What is a Futon?
A futon is a convertible sofa sleeper, a piece of dual-purpose furniture that can be used for both sitting and sleeping. The Japanese have long used a sleeping mat called a “shikibuton.” In the late 1960s, the idea of a similar cotton floor mattress caught on in the United States and was called a “futon.” The product evolved throughout the 70s. It moved off the floor and onto a wooden frame, although the word “futon” still meant only the mattress. Futon mattress options expanded beyond cotton to include wool, foam, and polyester as well.
During the 80s and 90s, the futon industry boomed. Many new companies with clever designs and innovations revolutionized the futon world.
Now the industry has matured as a well-developed furniture category offering many options and styles. “Futon” has come to mean the whole three-component structure of frame, mattress, and fabric (upholstery) futon cover.
Benefits of a Futon
Why choose a futon over a traditional sofa sleeper? Many reasons!
Futons offer many different style options. You can get a wooden futon frame, a metal frame, or a fully upholstered futon.
Futons are highly customizable. Because you’re not just buying an all-in-one piece of furniture, you can customize your purchase to your preferences. Pick this frame to match your home décor style, that mattress for the comfort level you like, and this cover to tie it all together…the combinations are endless. Futon covers are easy to change, so rather than having to reupholster a sofa, you can change the look of the piece for minimal price and effort.
Futons are lighter and less bulky than traditional sofa sleepers, and the mechanisms that convert them from sitting to sleeping are much easier to use.
With futons, you get a much more comfortable sleeping surface. Rather than a sofa sleeper’s thin four-inch mattress through which you feel every metal bar of the frame, a futon offers a plush, six-inch or thicker, restful place to sleep.
When you buy a futon, it’s not like purchasing a one-piece sleeper sofa. You get to choose individually a futon mattress, a frame, and a futon cover. Keep that in mind as you’re shopping. Bring a calculator with you so you can add up the price of different configurations.
Read the rest of the primer for details about each of the three components. The last section will give you ideas of what to look for when picking out the perfect futon for your needs.
The Futon Mattress Part of the Equation
History and “What it is.”
In its most basic form, the futon mattress is a simple cotton mat that is flexible and therefore easily folded. The word (futon) is the English spelling of the Japanese word which describes their bedding system. This system includes the “shikibuton” (floor cushion) on which a person sleeps and the “kakebuton” (duvet/comforter) which covers the sleeping person. The floor mat (shikibuton) is the part of the system which has been transformed into the American futon mattress/sofa-bed concept. In Japan and other Asian countries, the futon is placed on tatami, a two inch thick woven reed base.
In the early years of the American futon industry (1968 to 1974) most futon mattresses were handmade by cottage industry entrepreneurs. Today the handmade variety are still available but most futon mattresses are made in manufacturing facilities that are able to produce hundreds and even thousands of units per day. Also, many traditional innerspring mattress manufacturers have begun to make futons, and their products are excellent.
The early futon maker was usually a student of Japanese or Asian culture and sought to introduce the futon to friends and associates for its comfort and space saving utility. Many of these futon makers soon realized they could start a profitable business by opening shop in a store front or even in their homes.
Futons and the law
As the futon industry grew in unit volume many of these budding entrepreneurs moved from their garages into real manufacturing spaces. With this growth came the regulators. Each state has a “contents” tag law, hence the “Law Tag”. These laws require a manufacturer to list all the internal and external components from which their product is made. Compliance to the federal FR standard (16 CFR Part 1632) for mattresses is also mandatory. In a nutshell, the FR standard for mattresses requires that mattress makers do prototype testing for each style of mattress they make. The test calls for the manufacturer to place lit “Pall Mall” cigarettes all over the mattress and allow them to burn out. Measuring the char marks left by the cigarettes tells the manufacturer whether or not their product passed the test. Testing must be thorough, and documentation, including photos, must be kept on file should a plant inspection or a failure in the field occur.
The Futon Frame Part of the Equation
The second segment of the industry to develop was the convertible futon frame. We will go into greater detail in the next issue but suffice it to say, the convertible futon frame has made the industry what it is today, in both some positive and negative ways. The development and growth of the frame market is the heart of futon history and with emphasis may I repeat that it has had both a positive and negative effect on this industry. Early on, simple frames that looked like shipping pallets worked well for college students. Unfortunately, this type of product has created a lasting negative impression of the industry which has been difficult to shake. It should also be noted that decisions to traffic in this level of product have put several major players out of business.
As the industry matured, manufacturers developed many beautiful hardwood frame designs which have helped to offer retailers products at much higher price points. These products are helping the futon industry make major inroads towards the traditional home furnishings market and also towards true legitimacy as a product category. In part two of this primer we will discuss the history of futon frames, where we are today, and how quality and value, and consumer demand are finally beginning to replace price as the common denominator of success.
The Futon Cover Part of the Equation
Futon mattress covers were a natural add on item for many early players. Today the futon cover business is booming. There are many cut and sew operations that had their genesis in these early days. Companies like Burlington Futon, Cotton Works, Life Style Covers, Omni Softgoods, SIS and Easy Fif Covers grew from home based, small operations into genuine manufacturers almost overnight.
The futon covers most people see today are made from some of the finest upholstery fabrics produced in the home furnishings industry here and abroad.
Futon covers allow the consumer the unique opportunity to change their room decor in a matter of minutes by changing the futon cover. The futon cover is also a great way to get your customers back into the store for repeat business. Price points, at retail, run from $29, for a low end unit, to $250-$300 for the best available covers. Currently the most popular retail price point is between $99 and $139.
Futon furniture (as we like to call it) is broadening its base at retail like never before. In fact we can report that due to the efforts of this publication, the Futon Association's Futon Expo and consumer PR program (which has garnered over 500 million hits in five years) and a more visible presence by manufacturers and suppliers at the High Point, Tupelo, Dallas, Atlanta, San Francisco and many regional markets, just about everyone in the home furnishings industry has at least a basic knowledge of the category. On the other hand, ignorance regarding market direction and presuppositions about product details abound. It is a fact (not one that I am happy to report) that many people in the trade look at futon furniture as a poor, second cousin. For these pundits futon furniture spends most of its time in the "promotional" corner of any retailer's space, at least for those who are not in the specialty business. In reality, as we have reported and documented with several surveys, any retailer who makes a reasonable commitment to the futon furniture category is typically very successful regardless of whether they are a specialist or a more full line traditional furniture outlet. Here are some other facts: Most retailers who have been selling futon furniture are up to speed with the latest trends and designs. As reported in a recent Futon Life survey, futon specialists are selling more $100 retail futon covers than any other price point with heavy upholstery and jacquards the fabrics of choice. Many retailers entering the market for the first time are now moving in the same direction. Futon furniture specialists are covering their fully accessorized floors with as many as twenty different frames. In the past year-and-a-half traditional retailers seem to be catching on to the fact that this approach works. While some new retailers are carrying only two or three frame units, others are making the move to a more comprehensive program that is working. Obviously the futon specialists are believers and some of the new retailers are not. It is therefore clear that some traditional dealers have failed in the past not because they couldn't get goods but because they were not committed. Some even believed that they needed to carry the product merely to fend-off consumer requests. Their salesmen would sell-up, using the futon as a prop to demonstrate poor quality or a less than comfortable seating surface. Bottom line: At this stage of the game futon furniture is a known category, but it is a category that is still misunderstood by a large segment of the trade. We have printed the primer since 1991, and have attempted to educate dealers with historical background as well as current information, with the express goal of helping them develop a clear understanding of the products and their selling channels. If you have read the primer in the past, and want to skip the historical section you may want to go forward to the Introduction.