- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Armchairs with IPod plug-ins and surround-sound backrests, beds with MP3 player control panels, and desks with built-in power strips and USB ports.

No, it’s not a futuristic furniture showroom. It’s gadget furniture for the mainstream in the now, sold at such places as Pottery Barn and Staples.

“Electronic gadget furniture is significant because it’s a way to look at the spirit of our time,” says Jim Postell, author of “Furniture Design,” which includes a historical overview of furniture design up to the 21st century.

“It’s about giving direct information to your body without even having to get out of your chair,” Mr. Postell says. “It affects our physical interaction with the rest of the world. It has phenomenal implications in so many ways.”

Such as becoming a couch potato without social skills? Perhaps, but that’s another story. Here we discuss the gadget furniture out there, its target audience and what’s on the horizon.

Among current sellers is Pottery Barn Teen, which has dozens of electronic gadget furniture pieces and accessories in its Smart Technology collection. There’s the IChair, for example. It comes with an audio jack that lets you plug in your IPod — or any game system, for that matter.

There also are speakers on top of the headrest and a subwoofer under the seat. A control panel lets the user change the volume. It comes in a half-dozen colors.

“[Our] tech-friendly products are designed to work with IPods, cell phones, laptops and other favorite everyday gadgets,” says Sarah Plamondon, spokeswoman for Pottery Barn Teen.

“Hidden portals in our collections allow teens to plug in, play and recharge portable electronics … while organizing and holding everyday items.”

Pottery Barn is not alone. Staples, among others, sells various desks with built-in power strips and charger holders.

Metronaps, a New York-based company, sells the EnergyPod, a high-tech lounge chair with an enclosed pod on top that covers the upper body and enables the user to relax and listen to music and, possibly, take a nap.

Though this might sound ultra-high-tech, the concept of gadget furniture is not all that new, says Mr. Postell, who also is an associate professor in the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning at the University of Cincinnati.

Think, for example, of dentist chairs: a basic leather chair outfitted with electrically powered drills and assorted tubes and cords. Or, if you’d rather not, think of Hans Wegner’s 1953 valet chair. His basic chair was outfitted with a storage area under the seat and a hanger to hold a suit coat.

“That’s an example of gadgets being incorporated in the piece instead of being accessories,” Mr. Postell says. “The gadgets become the piece.”

You could go as far back as medieval times to find gadgetlike furniture, such as the gateleg table, Mr. Postell says. A gateleg table has hinges that enable it to expand but also fold and fit into a small space. In its smaller guise, it could be used as a workbench, and expanded, it could serve as a dining table. It’s an example of medieval technology that enabled a piece of furniture to have more than one function, Mr. Postell says.

Gadget furniture today, though, usually has limited appeal and is not for the high-end customer, says Julia Chappell, spokeswoman for the Washington Design Center, which showcases high-end furniture and decor at its showroom in Southwest.

“You’ll see gadget furniture in more utilitarian designs,” Ms. Chappell says. “Like large office spaces.”

In high-end residential home design, though, not so much, she says, adding that most high-end customers want to hide electronics, if anything, and many top designers are on the same page.

“Electronics in a designer’s eyes is not aesthetically pleasing,” Ms. Chappell says. (Unless of course, the customer is a young bachelor. “In that case, you probably see flat screens in every room,” she says, laughing.)

Though not popular with everyone, gadget furniture is here to stay, Mr. Postell predicts.

“There’s so much going on. One company in Boston, for example, is using fabric as a conduit,” he says.

That company would be Kennedy & Violich Architecture. The firm has designed solar-powered lamps composed of light-emitting diodes woven into colorful swaths of fabric. The light is the cloth, and the cloth is the light.

“It’s along the lines of smart clothes,” Mr. Postell says. “It’s very sophisticated.”

Still, electronic gadget furniture is in its infancy; Mr. Postell compares it to the use of plastic in the past. It took a lot of tweaking by designers for plastic to become acceptable — even trendy — in furniture design.

Mr. Postell predicts the same will hold true for electronic-gadget furniture design. It will take a while for designers to learn and perfect how to integrate technology in furniture rather than just accessorize with it.

“We tend to do things awkwardly the first few times we try it,” he says, “but gadgets could dramatically change furniture. … I think this is just the beginning.”

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