American Beauty

The time has come for the return of clean-lined designs from America's past. Much of the furniture shown recently in High Point, N.C., though designed before Sept. 11, leans heavily on home-grown styles.

November 04, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

By a not-so-happy coincidence, many manufacturers at the October International Home Furnishings Market were in the right place at the right time with the right furniture.

The industry has been accused of being slow to pick up on trends; but at a time when patriotism is at a 50-year high because of terrorism, a number of companies introduced collections with an American theme at this fall's wholesale event in High Point, N.C.

It was the result of a natural progression. Home furnishing experts have been predicting a return to American style after the past few markets, in which designers looked to just about every other country for inspiration.

"It's Americana. It's country. We were on our way here anyway," says industry analyst Michelle Lamb. The events of Sept. 11 simply accelerated the process.

Most of the designs showcased were on the drawing boards a year ago. The manufacturers' biggest problem was not seeming to be taking advantage of the tragedy.

"Nothing, nothing that Hickory Chair did was a result of Sept. 11," says Sandra White, spokeswoman for the high-end furniture company, which introduced a collection called American Portfolio.

"American Portfolio was planned a year and a half in advance. The fabrics involved were selected several weeks before market. Our collection had nothing to do with the attacks."

Other companies saw it as an opportunity to express their patriotism. Earlier in October, a salesman at Keller Manufacturing, an Indiana-based furniture company, suggested renaming its Restoration collection "American Restoration."

"We wouldn't have put it on if it hadn't fit the collection," says company vice president Scott Armstrong.

American roots

Some of the introductions at the twice-yearly market had names like American Spirit and American Tempo. Some simply had American roots, like the new additions to Thomasville's Ernest Hemingway collection. Earlier influences on this popular collection were global, but the newest offerings were inspired by the Midwestern United States.

What the various Americana introductions had in common were their antecedents: a mixed bag of Shaker, Southwestern, Arts and Crafts, mission, lodge and country -- casual and clean-lined designs from America's past. But because this is the 21st century, the lines were softened, and comfort was paramount. Woods were light, often oak, pine or ash.

A new spirit

The renewed enthusiasm for things American was most obvious in the upholstery and accessories shown at High Point. Lee Industries, an upholstered furniture company based in North Carolina, produced a child's chair in "stony midnight" denim and "pucker peppermint" ticking.

"You could have ordered that frame with those fabrics before Sept. 11, but no one probably would have," says Lee Industries' Sherry Craig, who adds that the company put the red, white and blue chair in the showroom as a decoration to express patriotism and was surprised by the number of buyers who ordered it. (It's also available as an adult chair. The child's version should retail for around $750; the adult's, $1,500.)

Whether retail customers will respond to these American-influenced and, in some cases, American-made furnishings because of their new patriotic spirit remains to be seen.

Henry Shofer, president of Shofer's Furniture in Baltimore, isn't convinced. The fact that a collection is named American Spirit or American Restoration really isn't relevant, he believes, because consumers have a hard time remembering the names of manufacturers, let alone collections. Besides, he says, "[The furniture] will come out in six months, and who knows what the mood will be in six months?"

While some furniture companies tried to strike a balance between patriotism and profitability, many accessory manufacturers didn't hesitate to wave the flag at the October wholesale market. They seemed less concerned that people might think they were taking advantage of tragedy and more convinced that customers want to display American colors and symbols in their daily lives.

Furniture shown in the fall usually appears in retail showrooms the next spring, but the turnaround time for accessories is much shorter. Palecek, a California accessories and furniture manufacturing firm, came out with a new handmade, hand-painted line of stars-and-stripes totes, wall art, birdhouses, occasional tables and figurines after Sept. 11. They can be in stores long before the public tires of red, white and blue.

"The Flag Collection is a direct result of the terrorist attacks because there's such a patriotic feeling in the country right now," says Palecek spokeswoman Lisa Frudden. "It didn't cross our mind till we got to market that we might be seen as ambulance chasers."

Shady Lady, a Wisconsin lighting and accessories company, was working on a series of lamps in primary colors with white-on-white striped shades before the terrorist attacks. After the attacks, the firm created a lamp with a red base, blue finial and a white-on-white stars-and-stripes shade.

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