Comfort Zone

There's room for many tastes and styles at the High Point home design show in North Carolina, with emphasis on being safe and cozy.

May 02, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

Less, as they say, is more.

What was notable about this spring's International Home Furnishings Market in High Point, N.C., and nearby Thomasville was what wasn't there. And that was a good thing.

Start with parking spaces.

"I don't remember the last [time here] I had to wait in line to park," says Michelle Lamb, editor of the industry newsletter The Trend Curve -- suggesting that this spring there's a new and lively interest among the buyers, interior designers and architects who traditionally attend. (Last fall's market attracted about 80,000 industry professionals to the showrooms of over 3,000 exhibitors.)

But wait -- there's more. Or rather, less.

For the first time in several years, the wholesale home furnishings event, which takes place in April and October, wasn't dominated by follow-the-leader style trends or celebrity brand names. (There were some, of course.) Instead, when the furniture from this market appears in department stores and retail showrooms six months from now, consumers will have an unusual diversity of styles and inspirations to choose from. This spring's collections evoke everything from mountain retreats to ornate French provincial furniture, and many more styles in between.

Does an ornate bombe chest with floral detailing rock your world?

Done. (By Stein World, as a matter of fact.)

Do you hunger after wonderful wicker or a simple sofa?

Done, and done again. (By Pennsylvania House and Martha Stewart for Bernhardt.)

"Manufacturers are more and more tuned in to reaching out to a very diverse group of consumers," says Jackie Hirschhaut, vice president of the American Furniture Manufacturers Association (AFMA), attempting to explain why no themes or styles took over this market. "And people are feeling more confident in their own choices."

The eclectic style that has been evolving over the last decade has led to a mix-and-match sensibility. Today's customers will buy something because they like it, Hirschhaut believes, and not worry too much about whether it fits the trends or even the style of the rest of their furniture.

These consumers are looking for furnishings that make them feel comfortable, not cutting edge. In the aftermath of a flagging economy, furnituremakers aren't exactly getting wild and crazy. If you could choose only one word to describe this market's offerings, that word would have to be "safe."

Note that the most newsworthy new fashion name to enter the furniture fray in the spring 2004 market was Liz Claiborne.

Liz Claiborne is just about the best known line of women's clothing in the United States, but you wouldn't say it was fashion forward. The 125-piece furniture line for Lexington Home Brands has many of the same qualities as the clothes: It's comfortable, relaxed and, well, homey. You could describe it as transitional -- that is, neither distinctly traditional nor contemporary. It's also feminine, which is no small thing considering that about 90 percent of America's home furnishings purchases are decided by women. (But don't consider femininity to be a trend. There's already buzz about Wrangler Home, which will be introduced at the October market.)

"Liz Claiborne is very inclusive," says Jennifer Rumple, brand manager for the line. "People like its nice scale and its softness. [The clothes have] those extra details and little surprises. We were able to bring that to the furniture." Inside the lingerie chest, for instance, is a hidden mirror and unexpected drawers for jewelry.

Ideas for every room

So what else was news at the spring market?

Home entertainment furnishings continue to be as important as living room furniture. Manufacturers are trying to lure you back to the dining room. And the newest room to need fine furniture is -- surprise! -- the bathroom.

Perhaps the best evidence that nesting is still very much in full swing is the luxury wood furniture for the master bath. The sink cabinets, vanities, linen cabinets, stools and handsome storage pieces introduced at the market were often as beautiful as (and, of course, cost as much as) living room furniture.

As for the dining room, the AFMA did a survey and found that 75 percent of American families are now eating at home together at least five nights a week. Judging from the introductions at this market, though, you can forget about a return to formal dining around the traditional rectangular table with a matching set of chairs.

"They are playing with the dining room," says Lamb of The Trend Curve. Introductions include more trendy accent pieces like wine cabinets and baker's racks as well as buffets and china cabinets.

The emphasis is on casual furniture, round tables for more convivial conversation, and pieces to eat meals on in front of the TV. And why not buy a stylish kitchen island that's a movable piece of furniture rather than a built-in you have to leave when you move? Laneventure was one of several manufacturers to introduce a multifunctional food preparation center (with seating options, of course).

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