HIGH POINT, N.C. - You have to be young, or at least young at heart, to appreciate what's happening in the home furnishings industry these days. "Lifestyle" furniture rules, as last week's International Home Furnishings Market here proved.
The pieces were clean-lined, lighter in feeling, function-oriented and relaxed - the kind of affordable furniture you might see in hip young loft apartments. Designers drew on the past (usually art deco, arts and crafts, and retro moderne) for inspiration, but gave these styles a decidedly contemporary and casual feel.
This is furniture designed to appeal to young adults, but baby boomers who have embraced dress-down Fridays also like its relaxed look. Some companies are even targeting empty nesters, who - they hope - will use it to furnish their new condos or vacation homes.
Manufacturers showcased cabinets, tables and sideboards with spare, clean lines in maple and ash, usually with light finishes and brushed metal hardware. Sofas and chairs sported exposed wood or metal legs, often tapered. They were upholstered in feel-good fabrics like chenille, boucle, velvet and textiles that had been washed, brushed or sueded.
Pieces were usually small enough to fit comfortably into an apartment. They were often multifunctional and sometimes had casters so they could be easily moved.
No one trend has been so dominant since the mix-and-match mania of a few years ago, with just about everybody getting into the lifestyle act. Except for high-end companies like Baker Furniture, best known for its reproductions of antiques, most showrooms had room settings with names like "Preface," "Urban Loft" and "Essentials."
This last was the wholesale market's largest new lifestyle introduction, a collection of over 100 pieces by Pennsylvania House. With its youthful mix of Scandinavian, mission and country-influenced designs, it was a jazzy departure for a company known for its well-crafted but not particularly exciting solid wood furniture.
People in the industry are still grappling with a definition for "lifestyle." It's not the same as casual furniture - a large, comfortable recliner is casual, but definitely not lifestyle. Manufacturers, however, know it's a gold mine, as Pottery Barn and Crate & Barrel -- pioneers in the field -- have demonstrated.
"It's furniture that makes people feel at home," said Robin Campbell of Stanley Furniture. "It's relaxed and easy to live with."
Stanley's first lifestyle collection, introduced last fall, is now the company's No. 1 best seller in three categories: bedroom furniture, occasional tables and entertainment units. No wonder Stanley brought out two new lifestyle collections this market.
With just about every major showroom offering this younger, hipper furniture, five major introductions that bucked the trend were noteworthy:
When Ron Freeman of Classic Leather, inspired by an exhibit of salvaged artifacts, came up with the idea of reproducing Titanic furniture last May, the movie hadn't been released and Leonardo was just another pretty face. What serendipity. But the handsome 21-piece collection of authentic reproductions should be a hit in its own right. The show-stopper: an occasional chair that looks something like a mahogany and leather deck chair and folds for easy moving and storage.
Lexington Furniture collaborated with folk artist Warren Kimble on a collection of 19th century-inspired pine furniture and accent pieces that will delight all who were sorry to see American country go. Many of the pieces are hand-painted with Kimble's highly stylized farm animals and rural Vermont landscapes.
Drexel Heritage is gambling that the exotic and ornate furnishings of its 80-piece Mandalay collection will appeal to those a little glassy-eyed over all the pared-down, cleaned-up, young-minded furniture. Elaborate detailing, fretwork, bronze and gilt finishes, chow legs and clever use of wicker and rattan add visual excitement to this eclectic Asian collection, which was inspired by Thai, Burmese, Chinese and Vietnamese furniture and antiques.
"We're goosing our past a little bit," said Michael Delgaudio of Century Furniture, explaining the reasoning behind the company's new National Trust for Historic Preservation Collection. The collection is inspired by woodwork, mantels and doorways as well as furniture from historic sites, but it's updated with more casual finishes and detailing. English and Biedermeier influences predominate. One of the most appealing pieces is a chest with a beautiful Italian stone top, which has authentic-seeming cracks that make it look like an antique.
Designer Larry Laslo's striking Moderne Collection for Bexley Heath Ltd. features 15 pieces inspired by the '20s, '30s and '40s. Its woods include zebra, rosewood and ebony, with soothing upholstery colors like charcoal, parchment and taupe.
But, Laslo said, he had to enlarge the designs. "People want bigger furniture and fewer pieces these days."
Classic, contemporary, comfy and crafty
Here are some of the decorating trends that starred at the spring International Home Furnishings Market:
* Arts-and-crafts and mission-style furniture, which emerged at the high end in the early '90s, is now found in every price range. At this market, it was more prevalent than ever.
* Designers wanted to have it both ways, so there was much talk of "classic contemporary" and "traditional modern." That usually meant reinterpreting past styles by changing the scale, softening lines, stripping away fussy details and adding thicker, more comfy cushioning.
* Leather was again high profile, the newest look being a pearlized or metallic sheen.
* Colors were still bright, but no longer neon bright. Soft earth tones predominated. Neutrals were warmer and richer.
* Water motifs were everywhere, from a Titanic-inspired collection to spa colors with names like "sea foam" to cottage-by-the-sea collections.
* Ash and brushed nickel were the hot wood and hardware combo.
* Accent pillows were more important than ever, because upholstered pieces were often covered in a solid fabric.
* The chaise is back - more as a decorative accent piece than functional furniture.
* Even if consumers are furnishing smaller spaces, they still want big and imposing beds. Manufacturers obliged.
* Chenille's popularity isn't close to being over.
Pub Date: 5/03/98