Retro decor brings heritage into a home

December 05, 1993|By Michael Walsh | Michael Walsh,Contributing Writer Universal Press Syndicate

What accounts for the staying power of certain throwback decorating trends? It may well be a collective craving for the look of longevity.

What many of us are after is a decorating style that suggests permanence and rootedness. Socially footloose and financially fancy-free in the '80S, lots of us are now hunkering down, digging in and taking stock. Bombarded daily by the fallout from economic uncertainty, political and cultural turmoil, marriage, parenthood and careers, we're putting a real premium on stability, reliability and trustworthiness. We want to surround ourselves with elements we are confident will be there for us day in and day out, year in and year out.

The faster the forces outside our control change, the more we crave a sense of assurance and continuity at home. As always, and whether we are conscious of it or not, the baby-boom generation is having an enormous impact on the home design and furniture and accessories industries. For the firstborn of that generation, retirement is now in sight. Many others have reached the midlife crisis stage.

And, naturally, the most self-conscious generation of the century is reassessing everything. We've been around long enough now to have some strong preferences when it comes to furniture and decorating and architectural styles. We've frittered away money on flash-in-the-pan fads, and we now know something about long-haul value and worthiness. If nothing else, we're savvy about what's good and what's not, what matters in terms of feathering our nests and what doesn't.

As young adults, we had only limitless horizons. As middle-agers we have finite futures and, finally, proportionate pasts. We're beginning to treasure our own histories and the histories of those who preceded us. Once we felt rootless. Think about it: Victorian, arts-and-crafts, country, Southwestern, deco, the '50s, Adirondack, cottage -- the most popular decorating trends are, essentially, revivalist and preservationist in nature.

But the look of longevity has less to do with specific period or style than it does with heritage and, more often than not, humble origins. Painted furniture, from the lakeside cottage or rural farmhouse, authentically old or new-but-old-looking, is phenomenally popular. So is Victorian wicker, not museum quality but encrusted with generations of paint, cracked-leather deco-era club chairs that fit like old loafers, and mission-style tables, weighty-looking and wobble-free for decades.

Retro decorating styles and classic architectural elements -- French doors, sash windows, crown moldings -- provide us with instant heritage. There's an element of immortality about antiques and old, well-used furniture. What we're looking for now isn't period authenticity or preciousness as much as patina -- the well-worn surface, the nicks, dents, scratches, gouges and layers of paint that suggest long use, enduring worthiness and survivability. In a word, longevity.

There's a new appreciation for, perhaps even a kinship with, a piece of furniture that has battle scars because those flaws are silent testimony to long-term service and continued value. What else accounts for the popularity of "distressed" furniture, brand-new pieces deliberately abused at the factory to look less than new? What else accounts for faux-rusted wrought-iron table legs or verdigrised candlesticks?

One nice thing about the look of longevity is that it is not a purist style. It is, instead, flexible and versatile and blendable. It is essentially eclectic: something old, something new, something painted, something varnished, something made of wood, something made of steel. It doesn't have to match as much as it has to mean something.

It doesn't have to be your grandmother's farmhouse hutch; it just has to remind you of it, and her, and then. It doesn't have to be a family heirloom from your family to evoke a memory and have a personal meaning or give you a connection to a time or place that matters to you.

You don't have to have been raised on a farm to have an appreciation for hooked rugs and patchwork quilts on brass beds. Even if you've never been west of the Mississippi you can still legitimately have an affinity for Indian pottery, Pendleton blankets and birch bark. And, though you may have had three squares a day while seated on a chrome-and-Leatherette kitchen chair, a chipped Chippendale chair may now attract you like a magnet.

Another quality of the look of longevity is that it fits the casual way we live today. It is not formal or fussy, but practical and low-maintenance. What's another dent on a pine tabletop? We don't have to worry about it. It's there to serve us physically and comfort us emotionally.

Also, the look of longevity is nothing if not accessible. It is available everywhere: furniture stores, flea markets, auctions, estate sales, garage sales and antiques stores. You don't have to be rich to get it, either. In fact, you can be as frugal as you have to be or want to be and still furnish a home in a style that is as personal as your signature. And you can choose to have rooms completely furnished with old things or just partially. Quantity matters less than quality. For some, one old porch rocker is enough.

Maybe the message that old furnishings and the look of longevity conveys most to us is that we have a future, that we will go on being useful and productive and valuable and worthy, even if we aren't new anymore, that there is life after 40.

In the end, the look of longevity is both an expression of good taste and a display of common sense.

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