Walk on the wild side Leopards, zebras, tigers, cheetahs and other creatures are stalking stylish interiors, as prints modeled on their markings show up on everything from sheets to ottomans.

February 02, 1997|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

Betty Sherrill, named one of America's 101 most influential interior designers by House Beautiful, has a thing about leopard.

Forget what you've heard about animal prints, that a little goes a long way. Sherrill has taken eight antique French chairs, covered them in faux leopard and placed them in her dining room -- on a leopard-print rug.

"It's practical, grandchildren-proof, simple and has impact," she explains. "And it wears well."

Only a grande dame of design would call an all-leopard dining room practical. Most of us are more comfortable with animal patterns as accents. We may want to take a walk on the wild side, but it better be a short one.

Not to worry. You won't have any trouble finding that faux zebra pillow or the cheetah-patterned hand towels. Animal prints are available in all sorts of decorative accessories and accent pieces. Such prints have been a staple of high-end decorating for decades; now they're becoming important across the board:

Pottery Barn features wonderfully graphic zebra-striped pillows in its current catalog.

Ralph Lauren has recently introduced luxurious 100-percent cotton leopard-print sheets and pillow cases.

Gretchen Bellinger Inc.'s new fabric collection, available through architects and designers, includes a plush called "Stick Your Neck Out" in a striking yellow-and-brown giraffe pattern.

So what accounts for the enduring appeal of wild animal patterns?

Unlike the cow and other barnyard animal designs of country decor, wild animal prints suggest sophistication and an intriguing foreignness. First popularized in the 1920s, they still bring a whiff of Hollywood glamour to both home and fashion.

The appeal of animal prints has only grown with the current interest in ethnic home furnishings from around the world. (Of course, here you want to tread lightly. Pair animal prints with too much in the way of wicker furniture, tortoise finishes, exotic woods and leather, and you'll end up with a room that looks as if you just got back from a safari.)

"The interest in animal prints," says Nancy High of the American Furniture Manufacturers Association, "is driven partially by the popularity of ethnic furnishings, but also because it addresses the need of African-Americans to connect with their past."

Sharne Algottson, author of "The Spirit of African Design" (Clarkson Potter), suggests using leopard and zebra prints with distressed furniture and wicker for a colonial look reminiscent of east Africa and cattle-herding country. "People can overuse them," she says, "but they can tie an African feel together."

Part of why wild animal prints are so popular is their versatility. They are different things to different people: A sophisticated and even glamorous design statement, adding luxury and richness to a setting. A touch of whimsy, fantasy or fun. A way to bring a bit of the natural world or one's ethnic heritage into one's home. Or an element of surprise in an otherwise conventional room.

Baltimore designer Kim Coale created a pretty, traditional living room for a client with a sofa upholstered in an English floral linen. Then she added a gilded Regency chair covered in cheetah-patterned Ultrasuede with gold cording and tassels.

"It gave the room a kick," she says. "It takes a certain client who wants that."

For those doing their own decorating with animal prints, designers suggest starting small. If you get tired of tiger stripes you can always recover an ottoman or buy new accent pillows. Reupholstering a sofa is another story.

But Michelle Michael, author of "The New Apartment Book" (Clarkson Potter), likes to use animal prints in unexpected ways. While she wraps a sheer leopard print scarf around an old lamp shade for an instant update, she also covers a whole sofa in faux leopard. She combines it with a black leather and chrome lounge chair, a white ottoman and a chair covered in a quilted fabric that picks up the chartreuse of one wall. The effect is stunning -- and there's definitely not too much leopard in the room.

"Animal prints look great with bold colors and strong geometric patterns," Michael says. "But they also work with neutrals and lots of different patterns."

Because '90s design is so eclectic, no mixing-and-matching is completely off limits. But some may be more successful than others.

Graphic animal prints usually work better with strong colors than pastels. But they are also a zingy accent in a neutral room.

Florals look right with animal patterns, in the English colonial spirit; and jungly floral designs are particularly compatible.

The graphic qualities of a faux zebra rug or an ocelot ottoman can add pow to a contemporary or minimalist setting. They go well with some 18th-century and neoclassical furniture, says Joan Compher, a designer for Royal Furniture, "but they don't seem to work with country French," a favorite style in Baltimore. Linear furnishings are most complementary, she believes.

But Baltimore designer and syndicated columnist Rita St. Clair feels that pairing animal prints with Adams or Chippendale can be risky -- furniture "that has a certain weight to it." Animal prints work well with some French furniture, she says. "It can become a little more whimsical, a little lighter."

Perhaps the most practical advice comes from Harriett Stanley of the Interior Design Group in Columbia. She suggests that flexibility is the key. Look around your living room and see if the animal print item would work as well in another part of the house. Then if you get tired of it, you can always let it slink away to your family room or study.

Pub Date: 2/02/97

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