Making copies of fine antique furnishings for sale to the masses is not a new concept. In fact, furniture makers have been at it for so long that many of the copies now are antiques, too.
But suddenly -- thanks to shifting demographics and the current economy -- everything old is new again, and interest in antique reproductions is high.
Traditional furnishings of all sorts are popular now with middle-aged baby boomers who are hungry for a sense of heritage and nostalgic for an earlier, simpler time.
However, authentic antiques -- especially some of the highly prized early American pieces -- can cost as much as the house itself, and at a time when the recession has everyone rethinking luxury purchases.
That makes reproductions of early furnishings a popular compromise, whether they are painstaking replications of fine antiques or just nostalgic adaptations of old pieces -- what some in the industry call "furniture with a past."
Lower cost is not always the deciding factor in choosing a reproduction over an original, though, since some fine copies carry five-figure price tags. Industry researchers have found that consumers have other reasons for buying reproductions, too.
When Thomasville Furniture Industries conducted focus group research last year in preparation for a new collection of reproductions of furnishings found in America's country inns, consumers came straight to the point.
Those polled -- most in the 35-55 age group, many of whom already owned some antiques -- said they didn't have time to scour country antique shops for interesting pieces like those Thomasville proposed. And even if they had time to shop for authentic antiques, the consumers said they felt they were not likely to get their money's worth.
"There was some suspicion on their part," explained Marcie Dahl, staff marketing information analyst for Armstrong World Industries, Thomasville's parent company. "The consumers said that when they shopped for antiques, they always suspected there was another, identical beaten-up old piece in the back of the store."
Almost unanimously, the consumers polled said they preferred reproductions to the originals because antiques smell musty, the drawers stick and they're often uncomfortable.
"Functionality was a big factor," Ms. Dahl said. "They wanted pieces that looked like antiques but worked smoothly."
As a direct result of this consumer research, Thomasville's new Country Inns and Back Roads collection includes both exact reproductions of antiques and some pieces that have been adapted for modern lifestyles.
"Some pieces we made a bit smaller than the originals so that they work better in modern rooms," Ms. Dahl said. "Some feature enhanced comfort, such as additional padding on the upholstered pieces."
And to accommodate consumers who want a coordinated look but have no time to shop, Thomasville completely arranged and accessorized the 70-piece collection for display in a gallery setting. Now busy boomers can get the eclectic, inherited look they want -- right down to room fragrance and suitable music cassettes -- in one shopping trip.
"This definitely was a consumer-driven collection," Ms. Dahl noted.
Another reason for the current popularity of reproductions, industry representatives say, is that mobile boomers long for a personal heritage -- family history, rootedness -- that most don't really have. Many credit designer Ralph Lauren with popularizing the image with his layered, eclectic room settings that whisper "old money."
"Consumers want furniture that offers something extra, a conversation piece, something they can tell their friends about," said Bruce Bergen, vice president of sales and marketing for Hekman Furniture Co.
Hekman introduced a new collection based on furnishings owned by Charles Dickens and his heirs at the recent International Home Furnishings Market in High Point, N.C. Response to the group, which includes a reproduction of the desk at which Dickens wrote "A Tale of Two Cities," "was very positive," Mr. Bergen said.
"In fact we had a record April market, and our April orders are up 50 percent over a year ago," he said. We attribute that largely to the Dickens collection."
Each of the distinctive tables, desks, chests and chairs in the group has a story behind it, and consumers like that, Mr. Bergen added.
The Dickens reproductions are not inexpensive -- the desk will retail for about $4,400 -- but the pieces they're copied from are privately owned and not for sale. A recent appraisal put the value of the original Dickens desk at $500,000.
Of course, collectors who fancy a particular style or maker will pay outlandish figures for antique furnishings, as anyone who keeps up with the auction world knows.
But after paying $363,000 for a Gustav Stickley sideboard from the arts and crafts period, as Barbra Streisand did a couple of years ago, do you actually store things in it? Wire it for your stereo? Or rope it off?
The fact that prices on the simple, unpretentious Stickley pieces had skyrocketed was one reason the L. and J. G. Stickley Co. -- which still is in operation -- decided two years ago to reissue 80 original designs, according to Mike Danial, Stickley's corporate historian.
"Prices for the best designs have gone out of the realm of reality for most collectors," Mr. Danial said. "And while some diehards love the fact that a piece is original, others are in love with the form, the quality, the construction of the furniture," he added. They get all those things with the Mission Oak reissues, plus they can enjoy using the pieces without fear of devaluing a priceless antique."
The new oak pieces are altered slightly from the original designs, he noted, and the alterations are documented so the reissues will never be confused with the older versions. Prices for the reissued designs range from just under $1,000 to about $10,000 each.
Dozens of other furniture collections currently feature reproductions or adaptations of antiques, including:
*Century Furniture Industries' new 54-piece collections of exquisite reproductions and adaptations of antiques from the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich.
*Baker Furniture's handsome reproductions of 36 pieces belonging to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, many of which are designs that have not been previously reproduced.
*Pennsylvania House's eclectic, 80-piece American Sampler collection of adaptations from early 19th century Pennsylvania country furnishings.
*Broyhill's 27-piece American Frontier collection, adapted from early pieces important to this country's pioneer history.
*The John Widdicomb Co.'s Mar-A-Lago collection, which reproduces antiques acquired from all over the world by the late Marjorie Merriweather Post for her legendary Palm Beach estate.
*Lexington Furniture Industries' reproductions of rustic country furnishings in the personal collection of North Carolina artist Bob Timberlake.
*Hickory Chair Co.'s 50-year-old James River collection of formal 18th century reproductions from the Tidewater plantation houses Virginia, along with the company's more casual American Digest collection of regional reproductions and adaptations.
Baker Furniture, 1661 Monroe Ave. NW, Grand Rapids, Mich. 49505; (616) 361-7321. Has 16 catalogs available ranging in price from $2 to $20.
Broyhill Furniture Industries, One Broyhill Park, Lenoir, N.C. 28633; (704) 758-3111. Mini-catalog in the current Sears catalog.
Century Furniture Industries, P.O. Box 608, Hickory, N.C. 28603; (704) 328 1851. Catalog avaliable only to dealers. One local outlet is Royal Furniture, 510 S. Monroe St., Baltimore.
Hekman Furniture Co., 1400 Buchanan SW, Grand Rapids, Mich. 49507; (616) 452-1411. Catalog available for $5.
Hickory Chair Co., a division of Lane Co., P.O. Box 2147, Hickory, N.C. 28603; (704) 328-1801. Catalog of the James River Collection, $12; American Digest Collection, $7; Mark Hampton Colleciton, $10; French Collection, $10; Sovereign Collection, $10.
Lexington Furniture Industries, P.O. Box 1008, Lexington, N.C. 27292; (704) 249-5300. Complimentary color brochures on different lines. 35 catalogs available.
Pennsylvania House, 137 N. 10th St., Lewisburg, Pa. 17837; (717) 523-1285. Catalogs available through retailers or $12.50 from Pennsylvania House.
L. and J. G. Stickley, P.O. Box 480, Manlius, N.Y. 13104; (315) 682-5500. Specify mission oak or cherry catalog, each is $5.
Thomasville Furniture Industries, P.O. Box 339, Thomasville, N.C. (919) 472-4000. Catalogs available to retailers only.
John Widdicomb Co., 601 Fifth St. NW, Grand Rapids, Mich. 49504; (616) 459-7173. No catalogs. Line may be seen at Shofer's, Mastercraft Interiors and other retailers in the area.