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Furniture Trends / A report from the semiannual shows
in High Point, N.C.

Pieces of the Past

The newest looks draw from favorite styles of earlier times, with contemporary touches.

May 27, 1999|WILLIAM KISSEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HIGH POINT, N.C. — It wasn't long ago that visions of the 21st century had us outfitted in space-age jumpsuits and living in solar-powered geodesic domes furnished with amoeba-like sofas and chairs resembling two cubes of butter on polished silver legs.

Fashion notwithstanding, a few futuristic sofas and chairs did turn up last month at the semiannual trade fair in America's furniture capital. But most of the show's 2,400 furniture makers seem less interested in conquering brave new frontiers than in taking a nostalgic look through the past.

With more furniture makers at High Point than at any other furniture fair in North America, it is pretty much guaranteed that nearly every taste is represented. However, three themes--Modernism, American traditionalism and, surprisingly, French country--appear to dominate the design world's latest offerings.

Modernism: The Legs Have It

Since its birth more than a century ago, Modernism has seemed to reinvent itself with each new decade. And it is doing so once again for the 21st century. This time around, however, contemporary furniture design is showing up as deceptively simple, often curvy upholstered sofas; aerodynamic chairs and chaises; and boxy tiered tables, some outlined in brass, others featuring shiny metal accents.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 10, 1999 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 4 View Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Furniture trends--The three-tiered table on the cover of the May 27 SoCal Living section was credited incorrectly. The table is from Baker's Archetype Collection by Michael Vanderbyl.

Many of those creating contemporary furniture--including Goodman/Charlton, Thayer Coggin, Archiva and even the new Coach collection from Baker--seem to be influenced by the boxy furnishings of Florence Knoll, a 20th century icon whose designs provided a bridge between European Bauhaus and contemporary American design.

"In the 1980s and 1990s you saw a lot of homey-comfort slipcovered furniture and now the market is much more about contemporary," says Jeffrey Goodman, co-owner of the See store on Beverly and Robertson boulevards in West Hollywood and design director at Goodman/Charlton.

Defining what is Modern--and what isn't--almost always comes down to the legs. For example, spindly wood-turned legs give Directional designer Michael Wolk's curvy chairs a contemporary feel the designer calls "British colonial meets Manhattan." Sleek metal legs on Goodman/Charlton's cotton boucle and wool-mohair high square-back sectional sofas give a 1960s feel to an obviously 21st century design. In many cases, the legs also hint at the price: The straighter, more minimal the leg, the higher the price point.

More high-profile furniture makers, such as R Jones, Baker and John Widdicomb, have been slowly redefining Modern for years. Los Angeles designer Barbara Barry, whose 1930s and 1940s Hollywood Moderne-inspired furniture pieces for Baker include anything-but-traditional club chairs and sensuously curved tables and sofas, has had an amazing influence on the entire furniture industry as well as her own parent company. For instance, as part of its Historic Charleston collection, Baker introduced at High Point a very contemporary three-tiered etagere table edged in brass.

At John Widdicomb, similarly, designer Larry Laslo has expanded his own Moderne collection by adding a boxy leather club chair and ottoman, zebra wood side tables and a rectangular three-tiered lamp table in polished mahogany. Rob Jones of Dallas-based R Jones unveiled a collection of '30s-inspired Hollywood pieces that included his own oversized and square-framed club chair covered in pieced leather squares.

Americans Hold On to Tradition

Nevertheless, all this new Modernism can't hold up the mantle alone--especially in America, where 98% of the furniture purchased still has its roots in traditionalism.

"Americans have always been reluctant to embrace true contemporary design," notes Mayer Rus, editor of the furniture trade publication Interior Design. "It's not a stigma, but Americans on the whole feel more comfortable with traditional furniture because it's an easier message to digest."

Rus says the fact that French President Francois Mitterrand chose contemporary interior designer Philippe Starck to design his offices, while American President Clinton opted for the Federalist leanings of Arkansas designer Kaki Hockersmith, is the perfect case in point.

As a result, most American furniture design now takes inspiration from both style fronts. A Matthew Hilton sofa might be mixed with an antique Queen Anne chair, for instance. Or a traditional Japanese vase might adorn a room of contemporary Ward Bennett furnishings. And expensive antiques easily mix with swap-meet finds and modern artifacts from home warehouses such as Ikea and Crate & Barrel. What seem like contradictory elements actually work in tandem because, as Pina Manzoni of the Manzoni Group furniture showroom notes, "if design is well-resolved, it will work well no matter what setting you put it in."

Still, as with most consumer products, good furniture design is not so much about inventing something new as it is about refreshing, refining and giving a new spin to old favorites.

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