Humor comes home as '90s decor takes respite from the rigid '80s


April 25, 1993|By Elizabeth Large

Many people making a major investment redecorating thei houses want something they can live with forever -- or so they think. And many designers say their specialty is timeless design, classic rooms their clients will never tire of.

So why, suddenly, are there all those tongue-in-cheek fabrics out there, and all that fun furniture, even from traditional companies?

Why are trompe l'oeil and folk art more popular than ever?

Why are people suddenly painting their rooms bright colors and using tassels and fringe on everything?

And why does HG, that stately and elegant home design magazine, have not one but three wonderfully off-the-wall homes featured in its April issue?

Marian McEvoy, editor-in-chief of Elle Decor, thinks that people are more open to taking a few chances because the recession seems to be coming to an end. "They need a few playful things in their home," she says. "In general, a positive, cheerful thing is happening."

If you don't buy the end-of-the-recession theory, another expert has another suggestion. Linda Jones of Masco Furnishings believes that people have gone through the '80s and have gotten what she calls "overtechnologized." They feel beleaguered with cellular phones and fax machines and want their homes to give them warmth, fun, a little lightness.

The family room is becoming as important as the living room in people's homes -- if not more so. Its comparative informality means that people are more likely to let their creativity and wit have free reign when they decorate it. Jay Jenkins of Gorrell Jenkins Associates Ltd., for instance, took "artwork" done by his client's kids, put the pictures in elaborate, formal frames and made them a focal point for the client's family room.

Designers agree that children are more of a factor than they used to be in redecorating a home. Almost by definition, the design is going to be more playful and more whimsical. One of Alexander Baer's clients wanted to do something with her third-floor rooms that wouldn't cost an arm and a leg. He suggested that they paint the floors white and let her little girl splatter-paint them in bright colors. It looked great, at a fraction of the cost of carpeting.

Although Baltimore has a reputation among local designers as being a traditional town, Henry Johnson of Johnson/Berman scoffs at the whole idea of timeless design. "It's in the nature of human beings to want change," he says. He's known clients who have gotten bored with their timeless design "in two years."

You couldn't exactly call it a trend. People are going to continue to be conservative when it comes to spending large amounts of money on things they have to live with. But if you do happen to want to have a little fun with your redecorating, there's definitely more out there to choose from than there used to be.

Whatever the reasons for the current interest in the whimsical and tongue-in-cheek, manufacturers are responding. Here are a few examples:

* One of Folio's imported fabrics, available locally at Papier Inc., features huge cats' heads with their tongues stuck out. Not exactly tongue-in-cheek . . .

* Lineage's new line includes Bertie's Sporting Cabinet, which looks like an elegant Edwardian bookcase, complete with trompe l'oeil books, but opens up to be a very modern entertainment center.

* Twig furniture has gone mainstream.

* Art Cetera, a division of Lexington Furniture, offers a card table that has a card game painted on its surface. Playing cards in general are a very popular motif this season.

* Karl Lagerfeld, a premier wall-covering manufacturer, is

showing a pattern for dining rooms that has every possible style of formal dining room chair on it. (It should go above the chair rail, of course.)

So they are out there, the materials you need to add a little playfulness, creativity and just plain fun to your home. But how do you get started?

First, make sure you're the kind of person who's going to be happy with this kind of design. Do you value whimsy enough to live with it, and are you really willing to take some chances? Younger clients in a new house that won't be permanent are likely candidates, says Alexander Baer. So are people who are decorating a second home, such as a beach house.

Or start with a room that's relatively unimportant. Powder rooms are often the logical choice. Valley Craftsmen, for instance, recently did a watery trompe l'oeil bathroom for a client. The final touch was a fish poking his nose through the water (i.e., the floor), staring up at the toilet.

Look in lots of design publications. Note what appeals to you and what excites you.

Start small. Cover cushions in one of the playful new prints -- giant teapots for a breakfast nook, for instance. Buy a wonderfully wacky accessory you just can't resist.

If you decide you're interested in a more substantial project, ask around to find out what local designers are known for their offbeat work. Architect Stephen Glassman, who's won national recognition for his non-traditional projects, suggests talking to a number of designers before you choose one. Then visit their clients to see if the environments the designers create are comfortable for you.

But don't take the project too seriously. After all, that would defeat the whole purpose, wouldn't it?

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