Southwest style charts new territory in elegant, funky and country fashions

April 19, 1992|By Elaine Markoutsas | Elaine Markoutsas,Universal Press Syndicate

They're not calling it Salsa any more, that saucy term for south-of-the-border home furnishings with Latin American and Caribbean accents, but it's still hot. Elements of Southwest style and its more recently introduced cousins, the Lodge Look and American Frontier, have captured a permanent place in American interiors.

The styles have gone beyond the regions to which they're indigenous -- New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana -- beyond the distinctive Pueblo adobe architecture and rugged cowboy furniture.

"Southwest style speaks to everyone longing for wide open spaces," said Kristen Browning-Blas, editor of the Southwest Sampler, a 2-year-old quarterly magazine that "celebrates the spirit of the Southwest home."

Whether you live in Connecticut or Taos, there are several key ingredients that characterize the Southwest look.

* Au naturel is the preferred state of all materials, and these include wood, iron and other metals, stone and natural fibers.

* Big scale prevails, but in spite of the breadth of the furniture's often beefy form, the best designs are not ungainly.

* The range in color is from dusty to gutsy -- from sun-washed sage, tawny terra cotta and crisp khaki to vivid vermilion, turquoise, ocher, cobalt, magenta or emerald.

* Textiles and rugs feature stripes, zigzags and other geometric elements, inspired by the blankets and rugs of American Indians.

* There's an appreciation for hand-finishing, which reflects the // nation's desire for hand-crafted objects. Furniture woods are washed (with a milky white, gray or color finish), hand-rubbed, painted or rough-hewn. Walls are stuccoed, plastered with a sheen, or frescoed like old Mexican villas that took their cue from those in Spain and Italy.

* Interior furnishings are complemented by hand-crafted accessories such as baskets, pottery and colorful folk art.

* Southwest architectural elements are used as decorative accents. Popular elements include ceiling beams (such as those called vigas in Pueblo adobe construction), lintels (cross beams that span windows and doorways) and corbels (brackets that support cornices or arches).

National exposure

Ralph Lauren was first to package some of these elements and make them available nationwide. It has been nearly 15 years since the designer romanced Santa Fe with Indian-patterned hand-knit sweaters, concha belts and denim skirts with lace petticoats. In 1985 he introduced the Southwest lifestyle into home interiors, from bed linens inspired by Navajo rugs to cozy club chairs upholstered in fabric with the look and baby softness of cotton-flannel Indian blankets.

Faster than you could say Southwest, furniture manufacturers were incorporating the look into their lines.

"The most revolutionary aspect of the trend," says Bette Frank Rosenberg, home fashions director for Spiegel Inc., "is that it was brought to the masses with such dizzying speed, a phenomenon that used to happen only in women's fashion." But those who have come to love the real thing didn't enjoy the way Southwest design began to filter down.

'Dime-store Southwest'

Chicago Southwest gallery owner Susan Mongerson calls it "dime-store Southwest." Ms. Mongerson and her husband, Rudy Wunderlich, have become a nationwide source for vintage Pendleton and Beacon blankets, which they sell "as is," or as upholstery on vintage chairs, or as wearable art.

Ms. Mongerson and Mr. Wunderlich do not take kindly to the cliches of howling coyotes, badly interpreted American Indian crafts, and faded dhurrie rugs with geometric patterns, which have debased the Southwest style as duck and geese patterns did to country.

Even mainstream furniture manufacturers are embarrassed to call anything Southwest anymore. "I was at a trade show in Dallas, says Ms. Browning-Blas, "and if you said 'Southwest' to describe anything, faces seemed to glaze over."

Some manufacturers instead have picked up on the recent fascination with the West and Northwest.

The romance of the Old West, including cowboys and Indians, has fostered the most recent enthusiasm for lodge-pole furniture, fringe pillows and tinwork.

A versatile style

With both Southwest and West styles, consumers appear to be responding to the hand craftsmanship and honesty of the products as well as the simplicity of some of the designs, which bear a resemblance to Shaker and Mission in spareness of line.

The spring Spiegel catalog features a Shaker-style chest, shown with a set of wood-framed portraits of Indian chiefs, prints of hand-colored lithographs from the 1840s, hanging above.

That perhaps surprising combination of Shaker with Indian demonstrates a feature of Southwest style that may surprise some who don't know it well: its versatility.

Southwest style can also assume a sophistication that transcends trendiness, even though magazines like Metropolitan Home have had fun sticking labels on it, from "Teepee Tech" to "Rodeo Regency" to "Cowboy Corbu," playing on its mixability.

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