April 1, 1998

He lived La-Z-Boy, and he died La-Z-Boy

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

MONROE, Mich. (AP) _ Edwin Shoemaker lived the La-Z-Boy life to the very end. He invented the plushly padded, rocking and reclining refuge for the weary _ and he died in one, slipping away after settling in for a nap at the age of 90.

But the man who left a leather-bound legacy of leisure was hardly a lounger himself. For the father of La-Z-Boy, there was no laziness.

“This is a guy that wanted to be productive every moment,” says Matthew Switlik, director of the Monroe County Historical Museum.

“Mr. Shoemaker was in no way ready to lounge around _ he had to be busy.”

It was with that kind of perseverence and dedication to hard work that Shoemaker and cousin Edward Knabusch built La-Z-Boy from a struggling, Depression-era enterprise operating out of a garage into an American icon of sorts.

Despite the name, La-Z-Boy executives insist that their chair is not meant to encourage, well, laziness. “There’s a fine line between relaxation and sloth,” says John Case, vice president of marketing. “When it starts to move toward the sloth side, that’s when we take exception.”

Still, some models do offer features that make it quite easy to spend life with your feet never touching anything but a padded footrest.

Sore muscles? Turn on the massager nestled in the cushions. Can’t make it to the phone? Here’s a built-in speakerphone. Want to check your stock prices on-line? Plug in your modem, right here in the chair.

The technology has advanced, but the basic idea remains the same: Sit back, relax and enjoy the chair.

“The traditional conventional vision of the recliner is what everyone thinks of as the `bubba chair,’ a guy with beer in one hand and the remote in the other,” says Nancy Butler, recliner writer for the trade publication Furniture Today.

Shoemaker didn’t see it exactly that way. To him, the La-Z-Boy was a way to relax _ but with the goal of getting recharged.

“His concept was that everybody put in a good day’s work and should be rewarded with a relaxing chair to sit in,” says his son, Robert Shoemaker.

Or as Switlik puts it, “He could view the chair as almost like a medical device to get your energy level back up and get back at things again.”

To Shoemaker, there was no getting away from things. Until he died last month at his winter home in Arizona, the man with an eighth-grade education served as executive vice president of engineering and vice chairman of the board. He spent much of his time in his later years working with the La-Z-Boy museum director on the company’s history, and went into the office two or three times a week when in Michigan.

“He did play a role and did stay up to the minute on everything the company was doing,” Switlik says.

Widely described as both humble and generous, he and Knabusch formed the La-Z-Boy Foundation in 1953 to benefit charities.

“He said about money, what’s it for if you can’t use it for other people,” Switlik says. “He was bewildered that people wouldn’t think of using it for a good social purpose.”

Today, La-Z-Boy is one of the most recognized brand names in America. But before there was La-Z-Boy, there was the Kna-Shoe Manufacturing Co.

When Shoemaker and Knabusch began their company in 1927 they worked out of Knabusch’s father’s garage, making doll furniture and cabinets. Then, to pay for a real factory, in a cornfield in a small town 35 miles south of Detroit, they borrowed from friends and relatives. Shoemaker’s father mortgaged the farm to help pay for venture.

A year later, tinkering with pieces of plywood and a yardstick, they fashioned a wood-slat reclining lawn chair that _ while not quite up to today’s standard _ still managed to be quite comfortable. After a buyer for a furniture store refused to buy the chair unless it came upholstered, they added that feature.

They knew they were on to something. But what to call it?

So they held a name-the-chair contest, and La-Z-Boy conquered energetic competitors such as the Sit-N-Snooze, the Slack-Back and the Comfort Carrier.

The chair quickly became popular. But it was the Great Depression, and times were tough. To help make ends meet, the company sold refrigerators _ and Shoemaker made the repair calls. In their retail furniture store, he worked the floor selling his wares.

“There were many, many times when he and his cousin could have given up,” says Dennis Au, a longtime friend who helped Shoemaker with his autobiography. “Their stick-to-it-iveness kept them going.

“If there’s any advice Mr. Shoemaker could give to anyone it would be that advice _ stick with it.”

Thirty-three years after the first La-Z-Boy, all the work really paid off. In 1961, Shoemaker combined a platform rocker with a recliner. The result: the La-Z-Boy Reclina-Rocker.

It was the right chair at the right time. Television’s takeover of America’s living rooms was gaining speed, and the two took off together.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that the recliner and the television are the perfect marriage,” Furniture Today’s Butler says.

At first the market was largely male _ the man who at the time brought home the bacon, then sat back while his wife cooked it.

“The king of the house should have a throne, here’s a Reclina-Rocker all your own,” said one 1963 advertisement.

Today the “bubba chair” still thrives, but now La-Z-Boy also offers models that look more like regular chairs and less like upright beds. And the company says women now account for half its sales.

What’s more, recliners such as the La-Z-Boy can be hip accessories in the apartments of twenty- and thirty-somethings. And the La-Z-Boy has won mentions in the popular television sitcoms “Friends” and “Frasier.”

“It’s the one chair in the house everybody wants,” says Jill Smith of Sterling Heights, whose family room La-Z-Boy has held up well for 15 years.

It was even the favorite chair of Sandy, the 21-year-old family cat, who died in October.

What does La-Z-Boy mean? “To me, quality,” she says.

There’s something else, too. The La-Z-Boy and its competitors’ versions often have more meaning to their owners than, say, the ottoman.

“It is a very personal piece of furniture. It is something people become attached to, like their favorite sweatshirt or favorite pair of sneakers,” Butler says.

And when the time comes to go, there are worse ways than in a reclining rocker. Switlik says his own father died sitting in his La-Z-Boy chair during halftime of a football game.

“That beats the hell out of a cancer ward,” he says.


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