The former president of one of the federal government's largest suppliers of office furniture was sentenced in U.S. District Court here yesterday to 90 days in a halfway house for what a prosecutor described as a "three-tiered bid-rigging scheme" to win a $15 million General Services Administration contract.

U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant imposed the sentence and a $5,000 fine on Philip J. Kurens, 64, of West Orange, N.J., after an emotional hour-long hearing in which defense attorneys pleaded for probation, suggesting that if Kurens was jailed he could suffer a stroke, and his mentally ill daughter might attempt suicide.

Kurens, whose former company was the target of a major fraud investigation by the Senate in 1978 and 1979, twice appeared to break down, sobbing, and slumped against a lawyers' lecturn as he tried to address Bryant. Helped to a chair by his attorneys, Kurens faced the front of the courtroom and did not look at his wife and two children huddled together in the front row.

"My heart goes out to the persons that you hurt," said Bryant after a long conference with attorneys. "But we must preserve certain other standards, too, of which you are completely aware."

Defense attorney Barry Levine, who characterized Kurens' criminal act as a "lamentable crisis of character," told Bryant that Kurens was trying to save his company, Art Metal-USA Inc., which Levine said is the largest minority employer in Newark.

Levine, who said Kurens suffered a stroke in December that left him with some memory loss and impaired verbal skills, described his client as a "decent and honorable man" whose life was "characterized by noble deeds."

Levine and defense attorney David Addis complained that the presentence report prepared by the Newark probation office gave too much credence to what he said were unproved allegations against Art Metal and did not consider Kurens' long record of community service, including his December appointment to head a mayoral committee on the homeless.

"Who can fairly say that the government's need to incarcerate exceeds the needs of the handicapped and the homeless?" Levine asked Bryant.

During the Senate investigation, an Art Metal employe testified that it was "common knowledge" the company was paying GSA inspectors to overlook shoddy furniture. Kurens and Arthur S. Lowell, the firm's general counsel, invoked Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination when called to testify before a Senate Governmental Affairs panel.

Kurens pleaded guilty in March to traveling from New Jersey to the District a year earlier to pay a GSA quality assurance specialist a $5,000 bribe, the first of what were to be a total of three payments involving the expected award of a $15 million contract.

According to court documents filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert R. Chapman, Kurens promised to pay the inspector $10,000 for information about other companies' bids for the chair contract and to pay the inspector $50,000 if Art Metal received the contract.

Art Metal, which held about $9.7 million in federal contracts when Kurens was arrested in March 1986, was suspended from receiving additional awards, pending the outcome of Kurens' case.