Furniture manufacturers and retailers hope that designer names will draw people into stores and motivate sales.

The industry as a whole has not kept up with the booming economy of the past few years. Statistics indicate furniture sales slumped in the early '90s, then rebounded slightly in mid-decade.Final 1997 sales figures are expected to show an increase of about 7.5 percent over '96, to an industry total of some $53.3 billion, said Jay McIntosh, business editor of Furniture Today, but forecasts call for growth of around 3 percent in 1998.

Higher-end furniture manufacturers have done better recently than moderate furniture makers, he says.

For many consumers, new furniture is a luxury. "And while the economy in general has been very strong the past few years, that hasn't necessarily filtered down to all levels," says Jon Kyle Cartwright, a vice president and national furniture retail analyst for Raymond James and Associates in St. Petersburg, Fla. "The consumers at the top have done well, but the majority have been doing the same or worse.

"That explains why Levitz Furniture went into bankruptcy and the nation's largest publicly held furniture retailer, Heilig-Meyers, is having trouble."

Because the slightest economic twitch can result in reduced furniture sales, Cartwright says, manufacturers are trying "anything."

"Furniture manufacturers are trying to come up with a way to boost sales," he says, and many are banking on designer names as the way to go.

"But, ultimately, it's the economy that most influences sales, not the design."