Furniture makers get comfortable with consumers' casual cravings


High Point, N.C --If any one story came out of this spring's International Home Furnishings Market, it was the manufacturers' willingness to give customers what they want. Innovation and high design took a back seat to furnishings that were easy to live with, comfortably casual and affordable. Drexel Heritage, for instance -- known for its interpretations of period furniture -- introduced its first line of motion furniture and entertainment centers.

Twice a year almost 70,000 people converge on the town of High Point, N.C., for the largest wholesale furniture market in the world. This was supposed to be the market where contemporary was back in the mainstream, more so than at any time since the '50s, according to various designers. But in the showrooms contemporary was often so softened it was hard to differentiate it from what the manufacturers call "transitional": not quite traditional, not quite contemporary.

Some companies were hedging their bets by offering contemporary furniture that they described as timeless, or "softer classic contemporary," in the words of GEAR designer Raymond Waites. The exceptions were the big-name introductions, like Dakota Jackson's New Rhythms collection for Lane. (Baltimoreans will get a chance to get a closer look at Mr. Jackson's innovative designs when he gives a talk Tuesday sponsored by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects at the Baltimore Museum of Art.)

The 1994 spring market seemed very conscious that, according to designer Vladimir Kagan, "As an industry we're fashion-driven, but the consumer [on an average] changes his furnishings only 1 1/2 times in his lifetime."

Even the high-end furniture companies had lots of new pieces in comparatively inexpensive lines. The first collection of TC Homeworks, a new division of Thayer Coggin, made a play for the entry-level market with casual, friendly and popularly priced designs -- surprising from a company known for its avant-garde styling and fabrics. While the parent company's bold new Envoy chair, with its wild curves and saber legs, would fit right into the 21st century, TC Homeworks designs were basically transitional.

With manufacturers concentrating on furniture geared to today's more relaxed lifestyles, comfort furniture was more important than ever at this market. Upholstered pieces were often oversized, deep, soft and curvaceous, with lots of pillows. Some sofas even had a double row of back cushions.

Chenilles, cottons and denim -- the comfortable fashion fabrics -- were once again the fabric story of the market. Milling Road introduced Polarfleece, a best seller in the apparel industry, as an upholstery material. And washed fabrics were everywhere. Even quite formal materials were prewashed for a comfortable look and a soft "hand": tapestries and damasks with a definite pucker turned up in various showrooms.

Distressed finishes still dominate the marketplace, for their livability as much as their beauty. These are finishes that customers don't have to worry about or fuss over; another scratch just adds to the look. The most surprising example: Lexington's new youth furniture finish, painted white and worn through to the wood at the edges. Some dealers worried that their customers wouldn't buy such used-looking pieces.

But while many manufacturers seemed very conscious that "this stuff has to sell," as designer Vladimir Kagan said at the opening press breakfast, not everyone at market was playing it safe. Here are some of the highlights:

* Retro was back in several showrooms, a light-hearted contrast to "classic contemporary" with '50s styles (like a kidney-shaped coffee table) combined with '90s colors and prints.

* Glamour had a definite place in the 1994 spring market, as some major furniture companies unveiled exotic collections with mahoganys, velvets, dramatic fantasy finishes and gilded accents. Particularly lush were Ralph Lauren's romantic Medieval collection and Henredon's Natchez Classic, with styling derived from Southern antebellum homes.

* One transitional sofa often looked like the next, but manufacturers outdid themselves when it came to beds. Extravagant and romantic beds, made of wonderful materials, dominated the new collections: canopy beds, four posters, sleigh beds. One of the most striking: a red-lacquered canopy bed with square tapered posts and pineapple finials in Baker's Parish-Hadley collection.

* When this market's offerings make it to the retail stores in about six months, look for unusual -- sometimes even startling -- combinations of finishes and fabrics. Mix and match dominated, whether of styles or materials. A bed frame might be made of mahogany and rattan and steel, or a fabric-upholstered sofa have leather cushions.

* And speaking of leather . . . Of course there's been leather at past markets, but never leather like this: butter-soft, sometimes distressed, in wonderful colors like periwinkle and vanilla cream. There were leather slipcovers, skirted leather and faux leopard leather. Companies like Baker that have never been major players in leather were showing it in a big way at this market.

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