By Terri Sapienza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 23, 2007
As soon as Kerry Triffin spotted a bed crafted from New Zealand rimu wood at a New York design show last year, he wanted to carry it in his Connecticut furniture shop. His wife had a different idea.
She pointed to another bed from the same collection, made of the same sustainable wood but equipped with a Bose surround-sound speaker system and an iPod docking station.
"She said, 'That's the one that's going to sell,' " Triffin says now. "And she was right."
Six years ago, the iPod was still weeks away from its debut. Today, the little (and always getting littler) portable music player reigns over the media industry and, increasingly, our lives.
People take their iPods to the office, to the gym, into the shower. The devices have infiltrated the fashion industry, with jeans, jackets, shirts, belts, gloves -- even underwear -- being designed to accommodate them. Greg Joswiak, vice president of iPod Product Marketing, said the iPod has spawned "a vibrant ecosystem" of more than 4,000 consumer products, from protective cases and speaker systems to wireless remote controls and earphones. According to Apple, more than 70 percent of new-model U.S. cars offer iPod connectivity. Soon, airlines will offer in-flight docking ports to power and charge the devices.
Now, the furniture industry is getting in on the act.
No longer restricted to entertainment centers and home offices, iPods and other portable electronic devices are finding places to plug in all over the house: in beds and chairs with built-in speakers, lamps designed with docking stations and living room tables that double as universal charging stations. There's even a toilet tissue holder that will charge and play an iPod, and -- at the other extreme -- a $14,000 dining table with a built-in dock.
"It's clearly indicative of how important music is in our lives and how synonymous iPod has become with the way people enjoy music," Joswiak said. "It's for customers to have music wherever they are."
Jackie Hirschhaut, vice president of the American Home Furnishings Alliance, said there has been a rise in tech-friendly furniture at the past several High Point Markets, the largest furniture trade show worldwide, with pieces that integrate the iPod-compatible docking stations now being introduced into the mainstream.
Like almost every tech-savvy consumer innovation, it all starts with teens. Many furniture manufacturers begin by testing the tween and teen markets, where iPods and cellphones are now as common as notebooks and backpacks.
Earlier this week, Target launched a collection of upholstered headboards for teenagers with built-in speakers from Skyline Furniture, an Illinois manufacturer. The headboards start at $199 and are compatible with any MP3 player. If the design proves popular, Skyline plans to introduce similar tech features in its chairs and benches.
This is a design path Skyline has explored before. Back in the '70s, the company manufactured sofas and headboards with integrated eight-tracks. "They were relatively successful," said Skyline designer Meganne Wecker, laughing at a technology that now seems quaint. "Not like the iPod, but they sold pretty well for the time." (At 28, Wecker is far too young to have actually worked on eight-track designs, but she heard about them from former employees.)
Pottery Barn also went after the youth market first, with an MP3-compatible chair and shelving unit sold through PBteen last year. Based on the success of those two items, this summer the company launched its Smart Technology collection, an entire line of furniture and accessories designed with all portable electronics in mind: bulletin boards with speakers; tabletop universal charging stations; organizational cabinets with hidden power strips; desks with integrated outlets, phone and Ethernet jacks, and USB ports.
Also this summer, Aspenhome, a furniture manufacturer in Phoenix, launched a line of multi-tasking furniture, including night and end tables with drawers for recharging devices, filing paperwork and storing printers and laptops.
But perhaps nothing rivals the iPod enthusiasm represented by the $14,000 Concerto table by furniture designers Nicholas Lovegrove and Demian Repucci. Shaped like a grand piano, the high-gloss white dining table has speakers under the middle leaf and an iPod docking station near the center so the host can control dinner music without having to get up.
With the dramatic look and price tag, the tables aren't exactly flying out the door, Lovegrove said, but the iPod factor has given the designers visibility in markets they hadn't previously reached, from music organizations to devout Mac users and bloggers. "The addition of the iPod has brought the table to another level entirely," Lovegrove said. "It has opened an incredible amount of doors."
But while designing furniture with integrated technology can seem a smart business move, there are risks involved.
"When you incorporate technology, it can take over," Lovegrove said. "We wanted to make a beautiful piece of furniture primarily, not a tech piece. There is a fine balance. . . . We didn't want [the table] offered in a Sharper Image."
Not that Lovegrove and Repucci are complaining. In fact, they have built on their iPod-fueled visibility by offering recipes for use with their table, which can be found on their Web site, http://www.concertotable.com. A playlist of downloadable dinner music is also available -- from iTunes, of course.
The chief danger in designing home furnishings around technology is the inevitability that the bed or dining table will be rendered obsolete by the very technology it's built around. How long will it be before the currently innovative video-gaming chairs with speakers, surround sound and wireless capabilities wind up on Craigslist alongside the hulking TV armoires made unnecessary by flat-screen technology?
"There's probably going to be a time in the not-too-distant future when we look back at these items and they will look passe," Hirschhaut said. "There's always going to be something new."