Handmade home decor need not look homemade

October 07, 1990|By Elaine Markoutsas | Elaine Markoutsas,Universal Press Syndicate

A desire for quality and individuality has stimulated the quest for one-of-a-kind, handmade furnishings, accessories and finishes. Hands-on decorating is taken literally. The number of at-home handcrafters is growing -- even among those who never gave a thought to picking up a paintbrush, hammer or needle and thread, or to drying flowers for Christmas wreaths or melting wax and dipping candles.

"Marbleizing" woodwork, stenciling designs on floors and sponge-painting walls are among the sophisticated techniques once limited to professionals or serious amateurs that have emerged as some of today's most popular do-it-yourself projects. Needlework -- particularly needlepoint and cross-stitching -- is enjoying new audiences. Home sewing is attracting enthusiasts looking for alternatives to mass-produced window treatments, slipcovers and pillows.

"No matter where you live, many things have become so homogenized," says Jean Norman, editor of Do-It-Yourself Ideas, Better Homes & Gardens publication. Many consumers, she suggests, have grown weary of the same stores hawking the same merchandise, whether it's chairs, beds, bath towels, baskets, flowerpots or picture frames.

"People don't want their homes to look like everyone else's," saiNorman. "They want more individuality. So they end up doing it themselves, experimenting a little."

Remodeling also has contributed to the home-crafts craze. Increasing numbers of homeowners are staying put rather than moving up, so they're ripe for ways to revitalize and personalize their living spaces.

"There's a real interest in anything that enhances the home in some way," said Theresa Capuana, crafts and needlework editor for Woman's Day, "both because of the economics and the satisfaction of making something beautiful."

But this crafts revival is different from its predecessor in the '60s, which was largely driven by the flower child generation. Remember macrame? Cheaply made or badly designed crafts, the terribly tacky, took the whole movement south. Until about five years ago the very mention of something made with loving hands might have conjured up images of crocheted toilet-seat covers, crazy-quilt tea cozies or miniature Christmas trees composed of seashells hot-glued together. Even things that weren't offensive may have suffered from the "too sweet" or "too cute" syndrome. Or they were just so lacking in uniqueness they may as well have been factory made.

The dictionary definition of craft is "skill or ability in something, especially in handwork or the arts." But there are obvious variations not only in the fineness of the work itself, but in the time required.

In today's crafts the common denominator is style. This reflects a more savvy consumer who insists on quality design: affordable decorator looks that even Ivana Trump could live with. "The distinction has become one of handmade rather than homemade," said Ms. Norman.

There always will be good and bad craft, as there is good and bad design, but made-by-hand has been lifted to a more admirable status. Professionals, whose work is represented by art galleries, museums and specialty shops, have inspired a new wave of collecting. In addition, celebrities who admit to doing some crafts have given them a panache.

A year ago August, a needlepoint rug that first lady Barbara Bush spent eight years making was featured in Good Housekeeping. Besides the first lady, Cheryl Tiegs, Joanne Woodward, Goldie Hawn, Loretta Swit, Betty White and even Vanna White are known to needlepoint.

Even superstar interior designers and product designers, such as Mario Buatta, have entered the crafts business. The Prince of Chintz has designed a line of needlepoint accessories, pieces that would fit into any room.

Classes are springing up all over the country. One New York workshop offers glassmaking, casting, neon and painting on glass. Another in Chicago teaches trompe l'oeil and fancy finishes. Craft centers nationwide list courses in pottery, metalwork, spinning and dyeing, weaving, batiking, printing and painting on fabrics, working with dried flowers, and making baskets and stained glass, among other esoteric techniques.

If you haven't browsed through the do-it-yourself or home-improvement shelves in hardware centers and bookstores lately, you may be surprised to find a formidable selection of titles covering everything from constructing bookshelves (and not the stack-a-brick or glass-block variety) or sun decks to learning lace craft or decorating with paint or fabrics.

Many crafts editors for women's and home-furnishings magazines have noted a shifting focus among their readers to projects with style and projects that are not too time-consuming.

"More and more people are working," said Ms. Capuana of Woman's Day. "There is less time, so more interest in doing things faster. Manufacturers have responded by creating materials that provide shortcuts. You can tie-dye in a microwave and hand-paint with a spray. There are precut stencils and wood shapes and unpainted wooden accessories that may be finished in a variety of ways."

"Crafts are really becoming very high tech," said Louise Tucker, a spokesman for Plaid Enterprises Inc., which manufactures craft kits and publishes how-to books.

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