Personal style is the hallmark of today's home furnishings design, just as it is in fashion, and some of the most profound design advances in recent years have been in the building itself.
The popular quest for some sort of ornamentation has influenced everything from fancy paint applications to pillow trims to elaborate layered window treatments, and that same attention to detail is affecting the building materials themselves: exterior siding, windows, hinges, doorknobs, flooring -- those formerly unglamorous but functional elements that used to take a back seat to sexier considerations such as love seats, tables, lamps or beds.
With the consumer's increasing desire for quality and "a look" has come a revolution in the building industry, one that has dramatically changed the product as well as the way it is marketed.
In both new construction and remodeling, regardless of preferences in decorating styles, the shell and its various parts have emerged from a supporting role to one of nearly equal billing.
This is hardly a new concept, of course. There is historical precedent for such an aesthetic as recently as the beginning of the 20th century, with European architects such as the Scot Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Viennese Josef Hoffmann, or Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright in the United States. When these architects built houses, they thought through every compositional element, both functional and decorative, and everything from lighting to teacups reflected their integrated vision. But toward the '30s, that philosophy disappeared.
Builders erected fairly stripped-down houses for several decades, until the '70s when postmodernism resurrected the notion of ornamentation. Embellishment, both exterior and interior, has continued to influence home-building and remodeling. Popular postmodern architects such as Robert A. M. Stern have inspired those people who didn't know a mullion from cove molding to bone up on architectural elements.
In turn, manufacturers, recognizing an increasingly aware audience, now are stocking the kinds of elements that formerly were available only on a custom basis.
"The bulk of the buying power is as concerned with aesthetics as function. This generation can afford detail -- and detail has become less of a disgrace. Builders are responding with something rich and special with layered-on history," says Mitchell Rouda, editor of Builder, a 12-year-old trade publication of the National Association of Home Builders with a readership of about 200,000.
The building industry is more in tune with consumer demands than ever before. "There are market researchers, consumer surveyors, focus groups," says Mr. Rouda. "They're determining what the market wants, just like prime-time TV."
Just what does the consumer want? Judging from some of the latest product offerings, this is what's hot:
*Windows. Specialty windows -- half-circles, round and geometric configurations -- are arguably the most visible improvement to the exterior as well as the interior of a home.
"Generally, the movement is to bring more light in," says Richard Binsacca, senior editor of Building Products, a new quarterly publication that is clearly focused on what's new as well as what's fashionable. "We've gone back to using mullions [vertical strips that divide windowpanes] and French doors," says Dan McClean, president of MCL Developments.
Andersen Windows advertises elegance as well as versatility. For example, in an inviting corner suitable for dining or sitting on slipcovered, skirted chairs is a group of four windows with mullions. They are topped by half-circles decorated with leaded glass in a vine motif. Although the leaded glass is not part of the product line, the company will provide installation instructions, so any combination with vintage or new panes is possible.
Pella introduced what it calls its Architect Series of five classic designs: Colonial, Mission, Prairie, Palladian and its custom option, Flash.
Another style leader is Marvin Windows. One of its most dramatic examples is a contemporary structure whose first-level window mullions are configured in a Mondrian-inspired pattern.
French doors also fall into this category, as many of the window manufacturers include them in their lines. "Without a doubt people want them," says Paul Kitzke, editor of Building Products.
"French doors reflect the new interest in traditional styles, replacing sliding patio doors, which had become a fixture in the '50s and '60s. Even though they're more expensive, they're very popular, not only as exterior doors, but to divide interior space as well." Mr. Kitzke says that beveled glass and sidelights also have returned to favor.
With all the attention focused on styling, energy efficiency has not been neglected. Window manufacturers are offering such features as panes that detect radiant heat and restrict its flow through the glass while admitting the sun's natural light. Andersen claims its High Performance windows are 33 percent more energy-efficient during the wlnter months than ordinary double-pane windows and 13 percent better even in the hottest of summers.
*Flooring. Hardwood floors are among the top choices, and Mr. Kitzke says they're turning up with more frequency in the kitchen as well. "They were, of course, more common decades ago, but disappeared when sheet vinyl and other resilient floors came into prominence in the late '60s."
L Some manufacturers such as Bruce, Tarkett and Hartco have in
creased the number of choices, offering prefinished flooring, some in a variety of colors, patterns, even borders, that is both less expensive and easier to install.
*A few years ago Tarkett introduced a line called SpectraWood, a prefinished, no-wax solid hardwood parquet made of natural ash in a palette of "decorator" colors: a muted white, green, beige, gray, mauve, blue, tan and almond. The parquet allows installation in a variety of patterns.
Tile also has gained popularity in the last five to 10 years. Both domestic and imported tiles offer an enormous range in color and pattern. Just a look at tile advertising will give a clue to the changes in marketing approach. It has become a fashion item, reinforced by beautiful backdrops and furnishings.
At the same time, significant improvements have been made in synthetic flooring materials. Vinyls are more interesting, less "plastic" looking. Even those advertised to look like wood, such as NAFCO's 3-by-36-inch strips that come in five colors, have more appeal because the technology has improved so much. Designers have shown that using vinyl as tile can create wonderfully artistic, colorful floors. Some of the granite looks also have been done reasonably well.
*Siding. Here's an area where giant strides have been made. Purists who might never have considered alternatives to wood clapboard siding now have companies such as Wolverine to thank for what appears to be a marvelous product without the exaggerated bogus wood grain that is typical of some vinyls, and without the denting problem typical of aluminum.
Wolverine also manufactures all the traditional components and trims: soffits, beaded panels, door and window surrounds, fish scale, lattice, dentil molding, pilasters, pediments, corner posts. house can be done in period style entirely in vinyl, with a choice of a dozen colors plus accent colors.
*Wood-burning fireplaces. Some of the dramatic aspects of custom work can be found in standard fireplace design. Superior offers, among other things, a peninsula gas fireplace, a wraparound unit set into a column that can become an architectural focal point in a room these days -- even in kitchens, bedrooms and baths.
*Hardware. This has long been considered a decorative category, but now the options are even greater, including a variety of stunning brass and chrome designs, plus plastic door handles, pulls, hinges and faucets in a range of colors.
*Surfacing materials. Laminates have come a long way; they're available in a rainbow of colors, textures and patterns. Among the new offerings are granite looks; even Corian, the marblelike synthetic manufactured by DuPont, has one.