From the Beginning of Futon Time

In-Depth Primer~Beginning of Futon Time

Once again Futon Life has tapped into minds of the creative people who have made major contributions in the area of futon frame mechanics and design. Each one has played a part in helping

From the Beginning of Futon Time

History is what came to mind when Joe called me to write about futon mechanisms.
When I started in the futon business in 1980, we were the equivalent of the caveman discovering fire and the wheel. Most everybody takes today's mechanisms for granted. They are basically sliders or metal hinges. Just as today's kids (and adults) think television, computers, push-button phones and milk containers were always there. Not true
I thought reconstructing the early history of the futon industry from an anecdotal point of view might be interesting. Using the evolution of human history as a parallel I have broken up the futon time line into three periods: The first may be thought of as from primordial soup to the caveman, 1970-1978. The second is more like the beginning of civilization to the era of the industrial revolution, 1978-1990. Third is like the period from the industrial revolution to the present high-tech era of production and advances, 1990-1998.
Let's go back to the beginning of futon time, the early seventies, even before my time. What I am recounting may be more futon folklore than reality. In the beginning there were small isolated hippie naturalist stores selling all natural, all American futon mattresses. Other than sizes there were very few variations in style and your choice was limited by today's standard. The prices were high as were the profits.
The primary function of the futon was as a mattress on the floor hippie style (crash pads) or on a bed which was usually 6 - 12 inches off the ground with simple lines, and accompanied with a Japanese name (Qatari, Somu). If you wanted to use it as seating, which was not its main use, you would fold it in thirds and prop it against the wall.
When I entered the futon business, I couldn't believe how many people were interested in this product, and how much they would pay for this product. In those days, people were starting to move toward "natural is good, cotton is good, foam is bad". The trend was growing rapidly. The use of the futon was still limited to the way it was traditionally used in Japan.
I remember my first innovative design. It was nothing more than a plywood base one inch off the floor, with a metal tube bent in an inverted U and attached perpendicularly to the base. The futon was no longer dependent on a wall for support, it could be placed anywhere in the room. A major breakthrough I thought, who could expect more than this in advances?
So now we had two functions for futons that are very similar to the traditional use of the their original functions in Japan: basic seating and sleeping.
The year is 1979. Futons were sold primarily in the major avant-guarde cities, NYC, Boston, San Francisco, DC, Seattle. The competitive features ( if there was any competition) were the number of tufts in the futon, whether it was hand or machine made, the style in which the futon was sewn, and the weight of the fabric. That was the extent of the futon industry.
Remember the scene in 2001 where the ape realizes that he can make the wooden club a tool? I believe William Brouwer was our equivalent to that breakthrough in futon history. Brouwer designed the first futon frame, the A-frame. Though his factory was a small operation by todays standards, his was the first factory that wholesaled a reputable product to other retailers, thereby initiating the futon industry. Until that time, all manufacturing was done in-house, from cover to futon mattress to frame.
That frame won awards for design. It was a radical design in furniture. Again what's now familiar, old hat and almost obsolete was then revolutionary. I personally thought that the frame was an odd-looking piece of furniture. The cost with mattress and cover was at least $600 in 1980 dollars. I could not understand why anybody would buy that when they were able to buy a sleep sofa for the same price. Brouwer had a hard time supplying the entire country. He told me his factory's capacity was 200 hundred frames a month (by the way he was the country's only supplier) and that you had to place your order a month in advance in to be assured of being supplied. I estimate today's monthly unit sales exceed 30,000 frames, not including metal frames.
Around 1982 the first surge of specialty store openings occurred. My little futon secret was no longer, and my monopoly in this business vanished. There were two or three stores copying my ideas. I started to see more people shopping my competition. My Eternal Spring was becoming finite. The communal spirit crossed over to entrepreneurial drive. This chain reaction was reflected by increased demand in the marketplace. Demand outpaced supply, a phenomenon that lasted until 1988. Out of necessity in order to supply my store in NYC, I entered the manufacturing realm. I found a small factory in Tennessee that was adventurous enough to try producing this strange product. This factory became known as "From the Source". (Remember them? They are part of history now.) It was the first major producer of hardwood futon frames.
Again it is important to realize that no one was thinking in terms of sofa frames as we know them today. Our mind set, as odd as it may sound now, was of the mattress as a tri-fold.
Ron Massey literally turned that mind set around, and put us into another space. He designed a sofa frame that looked similar to the Wright brothers' first model plane. I remember seeing the frame and counting the number of screws it took to assemble the frame--118 to be exact. I really remember the number - this is not an exaggeration. Thanks to Ron we entered the Renaissance of futon history.
What was important about Ron's design was that we had a base to build and improve upon. For you newcomers the first bi-fold futon was a "Peg" frame. The back was supported by a peg going through the arms and into the sides of the back section.
Ingenious, I thought, and could not imagine any more progress toward improving that concept. From the beginning of futon time to this point was almost 15 years. More than half of the futon history.
However, after one year I kept thinking, there must be a way to improve this futon frame. So 15 years after the beginning of futon history, I introduced the now classical slider mechanism. It seemed to me that this idea was so revolutionary that everybody would stop their production and convert to this system. But in fact it took almost 5 years for the industry to convert to this system Too bad I wasn't smart enough to patent this idea. The people that held on to the peg system didn't want change because they thought "if it ain't broke don't fix it".
Who would ever have believed that there was any more room for improvement. Well there was, and From The Source created and patented the kicker so that the frame would be front opening.
From 1985 on the futon sales and manufacturing industry grew geometrically. For the first time production was outpacing demand. Many large foreign factories entered the market. Large discount centers started buying the product. The good news was that the futon became more mainstream. The bad news was that many of the specialty stores could not compete. I knew some that were sticking with selling only American goods. They either closed or compromised their ideals.
In the nineties the metal futon frame was introduced. This mechanism was again different from the traditional slider. The metal frame body and mechanism far outsells all the wooden futon frames today. With all the concerns about preserving the forests it is not unreasonable to guess that wood frames will become nearly obsolete in the future.
This brings me pretty much to date. So if any of you old timers are still around, I hope I have revived some memories of the good old days when the futon convention needed no more than a half a dozen meeting rooms to exhibit the designs of all the manufacturers and contain the traffic of one or two hundred buyers who would come to share the travails of the year, as well as meet the new entries in the market.
And to you new entries in the futon time-line, you are at the beginning of your history. I can't imagine that an even better frame and mechanism can be designed than what now exists. Yet if stars are continually born into our universe, then why can't a new idea be born into the ever expanding futon universe?




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