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Reproductions Can Be Lessons in History

February 20, 1996|THE BALTIMORE SUN

To buy a museum reproduction is to buy a bit of history as well as a piece of furniture.

With it, you get what's known in the worlds of art and antiques as provenance, the history of a piece's origin. Perhaps this is no more than a hang tag that gives the background of the original furniture.

But if you know that your purchase is part of a museum-based licensing program, you know the museum has sanctioned the company and had some say in the design and quality of the piece.

Museum-based licensing programs aren't new--they started in the 1930s. What is new is their appeal to a much larger audience, perhaps the result of a broader approach that includes adaptations, "inspirations" and lifestyle collections involving historic cities.

"Consumers like what amounts to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval," says licensing consultant Hermine Mariaux. "They definitely respond to that."

A quick explanation of terms:

Reproductions are more or less exact copies of the original furnishings. They may differ from the original in size, material or manufacturing process (factory-made instead of handmade, for instance).

An adaptation is more flexible, as you might expect. Design elements are there but made more usable for today's lifestyles.

"A little desk might be converted to a server," says Alex Mitchell of Baker Furniture in Baltimore, "Or a linen press to accommodate a TV."

Interpretations are broader still. For instance, the design of a Winterthur floral painted swag lamp by As You Like It was "interpreted" from a Jean Baptiste Reveillon wall covering made in Paris circa 1791.

Make no mistake about it: Licensing is big business, providing important revenue for museums and historical preservation societies. Since Winterthur's program began in 1982, for example, 40 licensees have produced more than 2,000 products--everything from furniture to garden statuary.

While traditional museum-based licensing will continue to be important, the latest trend is toward "lifestyle programs." At one spring home furnishings market, for instance, Hickory White introduced Savannah, a licensed collection inspired by the historic mansions of Georgia's port city.

This was an eclectic interpretation of a variety of European styles.

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