Those La-Z boys weren’t so lazy after all

By Andy Kriege, YSN

Often thought of as an American invention, the recliner chair as we know it today was born around 1850, when the French military introduced a reclining bed for field use that could serve as a chair or a bed. It was designed to be portable and featured a steel frame and padded armrests. While it was much less complex than its modern-day counterpart, it functioned much the same as today’s recliners. 

The Birth of the Modern Recliner

Cousins Edward Knabush and Edwin Shoemaker with their first prototype recliner chair.

It wasn’t until the late 1920s when the recliner chair as we now know it came to be. The modern-day recliner was the brainchild of two American cousins from Monroe, Mich., Edwin Shoemaker and Edward Knabush, who put their heads together to revolutionize the way millions of people around the world kick back and relax. 

Their partnership began in a small garage where they built furniture and miscellaneous gadgets. In 1928, it was Shoemaker, the self-taught engineer, who came up with innovative design for a reclining porch chair that ingeniously hinged the seat and back together to move in unison. 

The cousins took their prototype to a department store in Toledo, where the store buyer thought they had a good product but convinced them to upholster an indoor version of the chair. In 1930, they patented and began selling an upholstered model with mechanical movement, allowing people to lean back with the assist of integrated levers.

Proud of their recumbent creation, the cousins speculated that there would be a larger market for their new indoor reclining chair, so they ramped up production and began wider distribution. Hardworking and industrious, they quickly outgrew their cramped quarters and built a small factory to accommodate their growing furniture enterprise.

Needing a catchy moniker for their hot-selling chair, a naming contest was held and “La-Z-Boy” was chosen as the winner. They had the brand trademarked in 1931 and soon after, La-Z-Boy became synonymous with all comfortable reclining chairs. 

Recliners became a fixture in virtually every living room in post-war America. 

The Footrest Recliner-Rocker is Born

Until the mid 1940s seated consumers had to use an Ottoman (footstool) if they wanted to raise their feet. To remedy that, in 1947 Shoemaker invented and patented a retractable footrest inside the chair that could be activated by a handle. The integrated footrest soon became a standard feature on all recliner chairs.

By the 1950s, TVs and reclining chairs would prove to be the perfect combination for a post-war society that had more time and money for leisurely pursuits. 

Edwin Shoemaker, “Father of Motion Furniture.”

A Salute to the Great ‘Chairmen’ of the 20th Century

As an avowed armchair quarterback, I salute Shoemaker and Knabush. Sunday afternoons would not be nearly as enjoyable without their delightful recumbent creation. While those hardworking “lazy boys” were not the first to come up with the idea of a reclining chair, they were the first to perfect it and bring it to the masses.

As for Shoemaker, who worked so hard so we could relax, he remained active in the company until his death in 1998 at the age of 90. He died quite fittingly, kicking back in a recliner chair, quite possibly reflecting on how his invention made the world a much more comfortable place. 

The Home Furnishings Hall of Fame refers to Shoemaker as the “Father of Motion Furniture,” and credits him with applying automobile mass production practices to furniture manufacturing. He had more than 30 patents to his name, five pertaining to recliners.

Today’s Recliners are Big Business

Today, recliner chairs are a part of nearly every living room in the Western world. They are a non-negotiable element of every man cave on the planet. Worldwide sales are expected to eclipse $4 billion in 2023.

BrandSource member Dick Skaff, one of the principals at Skaff Furniture in Flint, Mich., said the venerable recliner chair is still a big part of the mix and continues to sell well at his store. “Recliner sales are a big part of our business,” he said. “We now have about 15 on the floor, including many with lift capability.”

Skaff Furniture owners Mike, Dick (seated) and Jeff Skaff in an oversized novelty chair. 

Skaff added that the vast majority of what he sells are power recliners. This includes chairs with a power headrest and lumbar support. “The emphasis is always on comfort,” he said. “People really like to get their feet up and relax after a long day.”

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