- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 26, 2004

MONROE, Mich. - For many people, the name La-Z-Boy says it all: comfy but clunky easy chairs designed for lazing about, not for making a fashion statement.

The 77-year-old furniture maker is trying to free itself from that image. Without giving up on the overstuffed recliners that made it famous, La-Z-Boy Inc. has introduced a furniture line by designer Todd Oldham that is all about clean lines, funky patterns and a young, urban aesthetic.

“We own comfort in the consumers’ minds when it comes to home furnishings,” said Jennifer Sievertsen, La-Z-Boy’s director of brand and retail marketing. Now the company wants people to know that “we absolutely have that very comfortable recliner … [but] we also have a fairly wide variety of very stylish, trendy products.”

The new line represents an attempt by La-Z-Boy, the nation’s second-largest residential furniture manufacturer, to boost sales. Like the rest of the furniture industry, it has suffered from a post-September 11 decline in sales to hotels and also from competition from cheap Chinese imports. Sales in the fiscal year ended April 24 fell to $2 billion from $2.11 billion.

The company reported an annual net loss of $5.8 million (11 cents a share) compared with net income of $36.3 million (63 cents) a year earlier.

Its shares yesterday fell $1 to a 52-week low of $18.19 on the New York Stock Exchange, after reporting its fourth-quarter and annual earnings after the markets closed Tuesday.

La-Z-Boy, which branched out beyond recliners in the 1980s, has tried to bring its furniture more up to date in recent years, and in 2000, started a new marketing campaign focused on style.

The new line, Todd Oldham by La-Z-Boy, is “taking it to the next level,” Miss Sievertsen said.

Laura Champine, an analyst at Morgan Keegan & Co. Inc., said the Oldham line is key to La-Z-Boy’s efforts to expand its customer base beyond aging baby boomers.

“The real challenge for La-Z-Boy is to get the target customer for that line into their stores in the first place,” she said. “The company’s really fighting its own brand image, which is as this customer’s father’s store.”

But Miss Champine said the collection would have a hard time competing on price with companies such as Ikea, which she said fall more within a 20-something’s budget. A sofa in the new La-Z-boy line goes for up to $1,000.

La-Z-Boy began selling Mr. Oldham’s creations in March and April, and more styles are scheduled to arrive in August.

Mr. Oldham, who previously designed clothes for the likes of Julia Roberts, and created home accessories for Target Corp., acknowledged that he might seem like an odd match for La-Z-Boy.

“Isn’t it nice? We surprised you,” Mr. Oldham said with a chuckle from his New York studio. “The thought of doing La-Z-Boy was really funny, and then the more we talked about it, the more blessed I figured I was.”

Mr. Oldham said he has been given creative freedom to apply his designs to La-Z-Boy’s engineering and time-tested expertise on comfort and quality. “That furniture lasts forever — sometimes longer than you wish,” he deadpanned.

Many of Mr. Oldham’s designs have a retro feel.

Among the most distinctive pieces: a rectangular sofa with a removable back and arms, allowing it to be transformed into different forms, such as a fainting sofa or chaise; a sleek, arching chair that doesn’t resemble a recliner until you lean back and the footrest appears; and an ottoman that doubles as a storage box for toys or CDs. The line includes wood and metal coffee tables and entertainment cabinets, rugs and accessories.

There are 154 fabrics — conservative solids and stripes as well as wacky patterns such as polka dots and cocktail umbrellas — to mix and match.

At a La-Z-Boy store in Toledo, Ohio, Mr. Oldham’s furniture occupied a small display near the center of the vast room. Store manager Matt Simpson said the line has already been a big hit, bringing in younger customers than the retailer normally sees.

As she browsed for family room furniture, Joanne Kusz, 54, glanced admiringly at the Oldham line, but said that it was not for her.

“It looks like it would be the perfect thing in a New York loft,” the Toledo resident said.

Miss Kusz said she didn’t think the sofas looked particularly comfortable.

Feeling comfy but not necessarily looking it is the whole idea, Mr. Oldham said.

La-Z-Boy’s older styles are “more sinewy and puffy and visually comfort-oriented,” he said. “Ours are handsome and physically comfort-oriented, but you might not think, ‘Wow, that looks like the most comfortable thing in the world.”’

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