Some collections have connections Home: Museums are licensing more furniture lines. Some of these reproduce the look of actual antiques, but others take a looser approach.

February 04, 1996|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

To buy a museum reproduction is to buy a bit of history as well as a piece of furniture.

With it you get what's known in the worlds of art and antiques as provenance, the history of a piece's origin. Perhaps this is no more than a hang tag that gives the background of the original furniture.

But if you know that your purchase is part of a museum-based licensing program, you know the museum has sanctioned the company and had some say in the design and quality of the piece.

Museum-based licensing programs aren't new -- they started with Williamsburg in the 1930s. What is new is their appeal to a much larger audience, perhaps the result of a broader approach that includes adaptations, "inspirations," and lifestyle collections involving historic cities. These pieces may cost less if they aren't exact replicas, and they may have been adapted to fit in better with the way people live today.

"Consumers like what amounts to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval," says licensing consultant Hermine Mariaux. "They definitely respond to that."

A quick explanation of terms:

Reproductions are more-or-less exact copies of the original furnishings. They may differ from the original in size, material or manufacturing process (factory-made instead of handmade, for instance).

An adaptation is more flexible, as you might expect. Design elements are there but made more usable for today's lifestyles.

"A little desk might be converted to a server," says Alex Mitchell of Baker Furniture, "Or a linen press to accommodate a TV."

Interpretations are broader still. For instance, the design of a Winterthur floral painted swag lamp by As You Like It was "interpreted" from a Jean Baptiste Reveillon wall covering made in Paris circa 1791.

Make no mistake about it: Licensing is big business, providing important revenues for museums and historical preservation societies. Since Winterthur's program began in 1982, for example, 40 licensees have produced more than 2,000 products -- everything from furniture to garden statuary. (The Delaware-based Du Pont museum also publishes a direct-mail catalog of its licensed goods, as does Williamsburg.)

What do the manufacturers get out of it? Most obviously, a designer label par excellence.

"In an industry with little brand-name recognition and low consumer confidence, a licensed merchandise program backed by a famous name may be just what the doctor ordered," according to an article in the trade publication Accessory Merchandising. Beyond that, there is relatively little financial risk for the company. The cost of licensing is tied to the sales of the merchandise, usually a royalty fee of 3 to 10 percent of the wholesale price.

At first, according to Baker's Alex Mitchell, museums wanted reproductions to be in mint condition; but the appeal is for less formal furniture, pieces that look as the antiques themselves do -- worn finishes, scratches and all.

"People like the furniture," he says of Baker's Williamsburg Collection, "But they don't want to feel as if there's a rope across the door."

In fact, one of the most successful museum-based collections of all time is the Lane Co.'s America Collection, licensed from the Museum of American Folk Art. Unlike some museum reproductions, designed to be a treasure that lasts a lifetime and priced accordingly, this middle-of-the-road collection is more affordable. It first appeared in the early '80s, when country design was taking off. The pine and wicker pieces, offering casual, comfortable style with a sense of history, fit in with the popular country look. Every year Lane introduces a few new pieces in the collection.

Besides the cachet a museum label gives the furniture, licensing programs can offer the retailer and the consumer a totally coordinated look. Lamps, decorative objects, rugs, wall coverings, and fabrics are only a few of the most commonly licensed home furnishings. In spite of all the press given to the current popularity of eclectic design, many customers prefer coordinating a room's color, style and materials completely.

While traditional museum-based licensing will continue to be important, the latest trend is toward "lifestyle programs."

These are licensing programs with a point of view, exploring how people live today with historic objects. They give the impression, at least, of offering less formal furniture for today's more casual lifestyles. (The distinction may have more to do with marketing than with the actual furnishings.)

At last spring's home furnishings market at High Point, for instance, Hickory White introduced Savannah, a licensed collection inspired by the historic mansions of Georgia's port city. This was an eclectic interpretation of a variety of European styles.

Drexel-Heritage's Royal Retreats sounds extremely formal; but the furniture is from historic country homes in the British Isles where the royals relax, not from their palaces.

"Museums don't necessarily understand the home furnishings business," contends Michael Burke, a licensing consultant involved with both these lifestyle programs. "They need to realize Queen Anne may become a little passe in 1996. They need to become more attuned to what's happening."

What's happening from the manufacturer's point of view is that consumers are demanding casual, comfortable furniture. The problem is figuring out how to reconcile that with the prestige a historical licensing program brings to a line of home furnishings.

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