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Motion Furniture. A little slimming down, a little more style -- recliner chairs are moving ahead

THE reclining chair is wearing a new look. Once considered bulky and chunky (but comfortable!), the recliner has been slimmed down and styled up.

Upgrading of quality and design, downscaling of silhouette, and a continuing effort to refine the mechanisms have combined not only to bring recliners to the fashion forefront but to cause erstwhile skeptics to reconsider the recliner's potential for yielding solid comfort.

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Today recliners are available in modern, contemporary, traditional, and Far Eastern styles, as well as ``country'' and the latest Eurostyles. Manufacturers include them in a relatively new category which they term ``motion'' or ``action'' furniture -- an exploding field of seating which bears little relationship to the early recliners patented by Dr. Anton Lorenz and licensed to be made by the Barcalounger Company in 1940.

Research done recently by Action Recliners by Lane, a major manufacturer, indicates that the majority of recliners are purchased by people over 50 who use them in their living rooms.

``We are, however, continuing to encourage a younger market,'' says Dal Eckard, the company's marketing vice-president, ``by bringing out a whole series of snappy styles, sizes, and configurations, designed to suit people of all sizes, shapes, ages, and tastes.'' These include Queen Anne wing chairs with cabriole legs, small-scaled Chippendale recliners, trim Parsons types, and the latest Eurostyles covered in soft leather (which sell for $900 in leather, or $495 in fabric).

According to Mr. Eckard, customers generally expect to pay between $400 and $500 for a chair and most think of the recliner as an individual's own chair, not one used as general seating. ``They also want the comfort of a recliner but don't want a chair that looks like one,'' he explains.

It was in 1966 that Barcalounger invited industrial designer Raymond Lowey and interior designer Dorothy Draper to come up with its first ``Designer Recliners.''

Today, almost all major manufacturers, including Berkline, Burris, La-Z-Boy, Flexsteel, Schweiger Industries, and PeopLoungers, are concerned with higher style and improved mechanisms to lift the feet and support the head. Some companies have in-house engineers who pursue research, working to find the best combinations of materials, improve the quality of steel used in the chairs, and refine design.

Many companies now build recliner capability into sofas, love seats, and modular seating, a change they hope will mean more versatility and comfort for the consumer.

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If you want to avoid making mistakes when buying a reclining chair, heed the following advice from Jack Hafkey, vice-president of the Barcalounger Company:

l. Remember that one size does not fit all. Do not make the mistake of expecting one chair to suit every person in the family. The chair should fit the person who uses it most. If the chair's proportions are not matched to the size, weight, and body proportions of its principal occupant, maximum comfort cannot be expected from it. Most companies make chairs in many sizes, and some make identical chairs in small, medium, and large sizes so a matching set can be purchased.

2. When you shop, take a room plan and a tape measure along. Many recliners today are slim and sleek, not big and bulky, and thus may fit into spaces that one might have thought unlikely. Some loungers can be placed as close as three and a half inches from a wall; some rocker recliners with swivel option may need to be 10 inches from the wall.

Salesmen can help with explanations. Be wary of buying very cheap recliners. For long-lasting quality, be prepared to spend from $300 up to $1,000, depending on the style and cover you select.

3. Lift up the cushions. A cushion filled with denser, higher-quality foam will feel heavier than one of lesser quality. Running a hand over the cushion will tell you whether shredded filling was used (if it feels bumpy) or a high-quality slab of foam.

4. Look at the chair with the mechanism opened, not just while it is closed. Listen to the mechanism for telltale scraping, grating, or other sounds that indicate the operation is not very smooth. Some recliners have handles or knobs at the side, and some consumers prefer them because they make the mechanism easier to operate. They often mean that the mechanism will respond more easily and quickly to the touch.

5. In the store, thoroughly test all the positions. If the ``floating in water'' position (reclined with the feet as high as the heart) provides good support for the head and lower back, you will probably have a chair that will be dependable for many years to come. If you are either very small or very tall or heavy, you should seek a salesman's help in choosing the best model. Recently, a 6 foot 6 inch tall man in California went to many stores before he found the recliner with the proper proportions for him and one with a mechanism that would give him adequate leg support.

There are three basic body support points to check while sitting in a recliner, according to Alvin Ortner, merchandise manager of Stratolounger Recliners. In the upright as well as reclining positions, the back of the knee should meet the top seam of the seat cushion. The lower back should be firmly supported by the cushion under it. The headrest, in both upright and reclining positions, should neither push the head unnaturally forward nor strain the neck muscles by allowing the head to fall too far back.

6. In addition, another easy way to determine fit, is this: When sitting upright, feet should be firmly planted on the floor. This indicates that the seat depth and height are just right, the backs of your knees are meeting the seat cushion's top seam, and the lower back is being properly supported. When reclining, feet should rest centered on the footrest and knees should be bent, not flat.

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