HIGH POINT, N.C. -- The concept is simple: furniture that's easy to live with. But how do you convince buyers your stylish new collection is more than just another pretty face?

That's the question manufacturers struggled with for the International Home Furnishings Market, which ended Friday in High Point, N.C. The twice-yearly wholesale market introduces styles that will be making their way to stores in about six months.

To woo consumers who have been skittish about buying furniture recently, companies downsized sofas -- the better to fit into smaller living rooms -- and upsized coffee tables -- the better to eat dinner off in front of the television. (One of the market's hottest styles in coffee tables was the multifunctional tea table, 24 inches high instead of 18.)

They put tables and cabinets on casters and gave upholstered chairs a push-back feature as on a recliner. Armoires had built-in tie racks; desk chairs folded down to fit in a home-office unit.

Collections in many showrooms featured more occasional pieces than ever -- furniture with several uses, like nesting tables and benches, that can be moved easily to change the look of a room.

Clean lines

For inspiration, designers used the easy-to-live-with clean lines and casual feel of the English Arts and Crafts movement and its American counterpart, Mission. Such adaptations were everywhere at this spring's market. Henredon, a high-end manufacturer, updated its Arts and Crafts-inspired pieces with Asian accents. Henredon's version of the classic William Morris chair, for instance, looks remarkably at home -- and a bit more exotic than the original -- in rattan.

Not everything was clean-lined. For those who want richness, ornate carving and ornamentation, Lane introduced the major new licensing program of the spring market, the 80-piece Hearst Castle Collection. This included reproductions, adaptations and inspirations from publisher William Randolph Hearst's Mediterranean Revival mansion at San Simeon, Calif. Even this, though, was sold as "livable luxury."

In Lane's showroom, a ketchup bottle and a mustard jar were prominently on display, sitting on the adaptation of a 17th-century English refectory table -- just as they used to be when Hearst visited the mansion he called his "ranch." The condiments were there to remind buyers that in spite of all the opulent twist carvings, walnut veneers and elegant fabrics, these furnishings were just as down-home as a pine rocker with a gingham-covered seat cushion.

Other designers responded to consumers' desire for usefulness combined with ornament by coming out with what they called "southern European" styles, not to be confused with the dreaded Mediterranean of the late '60s and early '70s.

"This is pretty. That was ugly," said Wayne Burris of Pulaski Furniture, which introduced a new collection, Corsica, that came perilously close to being the M-word. "Before it was how many carvings and hinges you could put on before they fell off."

The livable look

The new, not-quite-Mediterranean styles brought out by severalmanufacturers are as massive in scale as their predecessors, but often have lighter finishes, more restrained carvings and light distressing that gives the furniture a well-used (and therefore more livable) look.

The most long-lasting easy-to-live-with look of all, country, seemed finally to have run its course -- at least in the major manufacturers' showrooms.

Country was nowhere to be seen, except occasionally in the form of more refined and prettier "cottage" styles like Pulaski's Laurel Creek collection.

There were other notable trends at this spring's market:

Seeing red: The big color story was not the much ballyhooed techno-brights.

"We tried them last market," said Kristine Capra of Highland House, known for its upscale upholstered pieces. "The retailers hated it, and the consumers hated it."

Instead, red was everywhere. Not a bright red or a clear red, but soft, subdued, earthy shades like persimmon, paprika and mulberry. These reds function as a neutral, and manufacturers paired them with just about everything.

Bench press: At the past few markets, ottomans were big news. Now benches have become the occasional piece of note. They can be used in front of a sofa or at the foot of the bed. They can sit in a foyer until they are needed for extra seating. And these benches often have more style in one curved leg than massive pieces have in their whole frames.

Global warming: Imports and ethnic accents continue to be important. Maitland-Smith's huge London Explorers Club introduction of occasional furniture and accessories from all over the world got the most press; but in many showrooms there were collections inspired by places like the Dutch West Indies and furniture like sofas made of banana bark or raffia chairs.

Mixed media: Those were the buzzwords this market for styles that combined several materials. But the emphasis was often on making the furniture more affordable. Several companies, for instance, combined leather and fabric for those who wanted the look of leather but needed to keep the price down.

Leather looks: Leather was as hot as ever; but it came in new, more durable finishes, new dressmaker trims and even a faux blue denim look with jeans stitching (from Highland House).

It's a boy: Humidors in all shapes, sizes and prices were everywhere for storing those oh-so-trendy cigars. In spite of all the talk last market of a new femininity in furniture design, menswear motifs were prominent, masculine-looking nail-head trim showed up on many upholstered pieces, and Ralph Lauren introduced its rugged for-men-only New Zealand collection.

Just relax: When recliners and other motion furniture first came out, it was enough that the head went back and the feet came up. Now recliners do everything but feed the cat. Not only did this market's models have heat and speaker phones, or at the very least phone jacks; but Panasonic also introduced its Great Escape lounger, which "simulates the movements of a real shiatsu massage therapist."

The princess and the pea: Maybe it's the graying of America, but mattresses were news at High Point this spring. Kingsdown's $5,000 mattress set is now the company's best seller. (Can any mattress really be worth $5,000?) Beyond innersprings were new generations of air beds, foam mattresses and water mattresses galore.

And the winner is... : The award for this market's trendiest piece goes to Flexsteel, a century-old manufacturer of traditional furniture. The company introduced a Mission-inspired recliner with straight lines and vertical slats. It was covered in leather and had a golfer-motif print.

At home with Jacques Grange

It used to be that interior designers designed interiors and furniture designers designed furniture. But at recent High Point markets "name" interior designers have been responsible for some of the most talked-about collections of furniture.

At this market the designer was French sensation Jacques Grange. His name may not be familiar to Americans, but the names of his clients are -- Paloma Picasso, Yves Saint Laurent, Princess Caroline of Monaco, Isabelle Adjani.

The sophisticated 24-piece collection he designed for the John Widdicomb Co. has diverse origins, from Egyptian and Chinese to French furniture of the '30s and '40s. The materials range from cherry to exotic African wenge veneers to faux marble. Some pieces are carved and fluted and embellished with gold leaf, some are simple and angular. But the collection's elegance and, yes, modesty, tie it together.

"This is furniture that I am happy to have in my own living room," says Grange. "Furniture that gives you the liberty to use easily."

How does a collection like this come about? Amazingly, it was only a gleam in the eye of Stephen Nobel, president of John Widdicomb, as late as last July. He wrote to Grange asking him to consider doing a collection. When the designer agreed, Nobel flew to Paris. At their first meeting, Grange took a felt pen and drew a few rudimentary sketches, what he called "the spirit of the collection."

Nobel took these "fragments" A Jacques Grange armoire back to Chad Womack, the company designer in Grand Rapids, Mich., who produced more detailed sketches. They were sent with suggestions of materials and samples of wood to Paris. (Grange chose all the fabrics.) The back and forth continued through the winter.

The result of the long-distance collaboration was the most notable introduction at the spring market -- although with the retail cost of these pieces running from $2,000 up, they are out of the average furniture buyer's price range. In Baltimore the Jacques Grange collection should be available through Shofer's, the exclusive distributor here for John Widdicomb furniture.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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