Wednesday, September 27, 2023 Sep 27, 2023
94° F Dallas, TX


The easy chair, the Homer Simpson of seating, makes a comeback.
By Mary Brown Malouf |

NOT LONG AGO, WE BOUGHT A chair at a garage sale. The impulse purchase was a sturdy oak. mission-style design with flat arms you could set a drink on. There’s a small iron mechanism on the lower part of the back that allows you to adjust its angle from an alert sitting-up-straight posture to one of frank repose. It is, in fact, a recliner, an early model easy chair. We draped it with an old quilt and stuck it in an upstairs comer. Out of sight didn’t mean out of mind, though, and I started wondering about easy chairs when I was supposed to be thinking about other things, like the new Thai restaurant I was reviewing. It’s easy for me to get distracted by big issues. Lots of chairs technically qualify as easy chairs, but the ones I kept wondering about were the kind you spell with a Z. I remembered a scene from the State Fair Women’s Building many years ago. Somewhere between the quilts and a collection of Elvis memorabilia was a La-Z-Boy demonstration. Lines of people were checking out the chairs: They settled back behind their rounded tummies with their feet automatically elevated, their eyes closed, and their hands curled over the armrests in identical positions of 20th-century tranquility. Rows and rows of Bubba Buddhas…

It seems to me that we’ve heard a lot lately about couch potatoes. But before the couch potato, there was the easy chair sitter. The term implies a more civilized posture of relaxation than the modern exhausted horizontal flop. The whole purpose of an easy chair, really, is to relax without lying all the way down because it’s not yet socially acceptable to recline in company, unless you’re very much younger than thirty-something, like maybe twoish.

Recliners push the envelope, as they say, of acceptable comfortable seating; they’ve taken a tacky rap in recent years along with shag carpet, Naugahyde, and mac-ramé. Most people who own a recliner won’t even admit it-there’s still something a tad bit embarrassing about the whole concept. Maybe it’s because recliners are more of an appliance than a chair and, in their technological evolution towards the perfect sit, are surely pure Americana. Kind of like Velveeta vs. the real thing.

I’m not by any stretch an investigative journalist, but I decided to do some digging to find out what’s happened to the recliner, this Homer Simpson of seating. Just how close have chair engineers gotten to satori sitting? In our quest for comfort, has the recliner finally come out of the closet? I decided to check it out.

I look my husband with me for research purposes-he’s in retail and always glad to get off his feet. We started with furniture stores in my neighborhood but, frankly, I did not have a lot of hopes for Weir’s Furniture Village since it seemed to me that mechanical recliners do not reflect the essence of country style. I don’t think Ralph Lauren has designed one yet, and I haven’t seen a single one in Martha Stewart’s books. But I was surprised by the perfectly MATERIAL WORLD respectable leather wing chair recliners that look like the kind you have in the library of your country home. The release button is cleverly hidden on the inside of the arm, tastefully tucked away so guest sitters need never suspect the chair’s true nature, The most sophisticated recliners I found at Weir’s didn’t even have a release button-you just push the arms forward and presto! a little footstool pops out from its hiding place under the seat, and you’re flat on your back in no time.

The selection at Adele Hunt’s Furniture and Studio was similarly discreet. One leather lounger, stuck in a corner (like mine at home) had the ultrastuffed look of a recliner; the rest were in drag, so to speak, in tapestry and damask. They had visible legs and many were “wall-huggers”-they scooted down and forward instead of back so they didn’t need the imperial amount of floor space traditionally required. Some club-style chairs had movable backs, but separate ottomans. “You don’t have to sacrifice style for comfort anymore, and comfort is the number one priority right now. Big chairs are definitely coming back,” our friendly interior designer/salesman, John Holstead, informed us. “We’ve been selling single chairs as large as love seats. Still, there are husbands who are hellbent on having a recliner because that’s the way they watch football.”

So far my test-sitter seemed happy with everything he’d sampled. Nice for him, but I was beginning to get an uncomfortable feeling about recliners.

Levitz Furniture Co. is where I expected to learn the most, and I was not disappointed. We were led down an aisle, through a space as cavernous as a cathedral, into a little apse where there was a whole congregation of recliners-leather, plush, tufted, and plaid. All had a lever or unobtrusive button on the outside of the right arm; push or pull it, and you leveled out to approximately the correct angle of repose for denial work or balancing a newspaper over your face.

There have been a lot of innovations in reclining in the past few years, I learned. For example, the lever is being superseded by a button that is less confusing. (The lever was not very effective at bringing you back to an upright position, and the button doesn’t even pretend to. A firm kick back with the lower legs does the trick.) There is one model that comes with a built-in massage function, like the Magic Fingers on motel beds. Using a remote control, you adjust the strength of the vibrations and indicate the part of your body to be jiggled. Another remote control model actually moves you forward to a standing position with your feet on the floor-after that, it is up to you. My husband compared it to the comfort control in a really nice car. It’s a 20-second ride to full recline, and another 20 back to the top. There are reclining love seats and sofas (only the end sections of these actually recline) that come in living room sets to match single loungers so, conceivably, everyone in the room could be lying back on blue plush with feet in the air after a successful dinner party. Everyone, that is, except for the middle guy on the sofa-the social equivalent of a designated driver, I suppose.

Recliners are the only chairs I know of that come with a list of safety precautions: Don’t use this chair as a baby bed; don’t stand or sit on the footrest; keep pets and small children from under the footrest; be careful of moving parts. There are no cautions warning you not to drink while operating such heavy machinery. Thank goodness, since beer and recliners go together like summer and baseball. Which brings me to why recliners make me uncomfortable.

No one says this out loud, but recliners are designed for men. They’re hard for a woman to get out of, if she ever had the time to get in one. I’m of average size-that’s how I describe myself on weight charts-and extricating myself from a recliner requires several major shifts of weight, along with considerable leg muscle to kick the footstool back where it belongs. The standard recliner’s proportions are for men. Now why is that? Do we perceive it as an unnatural act for women to relax? Or are women merely accessories for recliners? But, then, who would bring the cold beer if the ladies were lying down in front of the television?

I guess ours will remain upstairs.