Frills of the '80s have given way to simplicity of the '90s A LIGHTER SENSE OF LIVING

March 06, 1994|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Had enough?

Had enough silk velvet, mahogany, chintzes, tassels, swags, fringes, gilt, leopard prints, overstuffed cushions, period reproductions, black lacquer, elaborate window treatments, collections of collections, glossy finishes, mother-of-pearl, ostentatious opulence, frills, trills and decoration for the sake of decoration?

Had enough of the '80s look?

Then welcome to the beautifully simple '90s interior.

It hasn't happened all at once, but there is a new American style: more serene, more sophisticated, less cluttered, lighter and looser.

It's happening in fashion, with unstructured designs, softened lines and pale colors. And it's happening in home design.

Look at the shelter magazines: Whether it's Architectural Digest or Elle Decor, you'll see hardwood floors left bare to show off their beauty. Light flooding through windows where sheer curtains flutter in the breeze. You'll see more oak and pine. Light woods. White is everywhere, and has been for a while, but these are softer whites like buttermilk and sand.

American designers have fallen in love with no-color palettes.

"It's all neutrals," says Susan Pennington, regional director of Bloomingdale's interior design department. "No jewel tones. Khakis, tone on tone, white on white, faded and washed out."

What colors there are, are clear, light and pale -- peaches, pinks and celadons, all softened and sun-drenched.

Also, in the spare '90s style, furniture and accessory lines are more graceful, simpler.

Contemporary furniture isn't as hard-edged as it used to be. The finish on a coffee table, for instance, is washed silver instead of chrome. Corners are rounded.

The leg is back. After a decade of overstuffed, comfy, often close-to-the-ground pieces, sofas and chairs have legs again. The result is a lighter, airier look -- even if the piece is large-scale.

Traditional pieces have fewer curlicues and scrolls. Surfaces are sometimes stained with color instead of painted so the wood grain shows through for a lighter, fresher feel.

If you had to characterize the look of the '80s in a couple of words, you might say affluent and trendy. The new American style is less constrained, not so obviously governed by influences other than individual taste.

"The '80s were often very 'period,' " says Craig Beckenheimer of Pendulum, a Charles Street store that specializes in contemporary furniture. "Period looks and reproductions were important. What's important now is what appeals to the customer's eye."

And what appeals to many now is minimalist.

Curtains made from panels of raw silk hung by tabs from a rod look more elegant and au courant than elaborate window treatments.

We're seeing less of the cluttered looks -- such as English country -- that were so popular in the '80s.

It's partly a matter of making a virtue of necessity. When the economy falters and people are more careful about what they spend their money on, they are more likely to buy one or two important pieces than a lot of showy things.

For example, one fabulous decorative accessory looks right: an all-white lamp like those shown in February's House Beautiful, perhaps, or a box of light wood with silver fittings. (You can find it at Louis Mazor Interiors.)

Collections are off-trend, as they say. The new uncluttered room may not be as instantly impressive, but ultimately it's more arresting -- and more elegant.

Still, it's an unstudied elegance.

"It's a broad generalization," says Robert Caldwell of Swann/Hall Interiors, "but the '90s aren't as pretentious. There seems to be less of a need to feel in a class by yourself."

What people seem to need is a comfortable, serene sanctuary. For whatever reasons -- crime in the streets, a renewed interest in family -- people are spending more time in their houses. Much of the new American style flows directly from this.

A neutral palette is easy to be around.

An uncluttered room and clean-lined furniture make even small spaces look larger.

Some of the exquisite gossamer sheers can lift the spirits as they let in the light.

In other words, the new American style is a look we can live with.

A Lighter Sense of Living

Page 8: Star scrim window panels and scrim swag from The Pottery Barn. Three-leg metal table from Pendulum. Tall spiral vase from Nouveau. Upholstered chair from Expressions Custom Furniture.

Page 9: Parchment paper lamp from Pendulum.

Page 10: Glass-topped table from Pendulum and lamp with bronze mesh shade from Nouveau.

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