Furniture makers fashion new definitions of American style

November 03, 1991|By Beverly Hall Lawrence | Beverly Hall Lawrence,Newsday

High Point, N.C. -- Americans, some furniture makers believe, are sick of imitating the lifestyles of long-dead Europeans and are growing bored with the expensive, ball-and-claw furnishings cranked out for generations here in the center of the country's furniture industry.

In the past, manufacturers tended to follow a safe, herd mentality, resting on long-held notions that Americans crave furniture with the historical integrity and romance of French or English aristocrats.

While there was much in this same old vein, simply rehashed and reupholstered, at the spring market last week, the most newsworthy collections explored what it means to be American. The goal, it seems, is to define American style.

Forward-looking manufacturers are seeking to cut the umbilical cords of traditional European design, looking instead into America's own past for inspiration. They've discovered a treasure trove: from patterns of pre-Columbian indigenous cultures to imagery of cowboys of the frontier, from the handcrafted traditions of the arts and crafts movement of the 1800s through the deco-ish '30s to the architecturally inspired furniture of America's beloved Frank Lloyd Wright.

Defining an inclusive American style opens a Pandora's box of issues for High Point that challenges manufacturers to accept the reality of a multiracial, multicultural population with varying tastes and increasingly non-homogenous views of homesteading spanning "Ozzie and Harriet" to "When Harry Met Sally."

What defines America? That depends on whom you ask.

According to Stanley Furniture, a usually staid manufacturer, the new American style essentially addresses country people who want to live like city folks or city folks who want to live the country lifestyle. In one of the most talked-about explorations of American style, Stanley offers "Urban Primitive," the first collection of furniture by Robert Sonneman, a New York-based lighting designer for 25 years.

The collection of wooden pieces in red oak, with walnut inlays, bronze hardware and upholstery of woven fabrics using Southwestern, country and batikish motifs, includes 58 styles. Unashamedly drawn from the best to have influenced American design -- Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Stickleys, Charles Limbert and others -- the collection is honest and simple with emphasis on quality, handcrafted construction and straightforward materials.

Today's consumers want to see themselves reflected in their furniture, Mr. Sonneman believes, and the old offerings of High Point don't provide much diversity. "The browning of America has provided color and pattern from Africa, Asia and South America that will impact the American aesthetic. Geometric and primitive -- ethnically inspired patterns -- will become more mainstream," he said.

Many manufacturers may not have gone as far as Stanley in defining American style and bringing in flavors of new immigrants from South America and Asia, but Thomasville Industries introduced "American Country" and new fabrics in primitive patterns; Drexel Heritage offered its "American Frontier" collection; Lexington Furniture Industries introduced a collection called "Weekend Retreat: America Returns to the Simple Life"; and Henredon unveiled the "American Artisan" collection of living room, dining room and bedroom designs.

Reactions from store buyers were mixed. Some had nothing but praise for those manufacturers who seemed to be breaking from the herd. Then there were the skeptics, who called Stanley's outing "Frank Lloyd Wrong."

Naysayers believe that multiculturally inspired furniture design may be OK in New York, where "Urban Primitive" will debut in a splashy public opening at Macy's in January, but wonder whether it will play in Peoria to middle-American tastes.

Stanley's chairman, Albert Prillaman, who noted that nearly 250 stores around the country already have bought the collection, believes the furniture's price will be as attractive as the design. "Urban Primitive" pieces are priced between $300 and $2,000.

Much ado also was made of Masco's Lineage Home Furnishings. According to its research, American style falls into three categories based on lifestyles -- "Gracious Living," elegant and formal; "Casual Living," a more relaxed, comfortable style; and "Special Places," for individualists who want to tailor things to their own lives.

Just as Ethan Allen and Pennsylvania House created the gallery concept in the early 1980s, setting up vignettes in stores to sell furniture, Lineage will set up pavilions around its three lifestyles. Furniture and accessories are theatrically displayed with special lights, music and even smells to help shoppers visualize pieces in their own homes.

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