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by Pete Dodge


The Futon Roots

“Look,” my friend said, “just fold the futon’s bottom two thirds up to make the seat and lean what’s left over against the wall to make the back, and it’s a couch. See!”

I didn’t see. Not for a long time.

The idea came to me slowly with much coaching from then Depth of Field owner and friend Joanne Folland. Each Sunday we would look at Arise Futon’s ad in the New York Times Magazine featuring Bill Brouwer’s couch with the futon laid across it. It didn’t convert, that came with Bill’s Brouwer Bed, some months later. Apparently, when you wanted a bed you just pulled the futon off the frame and rolled it out onto the floor.

When Joe Tatulli at FutonLife.com told me that he was doing an issue focusing on futon conversion mechanisms, my mind drifted back to my early involvement with American style futon furniture and the kind of frames we used to define our idea of a niche industry.

Over the last couple of years I had come across some early 20th century furniture designs that looked strikingly similar to those early futon products. Listening to Joe describing (my) patents and all the other clever devices on the market today I started to think back to the early products we sold. Those products turned the futon into a convertible sofa. As I did my research, I concluded that these designs had come from both the middle 1980s and, surprising to me, from the early 1940’s. Those devices were simple, intuitive, unpatented and guileless. Not to mention attractive.

In 1941 a young French designer, Charlotte Perriand, produced a product she called a folding chaise. The product was very similar to a variety of tri-fold “floor huggers” that were once very common in our futon industry.

Charlotte spent time in Japan and was very influenced by the harmony and simplicity of the Japanese home, including the traditional Japanese fu-tón.

Her “trifold” had a unique design appeal that isn’t shared by today’s more conventional looking futon.

Following WWII, well known American designer Russel Wright developed furniture for Sears. His designs looked very much like the early designs of our futon industry. His product had a flat, bentwood arm rest very reminiscent of early futon arms. Wright’s mission, described by Sears, was to develop a line of unupholstered furniture that returning G.I.s could afford for their first homes.

More intimately, when I was a child our family lived for a time in a small, one bedroom apartment in Rochester, Minnesota. My mother, heady from her experience in art school, turned an old army cot into a convertible couch by adding a foam bolster along its back. Covered with trendy, modern covers it was a couch for adults by day and my bed by night.
Danish modern design also has a long history of producing products that turned from sofas into beds simply by removing bolsters from the arms and backs. These products were probably an inspiration for my design oriented mom.

When I became involved with futons and their accompanying futon frames I was immediately impressed with Ron Massey’s T.H.I.S futon frame. The operation was simple. Two small pins were secured to the arm with leather thongs. When the frame was a couch the pins passed through holes in the arms and into a hole in the back rest. The bed was secured in position when the pins passed through the frame’s arm into a different hole in the back. At the time I thought it was a “stroke.” Today, I still do.

Also in my memory was the three piece ensemble called “The Ensemble” by Futons & Furniture in Napa, CA.

This very elegant product, designed by Peter Kloos, was made up of a bench (couch) and two end tables. When it was time for bed the end tables were moved from the side of the “bench” to the front. Amazing.

What all these products possessed, from Charlotte Perriand to Ron Massey and Peter Kloos, and many others, is true simplicity. The two key elements that make up product design, form and function, were pretty much all the same in these products. There was no guessing how they worked, it was part of the design.

For years designers like myself and others have preached that futon products should be visually indistinguishable from other furniture products on the market. Like other convertible sofa bed products the feeling seems to be that the more they blend in the more likely they will be accepted in a room full of regular furniture.

As far as it goes I think that is still true. On the other hand, Charlotte Perriand has come to me from the past and demonstrated the clear, uncluttered combination of utility and design that was so much a feature of these early products.

If you have any old photos of products 10 years old (or older) from the early days of the futon industry send them to me or Joe and we’ll try to set up an archive in FutonLife.com


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