By Douglas Glenn Clark

A photo of a lift in action at an upscale residence.

Like something out of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, the new 36 inch flat panel, HDTV with 1080p resolution silently rises from its hiding place from within a beautiful antique oak cabinet and swivels to the perfect viewing angle. In another home, an oil painting slowly eases aside, exposing the 42 inch HDTV built into the wall behind it.

The development of technology does not always doom an existing industry to obsolescense. In the case of the 50-year-old TV “lift” industry, the evolution of flat panel, high definition television sets has ignited resurgence in demand to “hide away” the television. Let’s face it: 30 inch, 40 inch, and 50-inch wide screens are large, unsightly black rectangles when not in use that can disturb a room’s well appointed decor.

“The television lift is one of the most exciting products today. If you’re designing a house upfront, and can build the television and lift into the wall, then a piece of art on the wall can move up and down – and it can even be a Van Gogh,” says Michael Laugesen, president and owner of Icon Group, a designer of control and theater systems for homes and businesses.

The lift industry’s good fortune can be tied directly to the design elements that make flat panel technology so appealing to the consumer. For many decades, lifts had to be built to accommodate 200+ pound, deep-box television sets. Today, with a typical 42 inch flat panel weighing approximately 80 pounds, the lifting is quite a bit easier. The flat panel profile, now down to 4-5 inches, means that building the television into walls, embedding the item into a piece of antique furniture, heirloom trunks and even ceilings is also more easily accomplished.

Laugesen’s Santa Cruz, California-based company serves many upscale clients. Certainly they can afford to build a home theater center and designate a room for that purpose only. Instead, they are more likely to request a panel television in nearly every room, but with one rule: all must be hidden – in walls, ceilings, floors and furniture.

The multi-purpose theme is especially advantageous to city dwellers. With limited square footage, a penthouse apartment can now accommodate many needs. “They can get more use out of their space. The more people are seeing it, the more they want it," Laugesen says.

Laugesen uses lifts manufactured by Auton Motorized Systems and adds the timing for the technology is perfect because high-end clients now want electronically integrated homes. “They press a button to get the TV to go up and down or appear out of a cabinet and they go ‘Wow. Cool.’ Now they want to press a button to get the whole house to liven up. Not just the lights, but sound and media and other things.”

Southern Swivel

In Alabama, an antique cabinet is now home to a hi-tech lift and flat-panel TV. The mating of old south and brave new world was a risky proposition, says Mike Thomas, sole proprietor of Thomas Audio Video, based in Hayden.

“We took a hundred-year-old piece of furniture and had it modified so it could incorporate a lift. You’re taking a huge liability to chop up somebody’s antique furniture. That was my biggest concern – chopping up furniture that’s priceless. But it went perfect. Modern technology fit into a 1908 piece of furniture. It was an amazing experience for us,” he says.

The flexibility and strength of a lift are important because whether in the home or office, the TV must not only come and go but also swivel on command. The lift in the antique cabinet installation is a prime example. “It literally comes up out of the middle of the furniture, it moves 40 inches, then you have the ability to swivel it left or right – all with the push of a button.”

Thomas has also installed equipment in boardrooms and the offices of corporate executives. The specs may differ, but the demands are always the same: TVs must be hidden but easily available for use. One such installation was for a businessman who works in the financial markets. When he wants to hear Bloomberg or CNBC reports, he reaches for the magic button.

Lift inventor Virgil Walker started in 1955. His first rack and pinion television lift soon followed and business grew rapidly as television sets became more affordable. The advent of the flat-panel televisions has given his company a new lift.

“When they make a change in electronics, it affects us in that we have to adjust. But that’s okay. We can do that. What really got us moving again was when the plasma TVs came out. They gave us a jump start,” he says.

For the old-style TV, he recalls, people bought big cabinets. Now that the industry uses transistors instead of tubes, the weight requirements have dropped dramatically, from an 800-pound gorilla to a svelte 75 pounds. As a result, Walker’s lifts can now make flat-panel TVs disappear into a ceiling, wall, floor or beloved piece of furniture. And the lifts can even tilt a TV as much as 95 degrees so that the viewer “doesn’t get a crick in his neck.”

“When we came out with the lift we did it to hide the TV set. That was our concept, hide the TV. We accomplished it, then the next major feature was to be able to turn or swivel it. We have a motorized swivel. That was a biggie. 3-D is going to be a biggie. It’s a couple years down the pike, but it’s coming.”

Installers like Thomas and Laugesen also see new opportunities on the horizon. “I think there will be a lot more applications that will be available. There are all kinds of possibilities. If you can imagine it, it can be done with a lift,” says Thomas.

Douglas Glenn Clark is a writer based in the Los Angeles area.

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