Living the Dream

The La-Z-Boy in America

Joe Namath in an ad for the La-Z-Boy La-Z-Lounger, 1972

In an ad from 1972, football hunk Joe Namath asks “Why don’t you get into something comfortable?” The NFL quarterback became the official spokesperson for the La-Z-Boy company in the 1970s and starred in a series of highly successful print and television ads featuring cringe-worthy taglines and big collars. The ads still resonate today, and almost 100 years after its inception, the La-Z-Boy recliner remains as ubiquitous with American life as football itself.

In 1927, cousins Edward Knabusch and Edwin Shoemaker set out to design a chair that was “nature’s way of relaxing”. Their prototype was constructed using orange crates and featured a wood-slat design with a reclining mechanism. Initially an outdoor chair, the cousins took comfort a step further by covering it in padded upholstery, and thus the La-Z-Boy was born.

Twenty years later, the nation was emerging from a world war and a new ethos took over. The American Dream promised prosperity and success with a little hard work and grit. The suburbs boomed, families looked nuclear and Cadillacs rolled down tree-lined streets. The ad men on Madison Avenue saw dollar signs and companies began to market products that embodied this ideal. No home was complete without a Ford in the driveway and a La-Z-Boy in the living room. After all, what was more American than enjoying a little deserved relaxation after a hard-day’s work?

Edward Knabusch and Edwin Shoemaker with their early prototype recliner.

Marketed almost exclusively to men, the La-Z-Boy represented a primarily male definition of leisure. Conjuring up images of children fetching slippers and a pipe for their papa, the lounge chair was a hyper-masculine symbol of power and success. A throne for the man of the house, a reprieve from the hard work that secured a comfortable life, an earned break where he might close his eyes and drift off to sleep.

In the decades following, the glossy façade of Postwar America began to crumble. Social justice movements, economic upheaval and global crises exposed the American Dream for what it was, a myth. Americans were faced with new realities, new challenges, and nobody had the luxury or time to kick-up their feet. The La-Z-Boy became associated with actual laziness, a symbol of the idle loafing responsible for the demise of American values, a lazy ass. Faced with an identity crisis, the company revamped its image, offering a full line of furniture with sleeker silhouettes and more diverse spokespeople.

Today, the classic recliner still makes up for the majority of La-Z-Boy’s sales and the company is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of furniture overall. Nearly 100 years after its creation, the long abused lounge chair still finds its way into living rooms everywhere, offering a cushy spot to unwind. No, it’s not chic like a Barcelona chair or sculptural like one of Rietveld’s, but it is a hell of a lot more comfortable. What’s wrong with that?