Slimmer sofas, chairs in demand

After a decade of catering to Americans' appetite for large living with giant-size sofas, chairs, ottomans and tables, furniture-makers are starting to think small.

U.S. home-furnishings companies for several years have seen growing demand for smaller-scaled furniture from aging Baby Boomers downsizing to condos and first-time home buyers settling into urban neighborhoods.

In three of its four new sofa collections, Younger Furniture is offering "apartment-size" sofas 10 inches shorter than full-sizers. Citing a trend to smaller homes, Rowe Fine Furniture says it expects its Mini Mod line, introduced in 2004, to account for a quarter of its collection this fall. Stanley Furniture recently brought out its American Perspective collection of slightly shrunken Windsor chairs, armoires and bookcases.

"They're finally getting it," says Jodi FitzGerald, owner of Door Store Furniture, an 11-store retail chain in metropolitan New York that specializes in small-scale furniture. She estimates the number of smaller offerings has grown by about a third over the past year.

As home sales started drying up last year, growth in furniture sales slowed precipitously. According to the Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis, personal consumption of furniture and bedding grew only 2.4 percent in 2007, far short of 5.8 percent growth in 2006 and 6.1 percent growth in 2005. Ed Tashjian, vice president of marketing for Century Furniture, a manufacturer known for grand styles, says the company has felt the effects of damped consumer confidence.

Last year, Century launched its scaled-down Metro Luxe line, aimed primarily at couples furnishing smaller urban homes. The 50 pieces are compact but no less luxurious -- and often no less expensive -- than Century's full-size offerings. "It isn't at all about a lower price point," Tashjian says. "It is about fine-quality... on a small scale."

The Metro Luxe table at 17.3 square feet seats eight, compared with its best-selling full-size table, which measures 25 square feet and seats 10. Both sell for prices starting at $10,000.

There are signs that the appetite for personal space may be abating, following years of voracious growth. Rowe launched its Mini Mod line because "consumers were asking retailers for smaller furniture, and not just in metro markets," says Stefanie Lucas, the company president. Jeffrey Mezger, chief executive of builder KB Home, says new-home buyers started asking about smaller floor plans soon after the collapse in subprime lending last year. Its average floor plan has since shed about 200 square feet. Still, he says, new houses today remain far bigger than a decade ago.

Yet room sizes themselves may be shrinking. The high-ceilinged "great room," standard in many new houses for years, appears to be losing some ground to smaller rooms devoted to specific activities. Many buyers now want media rooms, home offices -- even scrap-booking rooms in addition to a bigger all-purpose room says a spokesman for Bloomfield Hills, Mich., home-builder Pulte Homes.

Laurie Furber, merchandising manager for Williams-Sonoma's Pottery Barn catalog, says she first noticed a trend toward smaller rooms in 2004. Two years later Pottery Barn launched its "Small Spaces" selection, which includes compact desks and media cabinets. Sales have been "terrific," she says.