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Designer leaps from country to contemporary

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Raymond Waites had all his ducks in a row. With such simple images as ducks, geese, bears, tulips and other sweet designs, Mr. Waites defined American country style in the early '80s and launched a multimillion-dollar business.

But his success wasn't all in the design. As vice president and chief creative director for Gear Holdings Inc., a New York-based design and marketing firm, Mr. Waites pioneered the concept of licensed home furnishings. His collections gave consumers an unprecedented opportunity for one-stop shopping by making available, from more than one manufacturer, products that coordinated in color and theme. From wallpapers, borders and fabrics, he deftly moved into the design of furniture, lamps and every imaginable accessory for every room of the house.

That was 15 years ago, and New Country Gear collections still flourish. But creative people like Raymond Waites always are looking for new ways to express themselves. For the '90s, the 53-year-old designer has chosen to branch into other directions that embrace traditional, neoclassical, baroque and even contemporary themes.

Mr. Waites believes that people today demand three things in the contemporary home, no matter what the style. "They want it to be classic and timeless, comfortable and nurturing," he says.

With this in mind, Mr. Waites teamed up with the Lane Co. last year to launch a contemporary furniture collection. Just as he did with country design, Mr. Waites developed themes bound together by style and color. He fashioned every detail, from the glaze on a vase to the finish of a chair or table leg to the matting of a framed print. His 66-piece furniture collection is complemented by some 400 accessories, a major undertaking in the industry.

One reason for the apparent success of the Lane collection is that Gear home products are affordable. Prices range from about $10 for a miniature topiary to $5,000 for a Lane armoire. Retail sales have reached more than $300 million annually.

What the Gear Collection and New Country Gear have in common is the diversity of looks, from decoupaged fruit on table tops and lamps, to acanthus leaves, sunbursts or astrological motifs on furniture, to gilded, Greek-style urns. From his success with country style, Mr. Waites borrowed an important ingredient for seasoning his version of contemporary: warmth.

"His designs are nonthreatening and inviting," says Jean LemMon, editor of Better Homes & Gardens, explaining Mr. Waites' commercial appeal.

Mr. Waites' fresh "Pacific Heights" collection for Lane caught Ms. LemMon's eye. In Better Homes' May issue, the striking living room of its "Home of the Year" was anchored by a pair of Mr. Waites' tailored, straight-backed sofas with waterfall arms and tapering blond legs. Dressed smartly in a creamy tone-on-tone wide stripe, the fabric engagingly plays off the glossy giant stripes on the teal walls. A sunburst motif stretches over the 48-inch glass-topped metal table. Rivets on the table's apron are as decorative as they are functional, and the antique bronze finish has an aged look. A metal chair upholstered in a wide-weave rattan adds texture, as does a shallow basket filled with pine cones.

That hint of country, plus a mix of finishes and styles in accessories -- a modern, polished stainless lamp (Cresswell Ltd.) and glazed terra-cotta plates (Italia Collection) on the mantel -- creates the kinds of tensions that Mr. Waites has enjoyed in his country interiors.

Mr. Waites doesn't see contemporary limited to uncluttered settings, tailored upholstery or neutral colors. His "Beacon Court" collection for Lane was designed with more of a library feel in mind. Woods are darker, finished in cognac. The palette is rich, as are the patterns, which combine paisleys, plaids and stripes. And the decorative embellishment is piled on.

Look at one of his medium-scaled glazed cotton plaids in rose and sage, overlaid with giant cabbage roses, and you might be thinking country. But it's how the plump sofa is accessorized that moves it into what Mr. Waites calls "romantic contemporary."

It's a perfect example of how Mr. Waites' licensing works. The pillows (Thief River Linens) typically mix patterns, from bees to leopard. A plaid chenille throw (Textillery) is draped over a deeply scrolled arm chair (Lane). The wall covering (Imperial) is a small, all-over leaf pattern with a companion floral border. Moss-framed topiaries (Lady Slipper Designs) and floral-patterned ceramic urns (Toyo) are among the abundant accessories.

Mr. Waites likes the contrast of buttoned-up and relaxed. Formal topiaries in tole containers are offset with sisal carpeting instead of an Oriental rug; a luxurious chenille throw is woven in a sporty plaid.

"He's a master of color and texture," says Ms. LemMon, who has followed the designer's evolution from the beginning, when she was editor of Country Home. "When he puts them together, it's sensational. Nobody can layer with greater panache than Raymond."

Mr. Waites feels the deliberate mixing of unexpected elements -- the designer's signature since he first put together plaids and floral patterns, now a popular mainstream mix -- solidifies his definition of contemporary. He favors unusual furniture finishes, such as sisal, tweed, black emerald, washed limestone or

antique moss. His accessories are brushed in gilded metals or have handcrafted looks like raku pottery. Classical shapes, such as urns, may be painted in bold spirals of color. Terra-cotta pots may be gilded. Awning stripes or mundane canvas may be trimmed in elegant cords or tassels. Rusted hardware is teamed with clean light ash. It's the sum of the parts that makes the contemporary statement.

The Alabama-born Waites, whose speech still is peppered with a Southern twang, studied visual arts at Auburn University, where he met his wife, Nancy. When the two moved to New York, where he continued design study at Pratt, they discovered Design Research, a New York retail shop similar to early Crate & Barrel. That's where they met the founders of the modern Finnish manufacturer Marimekko, which in the '60s and '70s was known for bold colors and graphic designs, and they moved to Finland. Mr. Waites worked for Marimekko for 10 years.

When Mr. Waites returned to the United States in 1976, he was introduced to Bettye Martin, American manager for Louis Vuitton, the French luxury luggage manufacturer. She had been scouting for a graphic designer to create a line of soft-sided luggage. The two teamed up and Gear was born.

In developing the home fashions philosophy for Gear in the late '70s, Mr. Waites focused on things American. He adapted mini-prints from quilts and colors such as barn reds from the American landscape.

After the first coordinated home collections, Gear launched a line of kids' home fashions, toys and clothing and a private label collection called Open Home for Sears, which in 10 years sold a whopping $1.2 billion.

"Some designers would say I'm too chameleon," Mr. Waites says. "I'm a tinkerer and a try-er. In the '60s and '70s, I fell into the culture of modernism. In 1977, I flipped 180 degrees and helped create American country. At the end of the '80s, I felt a major pull to neo-traditional. That evolved into a '90s classic contemporary, which mixes materials."

Still, Mr. Waites has made a significant contribution. He's been lauded in the industry with the equivalent of Oscars for furniture (twice), wall coverings and bedding designs. Editor LemMon believes that Mr. Waites has a gift for making a statement.

"Sometimes the statement is, 'Hey, look where the world is going'; sometimes it's calculated to make you stop in your tracks," she notes.

For more information about Gear Licensees, contact Gear Holdings Inc., 127 Seventh Ave., New York, N.Y. 10011; (212) 645-8000.

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