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Lifestyles for Sale : Interiors: Want your home to say Old West or French country? To scream grunge? Easy. Just go out and buy an entire environment of coordinated home furnishings.

June 18, 1993|JEANNINE STEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

So you've never traveled to Cape Cod? No problem. Buy one of those weathered wooden Adirondack chairs and it'll look as though you vacation on the East Coast regularly.

The only rodeo you've ever been to is the street that houses Tiffany? Doesn't matter. Get a lamp made out of old, rusted horseshoes and your friends will swear you were born in the saddle.

No one has to actually do things like vacation in Massachusetts or ride horses, as long as the right home accouterments make it look as if you do. Now you can be all that you can buy, thanks to the growing number of home-furnishing stores that offer an entire environment with a definitive look. It's what the retail trade calls "niche marketing."

For example, there's down-home country Americana at the Eddie Bauer Home Collection in the Beverly Center, where earthenware jugs, birdhouses fashioned out of twigs, and old license plates and pre-weathered oars are sold in a store with hardwood floors and clean, white walls.

At Raffia in Century City, the dominant theme is the Old West, and home, home on the range can be furnished with old, stickered suitcases, pillows featuring bucking broncos, and stitched leather frames. Objects are displayed on dark wood cabinets, the lighting is warm, and the '40s standards playing are not your usual mall Muzak.

For a look that says "I love grunge!" Urban Outfitters in the Santa Monica Promenade features a mishmash of domestic and imported accessories: Boxes made of rough pieces of wood, candlesticks fashioned from twisted wrought iron, and cotton batik throws and natural soaps in a setting of exposed plaster, brick and pipes.

Meanwhile, the French country look can be found at Maison et Cafe, part of the American Rag complex on La Brea. Imported pottery, glassware, kitchen tables and fabric are set up to look like you just stepped into Jean-Pierre's farmhouse.

It's an entire lifestyle for sale, right down to the soap holder.

What's being sold in these stores is the visual equivalent of comfort food: gingham pillows, washed pine chests, wicker chairs and chenille rugs. It's being offered to a willing group of consumers--including baby boomers--who are opening their wallets for a bit of nostalgia, real or imagined.

These boomers are "coming down the market as a big tidal wave," says Aydin Muderrisoglu, assistant professor of marketing at Babson College in Massachusetts, a highly regarded business school. "As they get older, some of these products are a way of satisfying their nostalgia and unmet needs, or it can be seen as a tie back to their own roots, to their childhood, as kind of an emotional vehicle.

"Probably more important than delivering a physical benefit," he adds, "a product is going to be successful to the extent that it delivers an emotional identity. It has to be an extension of the individual's personality."

The connection to reality can be tenuous, as long as it's marketable.

"I think there is a lot of fantasy going on there," says Corey Strait, vice president of Bauer's home division, whose outdoorsy home furnishings are dubbed "lodge style" in the trade. "It may not be a top-of-the-mind awareness, but it's the idea that a little piece of this will make me feel better, transport me. You can tell when you're out shopping that there's an emotional connection that's hard to really define."

To find that emotional connection at Eddie Bauer, market researchers hold round-table discussions with employees and delve into their pasts, recalling summer vacations, Christmas holidays, family trips.

"We really try to climb into the skin of these people . . . and build on those memories, what it was like when you were a small child and you got your first sled, what was it like? We spend a lot of time pushing around in that," Strait says.

But infusing home furnishings with the essence of American nostalgia means rosey-ing up the country's past as well as our own. Few of us had the quintessential Donna Reed/Ozzie and Harriet families growing up, but if we put flannel sheets on the bed that have a '50s-style cowboy-and-Indian print, we can at least pretend we did.

"I think nostalgia is largely revisionist," says Linda Berman, owner of Raffia. "I don't think (the past) was necessarily so great, but I think when we remember our past, we're either remembering the best parts, or re-creating what we wanted it to be. . . . I hear a lot of people in the store saying, 'I grew up in Colorado, and I had this in my bedroom.' The thing is, whether we actually grew up with that or not, we wanted to."

Chuck Lanham did grow up with it, and that's why the L.A. resident likes to shop at Eddie Bauer. Even though he claims the store doesn't define his personal style, "It reminds me of when I was a little kid, that time period, living in the country in Kentucky. Most people like it, too, so I go there to look for presents."

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