy, and which offers consumers plenty of options in where they live and how they get from one place to another."
The corresponding consequences in the furniture industry could be significant. As shrinking square footage dictates smarter use of space, many consumers will by necessity look for smaller, multifunctional furniture instead of oversized matched sets.
Christopher Grubb is president of Arch-Interiors design group in Beverly Hills, Calif. He said there are several factors contributing to the increase in urban dwellings.
"Young people want the excitement of city living," Grubb said. "Individuals or young couples want to be close to work and avoid a long commute for a better quality of life. First-time buyers often can't afford larger spaces, and retirees from the baby boomer generation want to downsize and be closer to urban amenities and culture."
Furniture manufacturers are responding to the demand with a mix of product. In suburban communities and in certain geographic regions, average-size and overscale upholstery remains a strong category. In urban neighborhoods and in a high percentage of new residential construction, homes have considerably less square footage. Consequently, many collections include a range of sizes.
"We manufacture a variety of scales of similar products for more options for our customers with different size restraints, price and different markets," said Erin Tsucalas, product merchandising manager for Lexington Home Brands. "We sell our furniture all over the country and world, so the importance of size/scale has to be a factor when creating a product line to meet the needs of our diverse customer base. Someone in Colorado will want something larger than someone in New York City, and we need something for everyone. We take into account our varied markets and think about geographic regions and urban vs. suburban for scale and attitude."
At Klaussner Home Furnishings, every sofa-sleeper comes in at least three sizes. The company has also developed "smaller, cleaner frames" along with larger, casual frames for the transitional-style consumer.
"Our customer base varies internationally, and we want to offer the products our customers desire all over the globe, not just in one geographical area," said Len Burke, vice president of marketing for Klaussner. "We developed smaller, cleaner frames for more metropolitan areas where more people live in condos or apartments, and our larger, casual furniture sells higher in more suburban areas."
Lane, known for large-scale motion furniture, offers product at both ends of the size spectrum. The company has incorporated smaller frames into the upholstery lineup and is also offering a supersized version of the company's ComfortKing line.
"Meaningful differentiation will hopefully allow retailers to better serve the needs of their shoppers," said Paul Peters, vice president of wholesale upholstery. "Comfort remains a personal choice and as the category matures over time, we believe there is a segment of the market that is interested in a little more design with a motion seating experience. Think of it as an evolution much like the SUV category has evolved over the past several years."
"Lane has recognized and is addressing the growing trend in the marketplace toward clean, more contemporary styling that is smaller in scale," added Colette Schulte, Lane's go-to-market director. "On the other end of the spectrum, we expanded Comfort-King, designed for Big & Tall builds up to 6 feet 8 inches tall and up to 500 pounds."
United Furniture Inds. is still doing a "great business" with large-scale sofas, according to Greg Morgan, director of merchandising. However, the company has also introduced several smaller frames to address the needs of urban consumers.
"Most of our stationary product ranges from 86 inches to 100 inches in length, but we do see a trend to smaller-scale frames to fit today's homes and lifestyles," Morgan said. "We see an increase in urban living, apartments and condos as well as lofts in larger cities, and we have introduced a few frames that are at 80 inches in length. Our sleeper sofas are available as a twin, full and queen size, which is typically around 63 inches for a twin, 78 inches for a full and 85 inches for a queen. Our line at United is broad in design and size to accommodate most any consumer."
Gus Design Group launched a collection earlier this year "aimed at design-conscious consumers living in smaller spaces." The collection includes a sectional with a reconfigurable chaise design and a smaller sofa, chairs and dining and end tables.
"All of our furniture tends to be slightly smaller scale, but within our collection, we have the Loft series, which is scaled specifically for apartments, condos and smaller-scaled homes," said Gus Design's Jon Isaak. "More first-time homeowners are choosing to live in smaller homes near urban centers rather than in larger, traditional suburban spaces. This means they're looking for furniture more suited to modest spaces - smaller scale and multifunctionality is key. The response (to the collection) has been fantastic. We'll be looking to add additional in-stock fabrics in upcoming seasons."
The demand for a new, slimmed-down version of upholstery isn't likely to abate any time soon, according to Grubb and Isaak.
"Small spaces offer a great and affordable opportunity to change a design look," Grubb said. "There is a post-recession consciousness of having less, combined with fiscal considerations and an environmental awareness to reduce driving, that will keep consumers looking for smaller spaces for a long time." Isaak agrees.
"The economic challenges of the past five years, coupled with a new generation of design-minded consumers, have created a long-term demand for furniture that is beautiful and highly practical," he said. "Scaling upholstery down doesn't present as much of a challenge as designing it to be multifunctional. Our bi-sectional sofas, for example, must be designed and engineered to work in a variety of different configurations. You have to allocate more time to get the designs just right."