There has been a major breakthrough -- largely unheralded as yet -- in the upholstered furniture marketplace: sofas and chairs covered in two -- or more -- fabrics.
Furniture has, at long last, been freed from the limitations of the single-fabric rule. This also means that, in terms of sheer variety, there is suddenly a much broader selection of furniture available. The potential for finding something that suits you is far greater than it was just a year ago.
The pieces are just turning up on the new-product pages. Once you see them, your first thought may be, "Why didn't someone think of this sooner?"
In a way, someone did. A decade or more ago, the makers of bed linens introduced sheets, shams and comforters in coordinated patterns and colors. Next came coordinated towels and shower curtains.
More recently, the manufacturers of case goods -- bookcases, dressers, chests of drawers, even beds, chairs and tables -- brought two-finish wood furniture to market. Ethan Allen, among others, has had great success with pieces that combine wood stain and paint in a variety of colors.
For many people, such pieces bridged the gap between traditional and contemporary and fit in perfectly with casual, country-style decorating schemes.
That same adaptability is what characterizes the new multifabric sofas and chairs. While contemporary-style pieces are available, what you're more likely to find are traditional shapes and profiles that have been updated with a combination of coordinated fabrics or natural materials.
For example, Hickory Chair is offering the Winged Western sofa. The back and rolled arms re covered in a well-worn, saddle-toned leather. The three seat cushions and three back cushions, however, are wrapped in a caramel-colored chenille, producing a stunning piece that is rustic and refined.
Century Furniture's new Westbay collection includes a traditional rolled-arm Patchwork sofa upholstered in no fewer than five color-coordinated patterns. Had it been covered in a solid color or a single pattern, it would have looked fairly formal. But, dressed as it is in a variety of stripes, it has a wonderfully casual attitude.
Similar pieces are or soon will be available from other major manufacturers of upholstered furniture. Assuming, that is, people take to the idea. If the popularity of color- and pattern-coordinated bed and bath linens and stained-and-painted wooden furniture is any indication, chances are good they will.
Still, as visually appealing and distinctive as these pieces are, it could be difficult to decorate around them. How do you coordinate carpeting, patterned area rugs, window treatments and wall colors with sofas and chairs that consist of multiple patterns and colors?
One way is to allow the furniture alone to carry the burden of providing a room's color and pattern, neutralizing walls, window treatments and floor coverings with a monochromatic approach. Another way is to avoid buying matched sets. A sofa covered in five fabrics and two chairs covered in two or three fabrics have the potential for creating visual chaos.
A safer approach is to combine just one multiple-upholstery piece -- a sofa, say -- with solid-color or one-pattern chairs. Or combine a solid-color or one-pattern sofa with a pair of two-color or two-pattern chairs.
If your existing furniture is in good condition but you'd still like a change, feel free to follow the example set by the furniture manufacturers. Have a sofa or chair reupholstered or slipcovered in a similar fashion. Use a solid, neutral color for the back, sides and arms, then a pattern for the cushions.
The possibilities for renewing old furniture in this manner are endless. Imagine changing a conventional off-white sofa or chair with different cushion covers at different times of the year: a floral chintz for a summery look, a red-and-black buffalo plaid for a log-cabin look, a gingham print for a country look, an Indian print for a Southwestern look.
You could have multiple sets of different kinds of cushion covers that you could change seasonally.
The kind of adaptability exhibited by new multifabric furniture -- as well as by slipcovers and interchangeable cushion covers -- can go a long way toward keeping rooms from looking predictable and impersonal. And it lets you squeeze as much mileage as possible out of costly, long-term investments that have a distressing tendency to go out of style long before they wear out.