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Swanky Furniture for Your 'Plush Cocoon'

Trends * Manufacturers prepare to outfit the boomers now that they're drawing their maximum paychecks.


HIGH POINT, N.C. — Mitchell Gold, the furniture impresario whose comfy, slipcovered sofas became a staple of the late 1990s American home, has a fresh take on furnishing the good life.

"People want a bit of swank in a room today," said Gold, surveying his showroom full of brown velvet headboards, baby-blue faux suede chairs and armless sofas upholstered in stretchy high-tech fabrics. "It's time for more than just the basics."

At the International Home Furnishings Market here last month, one thing was clear about the pieces that will appear in furniture stores nationwide next spring. Whether cocktail ottomans, English mahogany bookcases, massaging recliners or status outdoor lounge chairs, manufacturers are convinced consumers want furnishings that reflect prosperity--or at least the promise of it.

A Yankelovich Partners Monitor 2000 survey presented at the market by American HomeStyle magazine revealed what was termed an "affluent attitude" among today's consumers. The survey found two significant trends working to shape the home furnishings marketplace: The median income of U.S. households is at an all-time high of $40,816, and 61% of consumers say they are ready to spend money on their homes, the only place they say they can unwind.

The furniture industry is prepared to help.

Despite the economy's autumn cooling trend, the 2,600 furniture and accessory manufacturers displaying their latest collections here were upbeat, basking in the glow of what is projected by the American Furniture Manufacturers Assn. to be record residential furniture sales this year: $64.9 billion, a 7.7% increase over 1999.

Kristen M. Harmeling, associate director at Yankelovich, said that nowadays consumers' "attitudes and aspirations, if not always their bank accounts, say affluence."

Jackie Hirschhaut, vice president at AFMA, saw similar currents. "When I look at style trends at this market, one is the return of formality," she said. "That's not to say casual Friday is going away, but the tide is turning. British- and French-inspired collections are not just limited to high end. There is leather in all ranges and price points."

All across the 9 million square feet of display space here was evidence of the upgrading of America. At the John Widdicomb showroom, designer Larry Laslo dished up cashmere upholstery and French walnut serpentine console tables inspired by 20th-century Italian architect Gio Ponti.

Century Furniture uncorked Savoy, a collection of rich mahogany dining tables and chests with the look of old English drawing rooms, sweeping camelback sofas in gold European damask and Louis XV Dutch chests with swag-and-tassel drawer pulls.

"I think we're seeing the advent of 'the plush cocoon,' " said Bill Hayes, senior vice president of the North Carolina-based manufacturer. "There's a real craving for fine wines, delicious gourmet foods and, yes, rich, sensual surroundings."

Harrods, the upscale British department store, decided it was time to hit flourishing American consumers with designs reproduced from 150 years of Harrods archives. Its collection for the U.S. company Highland House includes Victorian magazine racks and Sheraton-style consoles with delicately painted floral motifs. The prices may require a stiff upper lip, ranging from $400 for a small side table to $15,000 for a bookcase.

Although Harrods Chairman Mohamed Al Fayed was rumored to be jetting in to America's furniture capital for the launch, he didn't make it.

But visiting upper-class Brits included Countess Raine Spencer, who is listed as a director of Harrods International but is best known as being the step-mum of the late Princess Diana. As only the daughter of the late British romance novelist Barbara Cartland could be, she was effusive about bringing Americans more British design. "Everyone is careful about their money these days aren't they?" said the countess. "But they want something they are proud to own. These pieces are not 'frowsty.' They will work anywhere."

Ralph Lauren's version of the good life was the Costa del Sol sofa, a plush, 96-inch design covered in a crisp, oyster-colored linen. The fabric, a white-on-white paisley, is enriched with pierced embroidery done in India.

Baker Furniture, the upscale manufacturer known for reproducing furniture from stately British mansions and wealthy American estates, seemed to be going for a sort of Upstairs-Downstairs thing. The company's simple white Tulip Chair was modeled on one unearthed from the ground-floor servant's hall in Historic Charleston's Aiken-Rhett House. The original, with its tulip-shaped back, is believed to have been used for extra seating or as a hall chair in the 1800s. The chambermaid might blanch at today's suggested retail price: $782.

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