Ten years ago, nobody had ever heard of an entertainment center. But along with the home electronics boom in this country has come a related boom in ``electronic furniture.'' This generic title covers all those single pieces or modular assemblages that are fully equipped to easily accommodate the TV, VCR, audio equipment, and all the accouterments of the electronic media age.
Today, entertainment centers come in every style, wood, and price range, from less expensive self-assembly versions to magnificent Country French armoires, early American highboys, Art Deco designs in high-sheen lacquer, sleek contemporary, and Scandinavian modern. Many of them are handsome enough to be a strong decorating focal point in the living room, family room, or den in which they are placed.
They represent a trend in home furnishings that is rapidly expanding and is expected to stretch into the 21st century as technology advances and new electronic products become available. Bassett Furniture is already planning ahead so that its designs can accommodate the addition of the laser disc, says company spokesman J.D. Collins.
``Today there can't be too much permanence to any arrangement of space in a piece,'' says Bill Faber, design director for Henredon Furniture, ``because with technology leaping over itself, new features constantly tempt consumers to trade-in or upgrade their existing equipment.''
He says entertainment centers have burgeoned because today's customer is spending more of his disposable income on state-of-the-art stereo and audio equipment that needs to be stored for maximum utility, accessibility, and good looks.
Henredon units include electrical outlets, cable TV hook up, lighted interiors, pull-out swivel shelf for TV, pull-out shelf for turntable or VCR, removable back panel for extension and ventilation of TV, storage space for tapes and records, and pocket or fold-back doors.
Richard Udouj, president of Riverside Furniture, contends that many customers today are looking for entertainment centers that take up the least space and accommodate the most functions.
``Many small homes don't have a big expanse of wall that would accommodate a large and elaborate entertainment center,'' he says.
He thinks that free-standing pieces have an advantage over built-ins in that they can be set up anywhere in the house and can be easily transported if the family moves.
Back in the late 1970s, American of Martinsville recognized the mushrooming interest in electronic gadgetry for home entertainment. They introduced fine furniture pieces called ``The Entertainers'' in which to house the elements but conceal the multitude of wires, cables, and speakers. Elegance was expressed with fine detailing and in such fine hardwoods as pecan, oak, cherry, maple, olive ash, and burl. The ``ugly stepchild'' image of make-do furniture for electronic devices was forever banished.
Since then, American of Martinsville has introduced new Entertainers each year, including vertical versions for small apartments and limited wall spaces. Every leading manufacturer, including Baker, Drexel, Thomasville, Pennsylvania House, and Hekman, now offers entertainment centers in a variety of styles.
Plenty of affordable units and modular components are also available from such companies as Van Pelt, O'Sullivan, and Bush Industries Inc. Bush has introduced a ready-to-assemble dual-purpose entertainment center, which also serves as a room divider, priced to retail at around $250.
Jim Roberts of Hooker Furniture claims it was the advent of the VCR that first prompted much interest in the entertainment center as a separate and practical piece of furniture.
``We find that people are looking for a cabinet that will house from 75 to 80 percent of their electronic equipment,'' he comments, ``so we offer them models that retail from $299 to $2,499. And we try to design models that will enable people to show off and display their expensive equipment, and those who want to keep it behind closed doors. Our most popular retail price is $899.''