How a quirky idea and an old orange crate gave America the perfect piece of TV-watching furniture.
By Robert Klara
According to Nielsen data, the number of homes receiving a TV signal (broadcast, cable or broadband) stands at 96 percent. And despite studies that show that we’re watching less TV, American adults still take in over five hours of it every day. Too bad media firms don’t track what all those butts are sitting on, too, but here’s a guess: The La-Z-Boy company of Monroe, Mich., turns out something like 30,000pieces every week.
Which means: If the La-Z-Boy isn’t the most popular piece of furniture for watching the tube, it’s gotta be close.
For the uninitiated, La-Z-Boy (an eponym on par with Band-Aid and Kleenex) makes a reclining easy chair—the first and, after nearly a century, still the leader. “La-Z-Boy has a 90-year heritage build on providing quality and comfort,” said the brand’s marketing vp Eli Winkler. “Those values are no less important to consumers to day than they were 90 years ago.”
Spoken like a true marketer, but the comfort isn’t just a talking point—it’s the reason the brand is famous.
In 1927, two cousins named Edwin Shoemaker and Edward Knabusch decided to go into business together. Knabusch had worked in a cardboard factory but had little enthusiasm for his job; his cousin was a farmer and had even less for his. Both men’s hearts were in woodworking, and they began designing novelty furniture, notably a combination chair/telephone stand called “The Gosspier.”
Casting about for new ideas, Shoemaker broke down an orange crate and built a reclining porch chair, its seat and back connected by a hinge allowing them to move in consort. “Nature’s way of relaxing,” they called it—and it was. But it was also just a warm-weather porch chair, which wasn’t going to fly during Michigan winters. Fortunately, a local storeowner named Arthur Richardson suggested the pair upholster the chair, effectively making it an indoor piece of furniture.
Knabusch and Shoemaker proved to be gifted marketers—by raising a circus tent and serving refreshments, they made plenty of sales—but “Automatic Adjustable Chair” wasn’t a terribly catchy name. After holding a contest for a new name (suggestions included the Slack Back and the Sit-N-Snooze), the founders settled on La-Z-Boy.
La-Z-Boy was a Michigan success story, but it would take the postwar boom to make it a national name. After weathering WWII by making seats for tanks, the brand returned to consumer production right around the time that TVs were hitting the market and the epic wave of suburbanization was starting to roll. The year 1960 saw the debut of the “Reclina-Rocker,” a spring-driven rocking chair with an anchored base, combined with a footrest-equipped recliner activated by a side lever. The company didn’t market its chairs as a TV accessory per se, but it didn’t have to. For Americans lounging in the glow of their Zeniths and Philcos, a La-Z-Boy was the perfect accessory.
“The chair was like magic,” the founders said. “It sold well from the beginning. The problem was making enough of them.” Between 1961 and 1970, sales went from $2M to $50M.
These days, La-Z-Boy makes a full line of furniture, but its recliners remain the signature product—which lends itself to reading, napping, and smartphone tapping as well as anything else. After all, the company tagline is “Live Life Comfortably,” and if there’s one thing Americans like doing more than watching their screens, it’s being comfortable when they do it.
Company founders: Edward Knabusch and Edwin Shoemaker
La-Z-Boy still builds all its chairs in the U.S.
Cultural references to the famous recliners still abound, such as Stranger Things’ Mike showing Eleven his father’s La-Z-Boy.
Company marketing targets women, the chair is classically associated with Dad.
La-Z-Boy’s marketing was innovative from its earliest years, selling recliners under a big top complete with refreshments and entertainment. In the postwar period, the brand began hiring household-name endorsers like Bing Crosby, who settled into his recliner in one 1967 ad and said, “Man, this is really relaxing.” But the most famous face of La-Z-Boy was star quarterback Joe Namath (r.), who spent the decade of the 1970s showing Americans how to wear a butterfly collar and tilt back in style.