For Furniture, Smaller Is Better

Aspenhome's Nano desk hutch provides lots of storage and a laptop pullout tray in a small package.
Aspenhome's Nano desk hutch provides lots of storage and a laptop pullout tray in a small package. (By Chuck Burton -- Associated Press)
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By Emery P. Dalesio
Associated Press
Saturday, October 25, 2008

HIGH POINT, N.C. -- Even before these days of shrinking economic expectations, furniture makers were getting the message from consumers: small is the new black.

A trend at this week's High Point Market is for smaller furniture that fits into smaller living spaces. The twice-a-year furniture industry trade show displays thousands of new home furnishings that consumers could see in stores in a few months.

Furniture manufacturers are responding to downsizing baby boomers and the growing appeal of urban living by reducing the scale of dressers, coffee tables, night stands and the like. They are compressing home offices into a single fold-out cabinet. And they're cutting back the size of sofas and entertainment centers that sprawled across the length McMansions walls.

"It's scaled down to the kind of residences that are selling today," Magnussen Home Furnishings chief marketing officer Don Essenberg said.

An example is the Micro-Office by Sligh Furniture, of Holland, Mich., which should be in retail stores by next spring, spokesman Bob Kreter said. The unit, with a retail price of $4,500, looks like an armoire 53 inches wide by 80 inches tall with nooks at the top for framed photos. But pull back the bifold doors and untuck the chair with the fold-down back and you can take a seat before a desk big enough for a laptop, printer and files.

Aspenhome, based in Phoenix, is offering a bedroom valet that looks like a TV stand with drawers underneath, but hides a built-in laundry hamper and slide-out ironing board.

Magnussen, based in New Hamburg, Ontario, has reduced the scale of their entire bedroom sets, Essenberg said. Its standard dresser size has been trimmed from 72 inches wide to 64 inches to fit into smaller rooms, but its height increased to match higher ceilings and retain storage capacity.

Magnussen started downscaling about three years ago in response to its consumer studies.

"Our sales have shifted from 70 percent overscaled to 70 percent the smaller scale now," Essenberg said. "When it comes to scale, we've seen a return to what many in the industry have seen as a more appropriate and normal scale in furniture. It's less grandiose than we have seen in a decade or so."

About 20 percent of sales for Lexington Home Brands are scaled-down pieces, chief executive Phil Haney said. Its Zacara collection of dining room and bedroom furniture, designed with contemporary styling and modest size for urban condos or apartments, is one of the Thomasville, N.C.-based company's best-selling lines, he said.

"It's a growing segment of what we're doing."

The trend tracks the slowing residential real estate market and demographic changes.

"Increasingly, people are choosing to live by themselves, with apartments and flats becoming a more popular choice of residence in metropolitan areas. These smaller households therefore also drive large demand for smaller furniture items," according to a recent report by IBISWorld, a Los Angeles-based industry intelligence firm.

Smaller furniture also is in line with moves by home builders to trim the scale of some new homes to meet reduced buying power. KB Home, which once offering large homes with expensive amenities, has redesigned its new home layouts to 2,400 square-foot homes, from 3,400 square feet. And it recently unveiled a 1,230-square-foot home for the foreclosure-stricken Southern California market.

Other builders have taken similar steps in reaction to falling home prices, tougher credit conditions and unsettled buyers.

Home builders also have been pushed for the past two decades by the New Urbanism movement to develop walkable, self-sufficient neighborhoods, said Jonathan Cochran, chief executive of Belle Meade Signature, of Collierville, Tenn. These featured more modest living spaces that emphasized utility in how space is used, he said.

Smaller furniture also is part of a trend that shows consumers increasingly want to eliminate clutter and organize what's left, said Pamela N. Danziger, president of Unity Marketing, a marketing consulting firm that studies consumer behavior.

"There is a whole new change in the way people look at luxury. It's moving away from being in-your-face, conspicuous consumption to how you feel in your environment," Danziger said. "It's a new, more European approach. It's not the size, it's what you've got in the home."

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