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Home office options grow: some furniture shrinks. (Design Lines).

TO KEEP CONSUMERS coming to home office retailers even in lean times, furniture manufacturers have been listening to their customers' suggestions, watching the electronics market and incorporating what they have learned in their new designs.

The October International Home Furnishings Market in High Point will see some of the results, as the "footprint" of some desk groupings shrinks dramatically in size, finishes become sturdier and handsomer, and comfort features like padded wrist rests become commonplace.

Home office in recent years has been one of the leaders in furniture sales, and both marketing and design efforts are being expended to keep it that way.

Hooker Furniture Corp., where communications director Kim Shaver says home office is probably the fastest-growing category, teamed up with retailers this month to open 250 SmartWorks by Hooker Home Office Galleries in retail stores.

The fact that "we have placed 250 in such difficult economic times" attests to home office's strong position within furniture categories, Shaver says. "I expect when the economy picks up that we'll place even more."

Sligh Furniture Co. took its new West Indies collection and other home office pieces to last April's High Point market expecting just "to stay the course," says advertising and public relations coordinator Sue Swain. "We did a lot better than that," she says. The market was not great, but "we had a lot better market than we anticipated," she says.

Sligh also revised its Saratoga Cherry finish to let more grain show through. Its new "traditional casual" finish, called Litchfield Cherry, is being used in several different collections including Homeworks Unlimited, Sligh's line of modular products.

More innovations can be expected to meet changing demands in fashion and function at the October market.

"We do a lot of research with dealers and talk to consumers," says Michael Charlton, vice president of product development and marketing at Riverside Furniture Corp. What consumers say they want, he says, is "smaller units with more options."

Empty Nesters Targeted

"I primarily think people are converting (lightly used spaces;) to home offices. They're using former children's bedrooms and guestrooms. Most of our product reaction is going to be based on the fact that people are putting home offices in bedrooms."

That means smaller pieces will be added to the lineup at Riverside, and also at Stanley Furniture Co. "We have people constantly asking for smaller configurations," says Kelly Cain, vice president of product development for The Office by Stanley.

Riverside will bring to market a basic five-piece solid-wood configuration built around a corner desk that's probably 20 percent narrower side to side than predecessors. "You're gaining more space in the room," Charlton says. "You still have vertical storage. It's going up the wall but not out from it."

This same philosophy is leading Riverside to add three armoires to its VIP Collection and that last year led Stanley to introduce the first of its armoires, which are now integral to all eight collections of The Office by Stanley.

"The challenge of home office furniture is getting the most amount of function in the least amount of space," Cain says.

In Stanley's armoires, sliding trays provide access to scanners and printers as well as keyboards. Wires are connected by internal access to a surge protector/control panel. Once the armoire is in place, it never has to be moved away from the wall to adjust electronic component connections.

Stanley Furniture hopes that a new, smaller corner desk grouping will be ready for the October market, too, as part of its casual contemporary group named Meridian. "The desk group is going down in size quite a bit," Cain says. "The goal is for it to be very cost effective."

Laptop Prices Dropping

Product development managers have been closely watching electronics prices this summer. As laptops drop below $1,000, they are going to become more popular and that too "is going to make for smaller office pieces," Cain says.

At the same time, Cain says, "We think style is very important in home office." An alternative to the "think small" philosophy will be larger, higher-end office pieces in a European traditional collection Stanley Furniture plans to introduce at the October market.

Riverside's Charlton agrees with Cain that there are more laptops in the home office's future, but thinks they will have little effect on size because people will want the convenience of a large monitor as well. Riverside is providing a pullout tray for laptop docking, so that contents can be quickly downloaded to CPUs.

Hooker's redesign earlier this year of its entire modular line provides room for a laptop storage option, though the keyboard setup that it is part of is larger, not smaller, than earlier models. The company is responding to feedback gained from focus groups in which consumers said they wanted, among other things, more space in the slide-out keyboard drawer, especially in the mouse area, and something to hold reference materials while they typed.

In an effort that cut across department lines, manufacturing personnel and product engineers came up with an enlarged keyboard drawer and a sliding tray above it to hold documents. It can be removed for laptop storage.

Home offices may be workspaces, but they have a public aspect as well. Palliser Furniture Ltd. of Winnipeg, Manitoba, introduced its first all-wood home office collection in maple at the spring market and plans to add traditional cherry and pine versions in October. They will bear the company's resilient Palliseal finish.

Palliser previously used only MDF and laminates, but with the new modular collection, which can be arranged in 100 different configurations, it is aiming at a different, higher price point, says Mary Ann Stewart, director of public relations/marketing. Suggested retail prices are $800 U.S. for an executive desk, $1,299 for an office armoire, and $199 to $2,699 for a wall configuration.

A Home Meeting Place For Clients

"There's definitely a need for it (modularity), with people meeting clients in their home," says Stewart. "For a lot of people their home office is almost like a formal area of their home." The modular furniture is often used in a great room or an open area, she says, "so fashion starts to count."

RTA leader Sauder Woodworking Go. expects homeowners to use its office furniture for conferences as well as computers. The ends of some returns are now enlarged and rounded so that conferees can sit, or even snack, around them,

In another RTA development, a Thomasville Furniture division, Creative Interiors, is putting the weight of its parent company's name behind a new, branded product being sold exclusively in Target stores. In a departure from the company's other RTA products created for mass merchandisers, the logo points out that the entire Renovations line is produced by a division of Thomasville. Thomasville itself is a Furniture Brands company.

Renovations, which includes home office, entertainment, occasional and bedroom pieces, is made of engineered wood like the company's other products but is more upscale, offering multiple finishes and special hardware, vice president Phil Miller says.

"We want to be sure we protect the Thomasville brand," he adds. "The functionality aspect of home office has been covered, and now the fashion equation needs to be completed."

Renovations home office includes desks, hutches, file cabinets, bookcases -- all the key pieces in modular -- range from a $69 suggested retail price for a bookcase to $159 for a desk and hutch combination.

Off the Wall, Literally

Two U.S. companies have taken functionality to unprecedented lengths with their new home office/workout rooms. All the usual modular home office pieces are included in the Hidden Grove line, according to Kurt Facer, regional sales manager with one of the companies, ICON Health & Fitness Inc.

But along with the solid wood and veneer cabinetry, the work surfaces and the storage, Hidden Grove includes a treadmill and a weight-lifting bench, which fold into the cabinetry when not in use.

ICON turned to a new company TurnKey Products, led by CEO Andy Nielsen and President Tony Cantrell, for design and procurement help with the cabinetry, which is made in the Far East and Mexico. Hidden Grove was introduced to major U.S. retailers this summer and is expected to be in production in October.

Besides the fitness armoire cabinet and the weight bench armoire cabinet, Hidden Grove includes two computer desks, a freestanding writing desk, a peninsula desk option with return, a lateral file and hutches. It comes in a "country oak" casual style in country oak and a dark cherry, casual traditional style. The smallest footprint for a wall unit is 9 feet wide, says Facer. Suggested retail prices range from $2,000 to $5,000, with the lowest price including only one piece of exercise equipment.

One of the reasons behind Hidden Grove's development was ICON's fitness program software, which calls for interaction between a computer and treadmill, Facer says. "The computer was in one room and the treadmill in the other," leaving potential users to ask How do I do that?"' he says.

Hidden Grove lets them tie the two together for exercise, but it also lets them get up m the morning, read their e-mail, walk on the treadmill, check stock quotes -- all in one room, Cantrell says.

"It gives them the option to work or work out."
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Author:Miller, Hannah
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Oct 1, 2001
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