The passing of the Sears catalog, which, after almost century, ceased publication in January, is to be mourned more for the impact it had on unemployment statistics than for the gap it left in the mail-order business. There is an abundance of catalogs that continue to offer a wide range of home furnishings and decorating accessories, many much more specialized than the old Big Book.
Besides armchair convenience, what mail-order catalogs do for you is extend your reach, giving you easy access to appealing merchandise that may not be available in your own town or even your own state. And, mail-order sources tend to respond quickly to evolving decorating trends. New products that turn up in major department stores and decorating magazines this month will appear in mail-order catalogs soon after (or sometimes before).
Right now the emphasis is on Western- and country-style home furnishings. Many mail-order sources are offering merchandise compatible with both of these strong decorating trends. Of the dozens and dozens of catalogs I've seen though, those listed below are my personal favorites in both categories.
* Western: Not all, nor even the best, Western-style home furnishings come from the West. One of the most unlikely -- and unconventional sources -- is headquartered in a little storefront on the north side of Chicago. If you've come across a wingback chair upholstered in Indian-patterned Pendleton blankets in a decorating magazine in the past year or so, there's a good chance it came from the innovators at Mongerson Wunderlich.
But through its catalog (the second edition is due out in April) the shop also offers pine chests painted in a buffalo-plaid pattern; chairs, benches and footstools upholstered with buffalo-plaid blankets; a pine and iron bed; American trade blankets by Pendleton, as well as cowboy boots and Western wear.
Also at the top of the list is the Sundance catalog. Now in its fourth year, the catalog is a product of the Sundance Institute and of the Sundance Kid himself, Robert Redford. It's always chocked with an appealing assortment of home-on-the range furnishings and accessories inspired by the American West, Southwest or, since the debut of Mr. Redford's film, "A River Runs Through It," the Northwest.
Offerings include a hand-painted and "aged" buffet made from recycled wood; rusted-steel door knocker fashioned after an antique cowboy-boot spur; a lodge-pole pine headboard; branding-iron candlesticks; red-and-black wool lodge blankets detailed with deer-head designs and china decorated with Indian patterns, not to mention Western apparel and jewelry.
Another favorite is the Rancho catalog. Rancho is a retail store, and 80 percent of its Western/Southwestern merchandise is one-of-a-kind vintage items. But it also offers neo-Western goods: bronco-buster towel bars, horse-shoe switch plates, a rope-and-saddle-leather wall clock, branded rawhide waste basket and cowboy dinner plates.
Other good mail-order sources for Westernized home furnishings and accessories include Pipestone and Crest Studios.
A wealth of country catalogs
* Country style: There's no shortage of mail-order sources for country-style furnishings, either. One of the best is a catalog from the Country Loft. The nice thing about the Country Loft is that it offers a wide selection of pine antique reproductions that are often hard to find in the antique marketplace. Included are an assortment of small country tables (including half-rounds that look great under a window), jelly cupboards, pie safes and dry sinks, corner cabinets and dressers. There are also Shaker-style case goods, stools, chairs and boxes, as well as braided rugs and wrought-iron lamps and light fixtures.
An unexpected source for casual countrified furnishings is a catalog from one of the nation's best-known lawn mower and tractor manufacturers, John Deere. Most of the catalog is devoted to outdoor furniture, but there are also wicker porch swings and wicker chairs and sofas, Adirondack-style chairs, fancifully painted wooden bar stools, wrought-iron fireplace tools, leather-fringed rag rugs and weather vanes.
Another good source for country goods is the Finishing Touches catalog. For the bath, there's a Victorian console sink and painted French-country cast-iron towel bars and tissue holder; for the kitchen, a wrought-iron baker's rack; for the living room, a trompe l'oeil mirror that looks like a curtained cottage window.
Those who live in Boston, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle or Washington are already familiar with the Pottery Barn. Others can get to know the store through its catalog. Though its outlets are in major cities, its catalog offers a wide assortment of country-style furniture and home accessories: French-country dining chairs, woven rattan sofas, chairs and tables, sisal area rugs, farmhouse-style pine coffee tables, wicker chairs, rag rugs and wrought-iron candlesticks.