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A new era in RTA.


Retail sales jingled to the tune of about $1 billion last year for ready-to-assemble furniture, the fastest growing segment of the home furnishings market. Products that were, in the industry's infancy, once relegated to back rooms, childrens' rooms, basements and dens, have grown up, earned respectability and stepped into the limelight. Consumer-assembled furniture can be used in every room in the house, as well as in home and commercial offices.

Once known rather ingloriously as knocked-down furniture, the category featured the most basic of designs for the simple purpose of storing books, televisions, phonographs and records. Bookcases with particleboard backs were only one step beyond the rudimentary bricks and boards favored by newlyweds and college students. Ungraceful posts supported the shelves and boxes that were the earliest wall units. Steel tubing attached to plain boards formed the first TV stands.

Today, RTA designs are limited only by the necessity for mass production and the task of keeping consumer costs down. While RTA's typical laminated particleboard construction lends itself naturally to the uncluttered look of contemporary design, manufacturers are adding double radius side rails, dentil mouldings, plinth mouldings, rounded corners, fluted rails, pilasters, turned legs, sculptured tops and shelves, raised panels and period brass hardware for more traditional appearances.

"New technology is allowing us these options," said Dan O'Sullivan, president of O'Sullivan Industries, an industry pioneer. "And if it is not practical for us to make a particular part, for instance, a cabriole leg, we can buy it from the same sources that case goods manufacturers use.

"Designs are limited somewhat by cost," O'Sullivan added. "We cannot bring out a $1,000 entertainment center and wall system because it is the lower price range of RTA that attracts consumers." Unlike other segments of the home furnishings industry, RTA does well in a poor economy. At the very least, O'Sullivan said, "We stand pat when everyone else's sales are down."

The basic requirements

Function, style, space requirements, value and affordability - qualities the consumer wants and needs are the most important factors considered when developing a new line, according to O'Sullivan. "We know the type of things consumers are looking for - their current favorites. We pay close attention to the basics. Early American and traditional furniture are always best sellers but for a long time, RTA couldn't get close because of the sculptured components, curves and raised panels," he said. That is all changing. The company plans to unveil a transitional group with double raised panel doors at High Point this month.

Precision is key factor

Probably the most important factor in manufacturing RTA furniture, as opposed to pre-assembled, is in the precision required, O'Sullivan said. "A good deal of pre-assembled furniture starts with the same production methods as RTA furniture. However, RTA requires precise cutting and drilling for precise fit. If it is a little off, it can't be fixed on an assembly line by someone hammering it into position," he said. "A common tolerance is + or - 0.5mm. If you get three pieces out of tolerance in the same dimension, the entire unit will be out of kilter."

RTA furniture can be superior to a good deal of pre-assembled case goods, O'Sullivan said. "That's because we are under a microscope. We can't stay alive without that precision. With case goods, it is the dealer who takes care of problems, seldom the manufacturer. Once the package is shipped, it's out of the manufacturer's hands. Someone else is hired to fix anything that goes wrong," he added. "We can't get away with that for one minute. Our doors and drawers - everything - must line up when the consumer puts it together."

Then and now

In general, 1990 prices are very low for the value received, O'Sullivan said. "The consumer is getting much more value for the dollar than 10 years ago."

In the '50s, the industry was a heavy consumer of composite boards. The same material is used today, in vastly improved versions. "MDF and particleboard are far superior to even 20 years ago," O'Sullivan said. "Of course, today we use considerably less metal and steel tubing. Originally, we were a metal manufacturer using wood accents."

The industry employs basically the same production equipment as the last generation of manufacturers - laminators, edgebanders and boring machines - but faster and more efficient models. Innovations like embossing and better hot stamp foil machinery coupled with the improved board continue to beef up production and quality.

In the industry's early decades, consumer-assembled products were sold mostly by electronics retailers and a handful of mass merchandisers. RTA is available now from nearly every type of retailer; however, few furniture dealers or furniture departments carry the products. The RTA industry is trying to address this area, O'Sullivan said. "We want to eliminate dealer reservations.

"To some dealers, we are still the bad boys of the '60s - with a product of |shelf paper on particleboard,' even though we use exactly the same boards, laminated finishes, hardware and wood accents as case good manufacturers," O'Sullivan said. "The drawers of pre-assembled furniture may not work right and their doors may not hang right, but these same dealers would not consider a precision-crafted piece that comes in a box at half the price."

For the consumer, assembling a piece of furniture was once a nightmare of unintelligible directions and missing parts. Now, O'Sullivan said, the company receives letters by the hundreds from people who are moved to write that putting furniture together is "almost fun." Generally, these letters are from retired people or women who call themselves mechanically unskilled. "They are quite proud of themselves when their purchases are assembled," he added.

What's next?

Upgraded materials and designs, expanded lines, simplified assembly - what more can the RTA industry do to continue its strong growth pattern? In home furnishings, O'Sullivan said the industry, in general, has neglected the dining room. "We weren't really good at tables. Now that we are going into matching suites, we have to have tables."

And moving outward, O'Sullivan Industries is poised for a major foray into the commercial market. O'Sullivan said the hotel-motel industry needs a tough product, because it gets a lot of use and abuse. "RTA furniture is perfect for this market. A truckload can sit in a construction lot until new rooms are ready and there is no waiting for the furniture. Back-up parts are easily stored. You can have two or three of everything in a minimum amount of space, and replace damaged parts immediately."

PHOTO : Above, the granddaddy of RTA furniture, a portable, brass-finished metal stand (circa 1955) has one shelf for the television set and another for magazines. Below, also a forerunner of the entertainment center, is a phonograph stand with rotating carousel base for storing 150 long-playing records. (Black and white photos are from O'Sullivan Industries archives.)

PHOTO : Dan O'Sullivan is bullish on the ready-to-assemble furniture market, predicting huge growth for the industry in which he is a major player. O'Sullivan, president of O'Sullivan Industries, declares that sales of RTA furniture will equal 35 percent of the home furnishings market before the year 2000. Eventually, RTA will capture 55 to 60 percent of this market, he adds, making RTA the major force in the home furnishings industry of the future. In this article, he tells why it could happen.

PHOTO : Lifestyle furniture (circa 1990). A handsome entertainment center from O'Sullivan has a light oak finish and includes a lockable tape drawer, pull-out VCR shelf, audio tower and video console with tambour doors.

PHOTO : A contemporary credenza from O'Sullivan, finished in colonial oak laminate, adds storage space to the home or commercial office.

PHOTO : A tambour rolltop desk from O'Sullivan's Radford Inn Collection is finished in oak laminates and appointed with dentil and plinth mouldings and period brass-finish hardware.

PHOTO : A corner workcenter fills most requirements for the productive home office: computer monitor and keyboard shelves for ideal working angles, concealed roll-out printer cart, drawers and shelves for files and storage and duplicate work surfaces.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Vance Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Ready-to-assemble furniture; Design Lines
Author:Garet, Barbera
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Apr 1, 1991
Previous Article:Furniture guilty until proven innocent in California.
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