Sleek consoles rule the day as large wall units all but exit the battlefield
As usual, HFA member Jerry Baer has a lot on his mind. At the moment, the president and chief executive of Baer’s Furniture is focused on the dearth of large wall units in the home entertainment category. “We keep asking for them, and we can’t get them,” he says.
While Baer admits demand “is not nearly what it was years ago,” South Florida remains one of the few regional pockets in the country where consumers still seek large wall units. “As an industry, we have been hurt by the fact that china cabinets aren’t as popular as they once were, and the big wall units aren’t as popular as they once were,” Baer describes. “That’s had a negative effect overall, but one of the byproducts is that we’re having more and more trouble with supply. Storage and display are still important to our clientele, who also seems to prefer taller entertainment bases. We can’t find as many as we would like from our existing suppliers, so we’ve added new suppliers. And to satisfy our customers, we keep searching.”
Where once the size and depth of cathode ray technology meant that installing a large television was akin to parking a small car in the family room, “the best-selling TVs in the U.S. marketplace now are 65-inches wide,” says Pat Watson, vice president of merchandising for Hooker Furniture. And, where designers used to refer to screens of that size as big, black holes that were ideally hidden behind cabinetry, the ascension of sleek, ultra-thin flat-screens has radically changed the home entertainment category and the decorating game overall.
“They are beautiful and cool-looking and the picture is phenomenal so people want their TV displayed much like a work of art,” says Lorri Kelley, president of BDI Furniture. “They want a beautiful piece of furniture to go with it, whether they are mounting the TV on the wall, or they want it to sit on a cabinet.”
“People today want sleeker, cleaner, unfussy looks when it comes to their technology and the furniture that it’s housed in,” says author, designer and makeover television personality Libby Langdon, Libby Interiors. “Most people know they are going to hang their TV on a wall and they know they want something below it like a console table or shallow cabinet. My younger clients especially don’t see technology, TVs and home entertainment components as a bad thing. They love it all and can’t imagine living without it, so they don’t feel compelled to ‘hide’ it.”
Venus and Mars are Alright
“Once upon a time, home entertainment furniture took up a lot of space on our floor,” says HFA member Melissa O’Rourke, president of El Paso, Texas-based Charlotte’s Furniture. O’Rourke doesn’t miss the home theater heyday of the mid-‘90s when televisions were largely hidden behind the doors of armoires and multi-piece cabinetry. “For us, buying the category is actually more fun and much easier today, because we’re presenting it from a purely aesthetic standpoint. The shift toward accent pieces, consoles and sofa tables, which we’ve always done well with anyway, means that we no longer have to invest in those big walls with layers of pieces, and then figure out how to make them fit on our floor.”
“For a long time, there was a kind of détente that existed in American households,” Hooker’s Watson notes. “The man said, ‘I want a big TV,’ and the woman said, ‘Fine. I’m getting furniture that will hide that big TV when I don’t want to see it.’ So, we had pocket doors that slid back, and an entertainment wall would include a console, two piers and a bridge at the very least, and many of them would have corner units and some even more than that, for as many as eight pieces. This means we’ve gone from an average home theater sale of five pieces, to one-and-a-quarter (and the quarter is due to the fact that we still sell some entertainment consoles with hutches).”
Chalk this up to the fact that fewer homes today designate spaces solely for home theater, due in large part not only to changes in technology, but changes in lifestyle and the way we consume entertainment. Indeed, terms like home theater room, media room, den and even family room are gradually giving way to a new descriptor—hybrid space—to better reflect how modern rooms are actually being used.
The technology and lifestyle shift has not only impacted the buying and selling of case goods, but home theater seating as well, which Oklahoma City-retailer Jeff Burt, president of Suburban Contemporary Furniture, says “has all but dried up. If our customers have movie rooms now, they may not be reclining at all. Rather, they are opting for big, deep, down-filled sofa chaises, because they want to curl up with their kids and dogs. Rather than individual reclining seats, they all want to be together when they are watching a movie. That’s a real change from even just a few years ago.”
“The things that used to be considered essential, that really guided what was necessary in terms of home entertainment furniture, were the relatively large components,” Watson relates. “You had DVD players that were 15 to 17 inches deep and 19 to 20 inches wide. And you had infra-red remote controls which required line-of-sight to operate. That dictated having either glass doors, or an open area in an entertainment piece. Both of those guidelines, which used to be the dominant design influences, have radically changed.
Today’s DVD players are tiny in comparison. And streaming technology—Netflix, Roku and things like that—mean that a lot of people don’t even have DVD players anymore. Satellite and cable boxes are dramatically smaller too, which means we don’t have the same requirements in terms of case depth. Plus, the change in remote controls from infra-red to radio frequency (RF) technology means that the remote and the components no longer have to be able to see each other. The result is that designers have a lot more freedom in both size and scale, and the looks that they can create.”
According to Watson, the result is that the accent furniture category is bleeding into home entertainment. “Since many of the pieces that we sell are multi-purpose, it’s actually hard for me to judge how many shoppers are coming in specifically for home entertainment,” says O’Rourke. “Our customers are using these consoles everywhere from the entry to the bedroom and in the dining room as serving pieces.”
Try to Console Yourself
Blake Tovin, who has designed furniture for Crate & Barrel for more than two decades, describes his work as “more contemporary than it’s ever been. We don’t do anything that is in any way traditional. Everything we design now is transitional toward contemporary. That’s partially by choice, and partially because the market has come around to what we like to do. Everything is becoming much more minimal in terms of the electronics, which have gotten very small and very light and don’t require the kind of cooling or air flow they once did. Since everything is streaming through the television, people are no longer tied to DVDs or physical media, so the television is really disconnecting from the furniture.”
Tovin has translated these trends into Crate’s HD Media cabinets, available in two lengths and two sizes. “Proportionally, there’s a long and low look, and a taller, more slender version. What we’ve been finding over the last couple of years is that the equipment that goes in these things is less and less important. The average person requires a fairly minimal set-up and cabinets are just for storage and display. In fact, a lot of them could be used as buffets as well.”
BDI’s Kelley concurs. “The focus that we’re taking with our cabinets—which are anywhere from 58 to 75 inches in total length, around 20 inches deep, and about 28 to 32 inches tall depending upon the application—is that to develop a media cabinet just for the media room is very limiting. We want to make our consoles functional, with easy access so that you can change your components, but we’re truly driven by design. We want to create a piece of art so that you can use the cabinet in places outside of the media room, and we spend as much time perfecting the way our products perform as we do on refining the way that they look. We believe that if a customer is coming into a furniture store, they probably already have a TV and they are looking for furniture to go with it, so retailers have a wonderful opportunity to step consumers up to a beautiful cabinet. I think that retailers who are not afraid to put a cabinet on the floor and show multiple uses for it are the ones who will be most successful now, because the cabinet is going to last a whole lot longer than the TV.”
Retailer Burt agrees. “BDI is really on point as far as trying to make the cabinets as pretty and design-oriented as they can. People want a pretty cabinet that sets their room off.