Small American revolutions in home decor

Three trends prevail: 'Roadshow'-chic, big ideas, and hello theater, bye-bye den

April 13, 2003|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to the Sun

Before you start this story, why not take a moment to adore your decor? You might praise your chair for how supportive it is, or because its appearance delights you today just as much as when you first met. The carpet, curtains and coffee table? Sigh! Blow them all a kiss.

Or, don't.

For, if you are like six out of 10 consumers surveyed recently by the American Furniture Manufacturers Association (AFMA), you're probably cohabiting with furniture you loathe. Asked which piece they regret most, the living room sofa was scorned by 22 percent of respondents, followed by bedroom furniture (12 percent) and dining room pieces (11 percent).

It's no accident, of course, that the AFMA released these unromantic statistics at the Interna-tional Home Furnishings Market, a twice-yearly trade fair which had its spring show last week. Indeed, for the 80,000 buyers, manufacturers, interior designers, and architects who converged on High Point, N.C., your feeling nasty about your nest represents a $25 billion-a-year industry. They know that if only you'll give that hutch the heave-ho, chances are excellent you'll follow your heart to the furniture store once again.

So, what do women (who make a whopping 90 percent of America's furniture-buying decisions) really want? What was introduced in High Point, and will tempt you three to six months hence, offers several intriguing possibilities. Antiques are hot -- as long as they're not really antique. Furniture is big, literally. And beware! Your den is about to morph into a megaplex 2 / 3 cup holders and all.

The antique look

"One of the dominant trends is a return to familiar design," said Pat Bowling, director of communications for AFMA. "Bear in mind, these are not reproductions, but pieces inspired by antiques. Manufacturers are reinterpreting classic designs for a younger consumer."

Asked if she'd seen an admirable example of this, Margaret Russell, editor of Elle Decor magazine, mentioned a debut line by Drexel Heritage. It's inspired by Frances Mayes' best-selling 1996 memoir, Under the Tuscan Sun, which in September will also become a Disney / Touchstone movie starring Diane Lane as Mayes. "The danger of 'reinterpretations' is that they sometimes combine features that shouldn't collide," said Russell. "But this Drexel Heritage line is true to classic Tuscan shapes, sizes and colors. It's all very rustic, simple and honest."

If "Under The Southwestern Sun" is more to your taste, eight museums of New Mexico have joined forces to create Traditions Made Modern, a collection of sofas, rugs, and lighting inspired by pioneers on the Santa Fe trail.

"Santa Fe style has all sorts of influences. Everything from Span-iards who've been there for 400 years, to a Yankee from Philadel-phia who dragged Victorian pieces west," said Pamela Kelly, director of licensing for the Museum of New Mexico Foundation. "America is a nation of many races and many design influences. Throughout history, we've just layered things on."

That producers of PBS-TV's Antiques Roadshow share this sentiment -- not to mention its 9 million weekly viewers -- may explain why PBS is collaborating with Pulaski Furniture to produce a new collection of Roadshow-inspired home furnishings. Why would someone pay as much or more for a reinterpreted antique than the genuine article? Jim Kelly, a Pulaski spokesperson, has the answer.

"Before we got too deeply involved, we did a marketing study and asked people, 'Do you want antiques?' and the overwhelming response was 'no,' " he said. "Instead, people said they want furniture that looks great, has perceived value, but has the conveniences you expect from new furniture. For instance, an antique dresser doesn't have drawer glides. Today, people insist on them."

While this sort of "whatever you want" customization is standard practice in upholstered furniture, it is relatively new in wooden pieces, or what's called "case goods." Which is why Hickory Chair also made quite a splash at High Point. The company announced that instead of manufacturing a design in one or two colors, it will now offer 25 different wood stains for "new traditional" styles by designers such as Mariette Himes Gomez and Thomas O'Brien.

"It seems like such a simple idea, but it totally transforms the look," said O'Brien, of Aero Studios in New York. "A bleached mahogany finish vs. dark ebony is the difference between a beige and a red sofa."

Big is big

Furniture is growing larger for two reasons: the ever-increasing size of the average American's house, and the ever-increasing size of the average American.

According to the National Association of Home Builders, today's new home is 50 percent larger than it was in 1970. "And the amazing thing is that during the same period, family numbers have declined by at least 20 percent," said Gopal Ahluwalia, the group's research director.

Larger houses; fewer people. What's filling the space? More massive furniture.

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