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HOME DESIGN : A SPECIAL ISSUE OF ORANGE COUNTY LIFE : Giving a Home a Gallery Look--in Precisely Your Own Taste

August 12, 1989|KATHRYN BOLD | Kathryn Bold is a free-lance writer.

Looking to wake up a wall? Replace that velvet Elvis painting with some real art?

Go to a museum.

Museum stores in Orange County carry an eclectic mix of imaginative home accessories and funky gewgaws. They offer original, affordable art for the home that will persuade the neighbors that you really do have taste.

Browsing through the Bowers Museum Shop in Santa Ana, for example, is like visiting an international boutique. The shop stocks handmade arts and crafts from all over the world, especially Africa, South America and the American Southwest. You can be sure nobody else on your block has an initiation headdress from Nigeria, a Haitian oilcan sculpture of a dog or an African beer cup beautifully carved from a gourd.

Museum shops offer an alternative to mass-produced merchandise. Decorators can find handblown glass vases in iridescent hues, ceramic dishware painted with polka-dots and stripes, weird clocks, folksy tapestries and Southwestern-style pottery--all made by hand.

"We don't buy quantity in anything. Otherwise, it's not special," says Nancy Longbine, who manages and buys the pieces for the Bowers shop.

"If I know I can get 200 of something, I don't want it. I might as well go to Bullock's. If there are only three of them made, I'll really want them."

Store managers pride themselves on their unique merchandise. They know buyers want original, handmade works.

"You can't find a lot of these things in department stores. Most of our things are one of a kind," says Ruth Boyle, manager of the Laguna Art Museum Store in Laguna Beach.

"We were really upset when we saw this in the Broadway," she said, pointing to a collection of clocks by Heather Ramsay. "We probably won't carry them now."

Home decorators have to be part artist themselves to imagine how some of these off-the-wall objects will look on the wall. Not everyone can look at, say, Tai-Ling Wong's papier-mache unicorn mask in the Laguna museum store and see the perfect solution to that bare spot above the fireplace, or envision Roy Sanders' pink-and-purple ceramic snake slithering up a wall. It's no ordinary kitchen that can sport a clock with a knife, fork and spoon for hands.

Colleen Haney, a sales clerk at the Laguna Art Museum's satellite store at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, wants to turn her home into a live-in art gallery.

"When I move into my new apartment, most of my stuff will be from here," she says. "It's going to be so neat." She has already picked out an avant-garde cocktail table fashioned out of intersecting geometric shapes.

People who have Picasso tastes but a paint-by-numbers budget can find affordable art at most of the shops. Handmade works usually can be had for less than comparable pieces at department stores because the museum shop is the sole mediator between creator and customer.

The gift shop at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton has original, hand-painted tiles by local artist Cindy Wallace starting at just $7. The tiles make colorful and inexpensive wall decorations. For $19, one of Wallace's village scenes on sand-colored tiles would go well with a Southwestern decor.

"The tiles are so popular, she can't make them fast enough for us," says Tallya Geiger, shop manager.

Most shops promote works by local artists, although they will order pieces from national museums or dealers who import artifacts from around the world. The stores' proceeds go to support the museums.

In Orange County, museum stores have arts and crafts to suit a variety of decorative styles. Here's a sampling of what they have to offer:

Bowers Museum Shop

Handmade arts and crafts from around the world are plentiful at this colorful boutique. Those trying to create an "Out of Africa" look in their homes can find plenty of carved masks, hand-woven baskets, water vessels and headdresses. The more expensive pieces have been used in actual tribal rites. Bowers also has pottery from Mexico and the Indian pueblos of the Southwest, wall hangings made of colorful fabric from Peru, silk kimonos from Japan and other treasures.

2036 N. Main St., Santa Ana. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday , noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. (714) 647-6525 or (714) 972-1900. Laguna Art Museum Store

Looking for a four-legged cat teapot with matching mugs? A whimsical clock for the nursery featuring a cow jumping over the moon and a simulated pendulum made out of a pink baby spoon?

Contemporary and sometimes humorous works are the store's specialty. On the serious side, one of Colleen James' stark female figures, hand-built of white porcelain, would be a showpiece in any room. In addition, there are handblown glass works, many clay and ceramic vases and bowls and papier-mache masks with funny animal faces.

307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach. Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. (714) 494-6531. Laguna Art Museum, satellite store in South Coast Plaza

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