Evolution of the Futon Mechanism
Because of the volume of historical information on this important topic it will have to be presented in two parts. Part one (following) is our historical look at the engineering developments that occurred in the early 80's through about 1987. Part two (to be printed in the Winter issue), will focus on developments from 1988 to the present. Some very interesting details about the history of the first successful bi-fold (Ron Massey's T.H.I.S. frame, produced by National Woodcraft of Montreal) can be found on our web site (www.futonlife.com) in the archive of the Spring 1996 issue (V8 N1) which featured Massey.
Since this is a story about mechanisms and not the personalities who created them, we will be using illustrations from certain patents as well as some of our own drawings. These later drawings may not be mechanically accurate in their dimensions or design, but should be accurate enough for our purposes.
The Brouwer Bed 1982-83
The Brouwer Bed utilized a simple ladder hinge as its main futon frame converting tool (See Figure1).
This simple locking hinge could only operate in one direction and therefore acted as a stop when converted to the bed position. Built in legs, attached to the outer slat racks, helped stabilize the futon frame in the bed position.
Brouwer achieved his conversion by cutting a groove into the end of the slat rack end caps and used the ladder hinge as his pivot point.
These early futon frames spared no expense and used heavy 5/4 and 6/4 oak, maple and cherry to sustain the forces exerted by the sixty to eighty pound futon mattress during the conversion process. To keep the slat racks attached to the base, Brouwer used a wooden slide with a brass pin. The pin fit into a hole in the center slat rack end cap and the wooden slide fit into a routed groove in the base. (See Figure 2). This sliding block and pin, in one form or another, became a standard part of many future mechanisms. An interesting historical note is that William Brouwer once built weaving looms and used his experience as a loom maker in the design of his convertible futon frames.
When the futon frame was assembled, slat rack end caps and frame base were flush (See Figure 3).
The Brouwer Bed was the first design to find its way into South American factories where low priced knockoffs were manufactured. The Brouwer futon bed, though not technologically perfect, was none-the-less awarded the 1983 Daphne Award for the best new design at the High Point Furniture Market.
One of the drawbacks of this early design involved an issue that puzzled many of the pioneer designers. During the conversion process the base of the futon frame had to move. If the frame sat in the middle of the room it wasn't as bad as when it sat against a wall. Another drawback involved having to get behind, or at least near, the back of the futon frame to convert it from a bed into a sofa.
1985 - The Apart or T.H.I.S. Frame
This early frame design breakthrough came at the request of a Canadian futon retailer to designer / manufacturer Ron Massey. Massey had been making RTA furniture for ten or twelve years. He had been making futon furniture for about two. His first design was a simple lounger with a thirty-nine inch (twin futon mattress) width. He had fashioned three slat racks that connected at the ends of the middle rack. The Lounger utilized a sisal rope with a wooden block attached at its end. The block fit in between the slats and, with a twist of the block, locked the rope to a specific length, thereby locking the frame into several lounge positions (See Figure 4). Massey then decided to use a variation of this design in a much wider, seventy-five inch futon frame. He fashioned a 3/4 inch peg and attached it to a rawhide lanyard. The peg would be the locking device. His frame's arms would attach with stretchers, forming the seventy-five inch base
The slat racks forming the back rest and the seat were attached with a simple bolt or cotter pin at the hinge point. The peg locked the back rest in a vertical position through a hole at the top of each arm. The vertical back rest's end cap was long enough to touch the floor, thereby making the frame very stable. When each peg was removed the backrest would drop to a horizontal attitude and the seat would also lay flat from its pitched attitude. When both the back rest and seat were horizontal, the pins could be pushed into a second hole at the bottom of the arm, locking the slat racks into the sleeping position.
Neither the Brouwer Bed or the T.H.I.S. were technological marvels, but they were the first futon frames of their kind to be manufactured at high enough volumes to provide the fuel for the initial growth of a young futon furniture industry.
1985 - The Fireman Factor
On January 8, 1985 Bob Fireman applied for a patent for a new futon frame which was the basis for several later designs. He was eventually assigned the patent in 1987. This new mechanism allowed the futon frame to convert from seating to sleeping without having to move it away from the wall. Hence the term "wall-hugger". This mechanism utilized a sliding block and pin similar in design to the earlier Brouwer Bed but on a full seventy-five inch wide sofa-bed. It also employed a braced pivot point that attached to the rear base stretcher. The frame converted in the following manner. By lifting up on the front of the seat (while in the sitting position) one would disengage a simple locking device and the seat could be pulled out, towards the person converting the frame. The backrest would begin to drop but would not extend backward, as the futon frame design allowed the seat and backrest to move towards the front of the frame at the same time. A leg, attached to the underside of the seat, dropped down to support the front of the seat, which now extended almost eighteen inches beyond the front of the base frame. The backrest and remainder of the seat were supported by the base frame (See Figure 5). This inaugural Firemans futon frame, called the Vida, was the first of a long line of futon frames developed while Bob was with From The Source. It was also the first wall-hugger.
Fireman was never fully satisfied with the Vida. He always felt the mechanism could be improved. After many weeks of trial and error in a Tennessee wood shop he finally discovered a solution. Using two pencils tied together with a piece of string Fireman imitated the movement of two wheels which he envisioned would travel in two grooves. One would move vertically in a groove cut into the leg portion of the arm assembly while the other moved horizontally in the arm's cross member. The design of the moving parts had to achieve three distinct and separate goals, all at the same time. First, all the parts had to move simultaneously. Second they had to move smoothly from close to open and back again. And thirdly they had to lock securely in both the sitting and sleeping positions. Fireman left Tennessee for home not knowing whether or not the idea would work. By the time he arrived in New York the jury was in. His partners in Tennessee called to confirm that it worked, and the SI mechanism was born (See Figure 6).
1988 - Who's on First?
Two companies claim the origination of the famous kicker apparatus. Patent applications for two very different overall mechanisms were placed with the US Patent office in the early months of 1988. On March 18, 1988 a patent was applied for by Gilles Tremblay of Futonair in Canada and on April 8, 1988 Bob Fireman and Gary Shaffield applied for their futon design. Both designs were issued patents the following year. Fireman et al. received a patent on May 16, 1989 and Tremblay received one on October 24, 1989. Each futon frame employed two small wooden blocks that greatly aided the conversion process. The "kicker," as it would be called, used the force of gravity to do its work. The kickers were attached to the end caps of the seat slat rack (See Figures 6&7;). As a person began to convert this futon frame from the horizontal sleeping position they would simply lift the seat rack to an almost ninety degree angle. As this angle was achieved the kickers would wedge themselves between their stationary pivoting points and the end caps of the back rest. When locking occurred the person converting the futon frame could now easily push back the entire assembly into the sitting position from the front of the frame.
Several other interesting facts about the differences in two frames are evident in their design. The new Futonair mechanism was a wall hugger and the SI mechanism was not. The Tremblay design, originally a Canadian patent application of March 1987, worked solely on a horizontal track like the one used in the Brouwer bed design. This tactic allowed the frame to be a wall hugger. The SI mechanism worked on both the horizontal and vertical planes giving it a very stable feeling. Both of these futon designs are still on the market, the SI or "slider" mechanism has been used extensively by many manufacturers and is probably the single most popular futon frame mechanism to date.