The futon started out as a simple floor mattress that could be folded up and stored when not used — a longtime bedding style in Japan that became popular with college students in the United States in the 1970s.
But if you go shopping for a futon today, you will see far different and more diverse versions. One of the pioneers in that evolution has been Nikita Grigoriev, founder and designer of Nikita Indoor Outdoor Convertibles furniture company, which opened a new store on Broadway last fall.
Born in Chile, then moving to Toronto, Canada, as a young child, and relocating to Richfield Springs in 1984, Grigoriev played a key role in the 1980s in turning that basic floor mattress into something far more versatile — convertible furniture, in which a futon mattress was placed on a wooden frame that could be raised to make a sofa.
Grigoriev came up with his first futon design in 1982. Three years later, the U.S. Patent Office granted him the first patent for a futon convertible sofabed. It was the beginning of a new product category in the U.S. Patent Office, one that would become even more diverse in the following years, with Grigoriev continuing to play a role.
In the 1988, he redesigned the convertible sofabed by developing a new mechanism called the Smart Frame, based on a simple four-bar linkage, for which he received another patent. The Smart Frame made futons even more versatile, easier to use and did many things automatically. Those frames enabled users to create not just a bed or sofa but also a chair, love seat or recliner.
Grigoriev has continued to expand the futon’s possibilities. In 2003, he developed a new line of outdoor futon furniture, including self-adjusting convertible loungers and deck furnishings. The furniture automatically locks into any position the user wants by just leaning back. That is made possible by Grigoriev’s Sure Stop mechanism, which is now being reviewed by the U.S. Patent Office. If approved, the idea would be his third futon furniture patent. “Your own weight balances the structure. It’s very ergonomically designed,” explained Grigoriev, whom Futon Life Magazine once called one of the “Big Three” in the futon world.
The futon has come a long way, and in fact Grigoriev, 59, prefers not using that word today to describe his furniture. “We don’t use the ‘F’ word any more. It has come to mean low quality and expendable.”
He blames that poor image on a surge of interest in the futon in the 1990s that led to many cheap imports arriving in mainstream and big box stores.
“When we started, people didn’t know what a futon was. Then a tsunami of interest hit in the ’90s, and it was a race to the bottom,” he said of the pressure to make cheaper and cheaper futons. “It’s a false economy. I had a friend once say ‘We’re too poor to buy cheap things.’ ”
That’s why Grigoriev, who had formerly focused on the wholesale side to market his furniture, has shifted to retail sales the past five years. Besides a store in Oneonta, he and his wife, Joanne, opened a new location last September in downtown Saratoga Springs at 508 Broadway. They don’t sell their furniture in any other store.
“We liked the look and feel of Broadway. It has a spirit about it,” explained Grigoriev on why his company came to Saratoga Springs. “The high foot traffic gives us exposure almost on a par with parts of Manhattan.”
Walk into their new store and you will see how far the futon concept has come in the past three decades. Before you even start looking at the furniture, you’re apt to hear classical guitar music in the background. The music, for sale at the store and several Internet sites, was composed by Grigoriev, a classical musician who is accompanied by his wife — he on guitar, she on flute.
In the showroom, several examples of their furniture are on display. The company has two main product lines — the Freedom and the Scandia series. The Freedom sofabeds, loveseats, chairs and chaises are armless, while the Scandia versions come with arms. Also available are accessories such as ottomans, end tables and coffee tables, and a third line of furniture is in the works. The furniture can be designed for indoor or outdoor use, depending on the choice of materials for the frames, cushions and covers.
The customer makes the decision about the type of wood to be used for the frame, whether the item will have arms or no arms, the type of cushion, the fabric for the cover and the wood finish. Prices start at $438 for a full-size ash sofabed that includes mattress and cover. “Most of our products sell for under $1,000,” said Grigoriev.
All orders are custom-made at Grigoriev’s factory in Richfield Springs.
The hardwood frames are made from a choice of ash, white oak, cherry and mahogany. All but the mahogany come from forests in upstate New York. The wood is delivered by a central New York mill to the factory in various sizes of boards, from which the frames are crafted by Grigoriev’s three workers.
Some of the cushions also are made at the factory, while the mattresses and fabrics for the covers are supplied to Nikita Indoor Outdoor Convertibles by other U.S. companies. The covers, made of fabric material chosen by the customer from more than 500 swatches, are sewn onto the cushions at the Richfield Springs plant.
When the customer receives the furniture, it is nearly fully assembled except for four bolts and two pins, and can be installed at home by the company.
Grigoriev is particularly proud that very little waste is generated at the factory. “We’re totally green,” he says.
For every frame built there, each piece of lumber is carefully measured to maximize its yield. What little cut-off waste is left is then used for heating in high-efficiency stoves.
“Even the sawdust and shavings are provided to farmers for bedding for their animals,” said Grigoriev. After the farmers are done using the materials, they are composted and returned to the soil.
It is such efficiency and simplicity that has guided Grigoriev over the years. “The best and most elegant solution to any design problem is the simplest one,” says the former aeronautical engineer and airline pilot who once was an airplane designer for a Canadian firm. But he found working for a large company to be frustrating as his designs never advanced to the construction phase.
“I’ve always wanted deep inside to design,” said Grigoriev. That drive led him to make a major career change, shifting his focus to reinventing the futon and building his dream in Richfield Springs. (He still has a pilot’s license and flies his own aerial photography service.)
He says his furniture designs “offer versatility and simplicity that are very sophisticated and user friendly.” He adds: “It’s a system of function we offer. There are so many possibilities for one’s needs.”
He notes, for example, the various possible uses of three of his chairs. “You can take three chairs together to make a sofa. Or take two of the chairs to make a loveseat. Or you can use two chairs and convert the third into an ottoman.”
It’s that versatility and ease of use that attract many of the company’s customers.
Jim Real, who owns the Hague Motel on Lake George, recently bought a full-size sofabed he’ll be using next summer in the living room of a cabin he is renovating. “It will be in the living room so it can be used as a second bed,” said Real.
It is the first time he has bought an item from Nikita Indoor Outdoor Convertibles. “I had similar futons but they were hard to set up. This design made a lot more sense,” he said.
Another recent customer was an owner of a fitness center in New Jersey, and of course many are homeowners, using the furniture indoors or outside on their patios or pool decks.
“We have a lot of repeat customers,” says Grigoriev. Most purchases come from the East Coast, but the company does also generate sales elsewhere in the country, and even Europe, because of its online site www.justleanback.com. Additional customers come from craft shows and farmers’ markets, coordinated by Grigoriev’s wife, who also is in charge of administrative duties such as bookkeeping, fabric purchases and marketing.
The type of customer is varied, from young adults to retirees. “The ease of converting and moving our furniture, which has wheels, makes it attractive to retired people who may be moving into a smaller place,” said Grigoriev.
“A very important part of our market is also second homes and camps, and people who are renovating their kids’ rooms after they leave home,” added.
While Grigoriev would not reveal the company’s annual revenue, saying only it is less than $1 million, he did say sales are growing, even during this shaky economy. “We’re a mom and pop business,” noting the company has a total of just six employees.
That is a number, however, that could be growing in the future, because Grigoriev says: “We’d like to open more stores. There’s tremendous potential.” He hopes to open a store this year in the lower Hudson Valley near New York City and eventually on the West Coast.
More information about Nikita Indoor Outdoor Convertibles is available at its Saratoga Springs store, 508 Broadway (796-1887), or online at www.justleanback.com.