To some, they're something of a status symbol that shows cultural enlightenment and being in tune with a New Age philosophical attitude of peace and harmony with nature.
To others, they're a trendy, colorful, versatile piece of furniture that's perfect for a student apartment, a home office or a TV room.
And to others, they're just a comfortable way to get a good night's sleep.
For whatever the reason, futon sales seem to be taking off locally as the convertible furniture gains acceptance as an alternative to the traditional bed and couch, according to owners of two local businesses that specialize in the Oriental mattresses.
Bob Buchanan, owner of New Wave Futons, 716 Mass., and Galen Tarman, owner of Blue Heron Ltd., 937 Mass., both say sales have risen steadily over the past two to three years.
THE TWO downtown businesses take different approaches to the futon market.
New Wave, which has been open since 1988, is primarily a retailer of futons and accessory furniture manufacturered across the country.
Blue Heron, which began as a home-based business in 1982, makes all the futons it sells and aims at the high end of the market.
During separate interviews this week the owners of the two businesses each said they thought futon sales would continue to increase in the 1990s.
New Wave's Buchanan says that different people have different ideas about the uses for futons, which are flexible mattresses filled with cotton and foam.
"A GOOD percentage of our business is college students and they want to get the most versatile piece of furniture they can for the least amount of money," Buchanan said. "Futon fits that need very well."
He said futons have a long history.
"Futons have been around nearly as long as waterbeds. And waterbeds go back to the Babylonian times. As I understand it . . . futons have been the bed of choice for people in the Orient for thousands of years," Buchanan said.
"I have heard stories that futons used to be filled with rice husks in the Orient," he said. "Feather beds are copies of futons."
The essence of the futon is a mattress, Buchanan said.
American and European design and technology has taken it beyond the use as bedding, he said.
"WITH THE help of frames and other ways of holding the mattress, you can shape it and fold it into chairs and couches and platform beds," he said. "I like to think of a futon as being an oriental-style hide-a-bed."
The price is attractive to some buyers interested in a piece of furniture that serves several purposes, Buchanan said.
For under $200, customers can buy a futon mattress and a wooden frame that can fold from a platform bed into a recliner and into a chair or a couch, he said.
Buchanan, who also owns Waterbed Works, 710 W. Sixth, said he began selling futons at his waterbed store in July 1983.
"We strictly advertised at that time for the student population," he said. "Waterbeds are hard to take down, waterbeds are hard to move. Sometimes people don't like the inconvenience of that. The futon was the perfect answer."
THE SALES were fairly steady for about five years, he said.
"And then, all of a sudden, in August of '88, we saw a gigantic increase in futon sales," he said. "It was such an enormous increase that we decided to further research more futon information and what frames may be available for them, because there seemed to be a market there that we may be overlooking."
Buchanan and his wife, Julie, opened up New Wave Futons in September 1988 in a 700-square-foot retail space at 11 E. Eighth.
"We tried the store down on Eighth Street for about six months, saw that it was doing nothing but good things and went full steam ahead onto our present location on Massachusetts Street," he said.
New Wave moved into that location, which has 2,500 square feet of retail space, in April 1989. The store is managed by Buchanan's wife and Amy Albertson.
Buchanan declined to give sales totals, but he said that in August of 1983, they sold 16 futons. By August 1989 unit sales had risen above 200.
Sales are highest in August and January, when Kansas University students return to campus, he said. However, about half of the customers are people with families who are looking for furniture for children's rooms, playrooms, sewing rooms and TV rooms, he said.
LIKE NEW Wave, Blue Heron also has seen a futon sales boom over the last few years, says Tarman.
Tarman and his wife, Susie, got their start as a home-based manufacturing-retailing business in 1982.
"Some friends were doing it out of their homes. They were moving to Boulder so we asked them to teach us," he said. "At that time nobody was making them around here." he said.
His friends had learned the craft at a workshop in Missouri taught by a Japanese woman from Boston.
"We were a little business for four years," Tarman said. "We worked out of a room in our house with the purpose in mind of raising our daughter and not being strangers to her when she was young. And we had other odd jobs that we were doing to sort of make ends meet."
THE BUSINESS "puttered along" for a while and but became large enough that they moved the operation out of their home, Tarman said. The business first operated out of a location on Ninth Street for about three months.
Then Blue Heron moved its manufacturing operations to different locations in North Lawrence for a few years. In the spring of 1986, Blue Heron opened a retail store at 8 E. Seventh. In 1987, the store moved to its current location in the 900 block of Massachusetts.
Sales doubled when the store moved to its Seventh Street location and doubled again when the store moved its current location, Tarman said.
"By the end of the first year, we had a 35 percent growth," he said.
LAST YEAR Tarman said his retail business leveled off somewhat so he began also operating as a wholesaler, selling to other retail outlets.
"It seemed like the economy was down and it seemed like there was a lot more competition," he said.
Tarman said he has targeted his sales to the high end of the futon market to serve customers who want high quality and service. He said he also intends to branch out into more traditional furniture and accessories.
"Our big push right now is to try to accessorize," he said. "By that I mean, rugs and lamps and fixtures and more of a complete look."
Dehbi Shannon, Blue Heron's manager, said many parents who visited their sons and daughters at KU and slept on futons became interested in getting their own.
Tarman said part of the appeal of futons is their convertability and their practicality.
"We're trying to show people they don't need to have an inner spring mattress to have a good night's sleep," he said.