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DECORATING : Enjoy Living Out of a Suitcase--at Home


Different times, different needs. Old suitcases and steamer trunks are enjoying new life as home accessories.

These vintage pieces "evoke the romance of the old-fashioned travel experience. They also serve a useful purpose as extra storage and tabletops," Carol Schalla says. "What's even more fun about old suitcases is that you can usually find a style that works with your specific decor."

Schalla, editor of Victorian Sampler in St. Charles, Ill., recently began featuring suitcases, steamer trunks and hatboxes in the magazine to illustrate their appeal as unconventional storage units and tables.

In one photo, eight vintage cases are stacked in graduated sizes and used for long-term storage. Another layout pairs leather and wicker as a coffee table for a wicker sofa. Then there's the open steamer trunk standing in the guest room. With hangers on one side and drawers on the other, these trunks make handy armoires.

There's an art to choosing the right luggage for a particular decor. For a masculine room or one with a Victorian theme, Schalla might use leather or fiberboard cases in a herringbone pattern and metal corner caps. For country styles, plaid and wicker cases set the tone.

Beat-up is not all bad with old suitcases. Scrapes and scratches and travel stickers often add character. Because suitcases come in many sizes, there's one to fit almost any storage need. A small, shallow case works as a lap desk. The top is used as a writing surface, the inside as storage for papers and writing instruments. One of those squarish train cases with a mirror inside the lid can turn any table into a dressing table.

Drum-size hatboxes, once for stylish chapeaus and later used as overnight bags, can be stacked as a table. Less sturdy, but quite useful as pretty storage containers are cardboard hatboxes covered with flowered or striped paper.

Cardboard hatboxes are available in closet shops and department and gift stores. Sometimes they're free with the purchase of a hat. Antique hatboxes are few because they were so fragile.

It's best to look for old luggage in attics--yours or those of friends and relatives--because the pickings are slim at public places.

"You used to find suitcases for $5 at every church rummage sale," says antiques commentator Terry Kovel of Shaker Heights, Ohio. "I am sure you couldn't find one for $50 today."

Top brands in suitcases and trunks have always been pricey, says the author of "Kovel Antiques and Collectibles Price List" (Crown, $14). In the 1995 edition due out this winter, prices for old trunks range from $100 for an Oshkosh wardrobe trunk from the 1930s to $2,500 for a Louis Vuitton fitted steamer trunk from 1910.

The appeal of old travel cases is hardly new. The craze for 19th-Century, dome-topped trunks started decades ago, Kovel says. When they became scarce, people switched to flat-topped trunks. Now, suitcases and steamers from the early and middle decades of the 20th Century are popular.

If you're not up to pawing through flea markets and attics, not to worry. Manufacturers of new furniture are onto the look.

Elden Collections, an Orange County furniture design and manufacturing firm, sells a set of five drawers that look like old-fashioned luggage. Each chest has luggage-like details, such as metal corner caps and strap pulls. Stacked in graduated sizes, in red, brown, green, tan or blue, they look like a stack of suitcases. The tower of drawers retails for about $2,395.

Elden, which distributes its furniture lines throughout the country, has its sales and manufacturing facility in Orange.

"This group started as 'let's do trunks' a little over a year and a half ago," says Alan Needle, owner of Elden Collections. "People are using trunks as coffee tables and lamp tables, and that is why we paid particular attention to the corner details."

Elden Collections is at 1170 Main St., Orange. Call (714) 771-5999.

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