Consumer Republic

Better late than never. At this year’s International Home Furnishings Market trade show, which closed last week in High Point, N.C., it became clear that furniture makers have finally gotten the branding religion.

And they’ve got it bad. The convention floor was lousy with recognizable names. These days you don’t even have to be human to have a sofa named after you—any proper noun will do. Among the persons, places and things that have put their imprimatur on a furniture line are Stetson, the Plaza Hotel, Doris Duke, Monticello, Southern Living magazine and trendmeister Faith Popcorn, whose branded La-Z-Boys have taken her coinage “cocooning” to its natural conclusion. There are licensees among the dead (Hum phrey Bogart, Claude Monet), the presumed dead (Elvis), the living (Jaclyn Smith, Oscar de la Renta) and the fictional (Tommy Bahama).

Last but not least, there is Martha Stewart, the besieged queen of “personality as product” marketing. Bernhardt debuted its much-anticipated 200-piece Martha Stewart Signature line at the show, a huge investment whose fate may now lie in the hands of the SEC.

Although everyone at the show was talking about Martha (she showed up looking “nervous,” according to one report), no one seemed daunted by her cautionary tale. A celebrity name creates an instant personality for furniture brands that otherwise have little profile with consumers. Boyd Furniture, which you’ve probably never heard of, has introduced a line from Kevin Sorbo, whom you’ve heard of if you are a fan of syndicated TV’s Hercules. Sorbo plays the title role. He is also a former architecture student. News of his deal with Boyd was covered in People, a publicity coup that Ethan Allen would be hard-pressed to match.

One wouldn’t think furniture would need all this promotion. Thanks to the lowest mortgage rates in a generation, millions of square feet have been added to the nation’s housing stock in the last few years, footage that cries out for sofas, tables and chairs to fill it. Moreover, in the wake of 9/11, Americans were said to be hewing closer to home, where the amenities presumably include a comfortable place to sit down. Between new and bigger homes and born-again homebodies, the stuff should be flying out of the showrooms.

But it hasn’t happened—not yet, anyway. In fact, last year was a disaster for the furniture industry. The theory is that home buyers are maximizing their interest-rate savings by maximizing their spending, figuring they’ll never again get so much house for so little, and apparently there’s not a lot left over to spend on furnishings. Instead, the proud new owners of spa bathrooms, home theaters and custom millwork are eating take-out at their granite-topped kitchen islands and sleeping on mattresses on the floor of their master suites. Yet hope is high that sometime soon they’ll tire of sitting on the floor and yearn for a few pieces of furniture that come up above their knees.

In the meantime, who better to stir up a little buzz than Elvis? Vaughan-Bassett introduced its Elvis Presley line of upholstered furniture last spring with reproductions of pieces from Graceland. New this fall are, yes, a blue “suede” sofa and a monogrammed rocker-recliner complete with a small beer cooler. The Elvis line begs the question: Can buying a couch become an ironic gesture?

There remains something counter intuitive about filling one’s home with celebrity-branded furniture. Isn’t the home supposed to be a reflection of one’s individuality, the material embodiment of all that is nearest and dearest to its owners? In the recent Time cover story on the American home, interviewees waxed eloquent about their homes being the ultimate statement of their personalities. As Jaclyn Smith herself says, “Furniture should represent a part of who you are and part of your memories.”

Failing that, it might as well represent Smith’s memories. Or Thomas Jefferson’s. Or “surfer life style personality” Cabana Joe’s. The key words here are “inspired by.” Those of us who cannot afford the antiques that grace the multiple homes of a Stewart or a de la Renta can buy pieces “inspired by” them. The ’40s- and ’50s-style furniture from Thomas ville (home of the Ernest Hemingway line) is “inspired by” Humphrey Bogart—or, rather, inspired by the fact that he’s the star of a lot of movies from the ’40s and ’50s.

All this inspiration is a great comfort for those without inspiration of their own. It’s a reminder of an important function of brands: They provide a seal of approval for consumers of uncertain taste or—let’s face it, no taste at all.