Today's country look dispenses with cute and adds chic

February 28, 1993|By Cynthia Hanson | Cynthia Hanson,Contributing Writer

While no one was looking, "country" interiors became cosmopolitan.

Open any design magazine and you'll see overstuffed sofas, painted furniture and such unlikely accessories as boulders and Oriental artifacts.

Only a few years ago, the style that came to be known as country was as predictable as the "cheatin' heart" lyrics of a Hank Williams ditty.

Into every house marched a platoon of decorative ducks, bunnies, cows and sheep. When these critters weren't holding interiors hostage, the culprits were gingham hearts and calico bows.

And collections of picture frames, baskets, teacups and other "tchotchkes" -- a time-honored feature of the genre -- were scattered about, resulting in a hodgepodge that could never be confused with sophistication.

"In the 1980s, people wanted a look where everything matched -- colors, patterns and textures," recalls interior designer Marlene Rimland. "It was all very predictable and very easy to do."

"The whole cutesy thing is over," says author Mary Emmerling, one of America's arbiters of rustic chic, who was among the first to make country citified when she opened a shop in Manhattan during the early 1980s. "Country has gotten better."

Barnyard animals have been banished, the color palette has gone neutral, walls have texture, lines are sleeker and collections -- everything from needlepoint samples to perfume bottles -- are being grouped in what Ms. Emmerling calls "organized clutter."

"It was the dishonesty of ducks and bunnies that made people gag," says Elizabeth Wilhide, author of the new "Traditional Country Style" (Rizzoli, $37.50). "It was about as sincere as Marie Antoinette working in a dairy."

Current country uses natural materials and surfaces while suggesting relationships to family and the outdoors in the form of portraits, heirlooms and arrangements of fresh or dried flowers, she says.

Now, sophisticates who once regarded country with the same disdain they reserved for polyester have begun to embrace its reincarnation. Today, it's touted as an informally eclectic but comfortably casual look that lends itself to the burrowing of the '90s.

"The very people who are capable of appreciating fine design are finding that country fits in perfectly with their lifestyle," says Ms. Rimland, who has residential and commercial clients in Chicago.

"These are the people with the second homes, the high-powered jobs, the fancy vacations," she says. "They want a country style that is creative and interprets the rules much more loosely. They want an environment that reflects their individuality, but one that is also nurturing. In the 1990s, there's the element of surprise. Things don't have to match, but they go together."

That certainly is the effect of the latest wave of country books, which feature striking photographs and different faces of the style.

In "California Country" (Chronicle Books, $35), Diane Dorrans Sacks of San Francisco writes that "country houses here just as often mix French and English country antiques, new crafts, hand-blown Mexican glass, this-minute stone tables and museum-quality art."

West Coast designers tend to be "more freewheeling" than their HTC East Coast counterparts, she says, because "Californians have a very brief history, so everything looks new -- and nothing looks like it came from somewhere else."

Meanwhile in New York, author Pat Ross admits that the term "formal country" -- the title of the design book she wrote in 1989 -- may sound like a contradiction.

"I'll put a crystal vase on a table that used to be a barn door, and I'll fill urns with fruit because I think of 'formal country' as an eclectic combination of elements."

In her latest book, "Formal Country Entertaining," (Viking Studio, $35), Ms. Ross shows how to create an inviting table by placing white embossed Italian dinnerware next to glass cruets of red-wine vinegar and herbs that serve as a centerpiece.

"I believe in putting European formality with painted furniture, folk art, Oriental rugs and a glass coffee table," Ms. Ross says.

While researching "traditional country" here and abroad, Ms. Wilhide observed a similar blending of components.

"People are looking into other people's backwoods," says the London-based writer, noting that Britons have adopted Shaker furniture and Yankees British chintz.

"Now you can use textiles from the Orient with rag rugs from Scandinavia," she says.

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