Built for the High-Tech Household

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 26, 2006


Finally, a piece of furniture that reflects how we really live. Imagine a cabinet/desk/console that recharges multiple cellphones, docks iPods and provides Internet access and data ports for laptops.

This multitasking design is so new, it doesn't even have a name. But it's being touted as a command center for families and households because it organizes the overload of high-tech domestic gadgets and entertainment components piling up in America's kitchens and front hallways.

In a period of weak sales for most home furnishings, manufacturers introducing lifestyle solutions for 21st-century living were the ones that drew attention at last week's High Point Market, the twice-yearly design powwow that attracts industry executives, retailers and journalists from around the world. Store buyers crowded around the new designs as though they were concept cars at an auto show for one reason: They're useful.

"TVs are getting bigger, and computers are getting smaller," says Alex Bernhardt, chairman and chief executive of Bernhardt Furniture. Accommodating the changes in personal electronics is a constant challenge for furniture makers, he says: "It's a moving target."

A decade ago, the personal computer and big-screen TV created a huge market for home-office desks and media storage cabinets. Remember all those whitewashed-pine armoires with holes drilled in the back? Today, another revolution has filled homes with multiple cellphone chargers, video game terminals and BlackBerry power stations. Laptops outsell chunky personal computers. Slender plasma TVs don't need to hide behind massive cabinets.

Some furniture companies are taking their cue from decorators who have been customizing built-ins for clients.

"I install so many docking stations, I feel like I'm on 'Star Trek,' " says designer Candice Olson of the HGTV cable channel, who was showing her furniture collection at High Point. "People keep talking about the wireless aspect of all of this. But you need so many wires to keep it wireless, it creates a real challenge as to how to conceal them."

Warrenton designer Barry Dixon morphs antique boxes into cellphone charging stations. For the High Point market, he designed a textured leather cabinet for Tomlinson/Erwin-Lambeth that holds a 52-inch plasma TV, based on one he created for a client.

The Family Communication Center by Sligh Furniture, a Michigan maker of mid-price to high-end furniture, is a fully loaded multitasker. Sligh first learned of the need for such a piece from decorators, says Bob Kreter, a company spokesman. "They heard their clients saying: 'I walk in from a busy day, and I don't know where to put all my stuff. It used to be keys and mail. But now it's also laptops, phones and iPods. They all need to be plugged in and charged. Help.' "

Designers create pricey custom kitchen built-ins to solve the dilemma, but Sligh figured one piece of furniture could include these functions and also be used in the front hall, mudroom, bedroom or den. The company added bulletin board space, storage shelves and task lighting.

Two versions -- which are part desk, storage and computer station, to help organize homework, recipes, MP3 players and printers -- will hit stores in the spring: a neoclassic mahogany cabinet ($2,945) and a cottage-style hutch in a weathered black paint finish ($3,395). Seven other styles, including a more contemporary version in bamboo, are under consideration.

Another home office/media center, this one in an Arts and Crafts style, was introduced by Harden Furniture, a high-end, family-owned company in McConnellsville, N.Y. The Mackintosh desk in cherry ($15,000), by craftsman Ron Cosser, has storage slots, sliding shelves, six built-in electrical outlets, solid brass and stainless-steel fittings and delicate inlays of copper, aluminum and brass. Cosser, who has designed custom furniture for Helmut Lang and Calvin Klein, says he was inspired by William Morris, a leader of the Arts and Crafts movement, who believed that everyday objects should be both functional and beautiful.

At Hooker Furniture, a new European country-style secretary ($2,399) looks elegant on the outside. The doors swing open to reveal space to either hang or place a flat-screen TV. It also has a drop-lid writing surface to balance a laptop, and shelves and drawers below for other components. "This piece has both home-office and home-entertainment functions. But instead of a big wall unit like we needed in the 1990s, this is a small, pretty design," says Kim Shaver, a spokeswoman for Hooker, a mid-price company based in Martinsville, Va.

Martha Stewart recently remodeled the kitchen at her farm in Bedford, N.Y., to include a built-in home office with bookshelves, cubbies and space for a large-screen TV, laptop and printer. From the Martha Stewart Signature furniture collection with Bernhardt, the new scarlet red, Asian-inspired Kingsland secretary doesn't look like a media center, but behind the doors (hand painted with gold cherry blossoms) can sit a plasma TV or laptop.

As Martha would say, it's a good thing.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company