Home Theater Affects Housing Design, Furniture Sales

The living room in most American homes has traditionally served ceremonial purposes. It's the place where your parents entertained visiting dignitaries, like the local minister who came to offer consolation after your grandmother's funeral. It's the place where they took pictures of you and your senior-prom date. As a showcase for stiff, uncomfortable, and rarely used furniture, the traditional living room is an ornamental vestige of a bygone, formal era, like buttons on the sleeve of a dinner jacket.

In keeping with the decline of formality in every other aspect of American life---witness the popularity of "casual Fridays" in the business world or the fact that new acquaintances are now "Bob" or "Susan" rather than "Mr. Jones" or "Miss Green"---the formal living room is going the way of hoop skirts and top hats. In 1996, the National Home Building Association conducted a survey, "What Today's Home Buyers Want," in which 40% of potential home buyers responded that they do not want a traditional living room.

What they want instead---and what they're getting---is a media room. In 1997, one third of new homes were built without living rooms. The media room, occupying the physical space once claimed by the living room, is now the family-gathering center (what the den was in older homes). In addition, retrofitting older homes for home entertainment is a growing business; many remodeling contractors and home-theater custom-installation companies are booked months in advance. Homes that undergo this modernizing metamorphosis usually lose their living rooms but gain added resale value in the process.

Home theater is the catalyst for this revolutionary change in the way people use their homes and conceptualize their use of space. Except for the rare home in which a spare bedroom or converted basement was used as a dedicated listening room, audiophilia has had little effect on the way most homes are built or renovated. That's because listening to music is often a solitary activity.

But watching movies and sporting events---the two most popular uses of a home theater---are frequently group experiences. The media room could engender family togetherness in a way the old-fashioned living room was intended to but never could.

Along with the living room that contained it, ornamental furniture is also fading away. In its place, ultracomfortable and extremely appropriate loungers are making a huge comeback. One such item is the venerable La-Z-Boy recliner, which is enjoying an enormous resurgence. More than an armchair---almost a bed---the retro-chic La-Z-Boy is de rigeur seating not merely for twentysomething slackers, but for Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers of means. Its popularity cuts across all demographic lines.

In the American market for upholstered furniture, which is estimated at $17 billion annually, La-Z-Boy did over a billion dollars in sales last year. It sold 1.5 million of its flagship recliners, an increase of 7% over 1996. Fully 45% of recliner buyers were between the ages of 34 and 52, a segment of the population that is 77 million strong.

This is no mere coincidence: These are the same people buying home theater. How do you spell "value added"? Enterprising electronics retailers might consider expanding their product lines to include furniture; no home theater or custom installation is complete without it.