Having worked in furniture for many years I am always fascinated by the accomplishments of those who create innovation in new furniture products. The category that has most fascinated me over the years is in the way of futon frame designs. Studying early futon frame designs gives us an interesting visualization of how early futons have influenced the modern designs we see today in a category that was relatively unknown until the last decade. Futons as a furniture category have only existed for about the last 25 years. In that time however they have worked their way from being specialty store furniture into mass merchant and big box stores alike who offer varying brands and qualities of these frames. In this article I’ll provide you an overview of the early pioneers of the futon industry and their inventions and innovations for various futon designs from the beginning along with references to specific patents that helped move futons forward into being its own home furnishings category.
One of the earliest futon patents I was able to locate was for Nikita Grigoriev who filed for a futon patent in 1983 (Patent Number 4538308) for what he called “Convertible Furniture”. The drawings represent what we today would call a tri-fold frame which uses 3 flat sections that make up the seating and sleeping portions of the frame and work in conjunction with each other to go from sofa to bed. I found it interesting how he described the operation of a futon as a piece of furniture which is convertible from a bed to a sofa which utilizes the geometry of its component parts to facilitate conversion from one mode (sofa) to another mode (bed). I think this abstract statement by Mr. Grigoriev does very well in explaining the nature of futon furniture and how they function.
Another early futon design patent was filed in 1985 (Patent Number 4642823) assigned to Robert Fireman’s Furniture Gallery, Inc. invented by William B. Wiggins. What was interesting about this early take on futon design was the incorporation of arms on the sides of the futon which allowed the seat and back sections to integrate into the arms and allow for operation without having to rearrange the futon. This early design featured two pivoting swing pieces attached from the back rails into the back section. The seat and back sections were connected together using steel pins. What I found most interesting about this design is that it effectively converted the futon from sofa to bed from the front. Once in the bed position additional legs were extended down for support. Additionally a dowel and rod interlocked with the seat and back section to safely lock the two in a horizontal position. This design would be considered a bi-fold by today’s standards which means that 2 sections are used to create the seating and sleeping portions of the frame itself.
In 1990 Gary Shaffield & Robert Fireman filed a futon design patent utilizing a tension spring to facilitate movement from position to position. (Patent Number 4996730). This design was very similar in look to the 1985 patent involving Robert Fireman and many of the structural components and aesthetics of these two designs featured in both patents when compared were similar. The design of this frame however focused on the legs built into the seat section that when pulled out would engage and then when the frame was retracted featured a stop that helped prevent the legs from becoming entangled with the base. Incorporated into this design was a tension spring that helped with the operation of the frame. Many early futons would go through refinements in design and function and this is often how improvements in frames would be created and how they found their way into the products we would purchase. It should be noted that in my studies of futon patents many other patents in futon designs are held by Robert Fireman in both tri-fold and bi-fold designs. He is considered one of the early pioneers in futon design throughout the industry.
Another interesting futon patent that I came across was filed in 1991 by Randall L. Withers assigned to Maurice A. Warner, Jr. (Patent Number 5129114). This futon patent featured drawings which included an image depicting routed out grooves in the sides of the arms facilitating a sliding nylon roller that would move in the routed out channel in the arm. Much like other futon patents, designs were beginning to shift towards futons being built with side arms, two connecting rails and a seat and back section. However futon bi-fold designs such as these weren’t the only bi-fold designs out there.
In December 1991 Thomas L. Meade submitted a convertible furniture frame patent (Patent Number 5170519) that did not use arms in its design for assisting conversion of the futon but a hinges and stops arrangement. The seat and back sections incorporated pieces of lumber beneath them to act as supports. There were two of these used on each section that when laid down in a bed position would rest on these supports. The genius in this design was its ability to pivot on a set of nylon wheels located towards the lower back of the seat section supports. All one has to do was tilt the frame back on the wheels which would put the back rest on the floor and pull the seat section up to unlock it and lower it down into a bed position. This design was simple, functional and easy to operate without the need for arms on the ends of the frame to help in the futons conversion.
October of 1991 saw another group of inventors including Mark S. Barton, Kurt J. Bandach and Mark E. Schlichter introduce an interesting concept of a pivoting pawl as they referred to it. This was basically a specially designed block that would hang on the seat section that would engage against a step located on the back rest and using gravitational force influences the pawl to both hang unengaged when the futon is in an upright position and to engage when the seat is lifted and the pawl engages against the step to allow the frame to be operated while standing in front and returns the futon from a bed position back into a seating position. This patent was assigned to August Lotz Co., Inc. who implemented this design into their successful line of futon products. This marked an interesting approach to frame conversion as now the frame was facilitating the movement back into a sofa position by having pawls engage into steps designed into the back rest of the frame.
Continuing moving forward in futon designs a futon patent was filed in 1994 by Peter W. Dodge (Patent Number 5513398) for a futon that featured a tilt mechanism. This allowed a transfer from the bed position to the sofa position using guide slots or routed out grooves using rollers to move up and down the seat and back sections of the futon frame. This design would soon be emulated by many other manufacturers in that the arms had become the central focal point of the operation of the futon frame.
The patents and inventions featured in this article are truly just a sampling of the many designs and innovations by various futon inventors who had the vision to create and design furniture in an all new light. The futon industry itself has grown up quite a bit since its humble beginnings in the early 80’s and many futons you’ll see today are based on these early concepts and designs. I found it fascinating to study the evolution of the futon from a simple tri-fold design into the sofa looking frames of today. The innovations that came from these designs really helped to move forward this line of furniture that we know today. Next time you see a futon frame I hope you’ll think about these inventors and the legacy they’ve left on this furniture category.