African-influenced designs back in vogue

February 21, 1993|By Beverly Hall Lawrence | Beverly Hall Lawrence,Newsday

Africa is most often narrowly packaged as a land of mud huts and tribal masks. But from time to time the fashion-fickle look to the vast continent as a hunting ground for design inspiration, for an image or pattern that will bring a touch of the exotic into American living rooms.

With the appearance of animal skins and fabrics evocative of primitive cave drawings, we seem to be living through one of those times.

"The warmth and vibrancy of ethnic patterning and color, combined with the naive charm of folk artifacts, has once again become fashionable, and cultures around the world have been ransacked for ideas," says Dinah White, who wrote "Ethnic Interiors" (Rizzoli Publishers, 1992).

But in what has become an almost predictable cycle, design that has its roots in Africa's enormous artistic legacy is moving into the mainstream.

"There seems to be a real resurgence about every 30 years or so in things out of Africa," says Louis Shaw, a Manhattan interior designer whose signature is the use of African embellishments and animal skins.

"It has to do with money. With political awareness. With a taste for the exotic-ness that travels to distant lands can bring."

Ms. White, who chronicles in her book African and other "ethnic" inspirations in interior design, says she sees this incarnation as different from the last period of widespread appeal in the 1960s.

"The difference between today's revival of interest in ethnic and the much-reviled 'hippy ethnic' of the 1960s and early 1970s, with joss sticks and Indian bedspreads, is that the latter was very much an expression of an alternative culture, a turning-away from society and a form of escapism," Ms. White writes.

"But the new ethnic style is not a rejection of the way we live, it is almost a way of coming to terms with it by keeping in touch with our fundamental sensual appetites for beauty and creativity."

Basically, our acceptance of non-European standards of design excellence reflects the way we live, she suggests. Our home and our clothes inevitably reflect the small world of global travel.

As long-haul journeys have become more commonplace, homes filled with "souvenirs" have become more exotic. And the immediacy and intimacy of global cultures brought home through our televisions make the "ethnic" aesthetic less foreign.

Rather than Cable News Network, perhaps we owe more thanks to MTV. It was this entertainment channel that introduced African kente-cloth patterns, and the woven strips of brightly colored cotton have become the badge of blackness for rap musicians and their fans.

It wasn't long before African-inspired patterning made headlines Paris fashion shows, and animal skins were in again.

Couture offerings for spring from Paris designer Valentino use beading and embroidery inspired by "tribal body scarring patterns," while Christian LaCroix' woodcut patterns and primitive cave-painting motifs echo the "Out of Africa" theme.

As runway fashions lead the way for home fashions, now "ethnic" interiors are in vogue. Could the Elsie de Wolfe look be far behind? Mr. Shaw wonders. Ms. De Wolfe, the woman who created the professional interior design business at the turn of the century, was among the first to elevate animal prints and things African to society chic. It was inspired by the way people lived or wanted to, when the elite traveled to exotic lands, bringing back artifacts, and "Africanized" rooms were de rigueur.

The same spirit of exotic travel and global exploration is driving this latest homage to Africa.

"The addition of motifs that may have the flavor of primitive cave drawings . . . introduces a mystical feeling to accessories and fabrics for the home," says Michelle Lamb, chairman of Marketing Directions Inc. in Minneapolis, which produces the Trend Curve newsletter for the home furniture industry.

Those who look for psychological symbolism in design trends say our revisiting African design elements reflects our progress in global communications as much as it reflects our need to get back to the basics of planet Earth.

"The human memory finds it very easy to live with the colors Africans work with, because [the earth tones] complement all skin tones, from ivory to ebony," says Manhattan interior designer Shaw. "Designers see the undulations and absolute repeating patterns [and find them] fascinating."

So continue to look for furniture and fashions that pay homage to Africa and other ethnic groups, say the trend watchers.

For the purists like Mr. Shaw, who believes most of the items coming to market are only "inspired" by African designs -- as opposed to having integrity as authentic objets d'art -- (which are prohibitively expensive), imitation is but the sincerest form of flattery.

But some, like Jay de Sibour, director of marketing for Pantone Inc., a color-forecasting company in Moonachie, N.J., believe the proliferation and interpretation of ethnic designs may water down the artistry from which they are derived.

"Specific cultural roots are sometimes lost," he says, "as the multicultural marriage of pattern and color create a new generic ethnic feel."

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