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Design 2000

Tweaking Tradition

21st century reproductions give past styles a new twist.


HIGH POINT, N.C. — This small southern town was an unlikely place to find Raine, Countess Spencer, better known as Princess Diana's stepmother and the daughter of the late romance writer Barbara Cartland. But here she was with her big hair and inky eyelashes, holding court with reporters and talking about furniture, of all things.

"Americans have so many ancestral British links," said the Countess over tea. "Your American furniture that you see in museums evolved from English designs. I think this link has always existed." Such pithy, though obvious, observations were part of the Countess' pitch for a new line of furniture, which Harrods, the venerable English department store, introduced here.

It was all part of putting an attention-grabbing spin on events at the week-long Spring 2001 International Home Furnishing Market, which ends today. While every niche of the market was represented, conventional looks reign. Many manufacturers are either introducing new reproductions or adding to traditional lines. Their showrooms were filled with everything from strong, solid Mission to ornate, romantic Victorian to '50s space age streamline.

About 80,000 buyers, interior designers, product reps and media members descend on this town of 70,000 twice a year, logging miles a day in suits and sensible shoes to see hundreds of furniture and home accessories showrooms. The market mostly caters to mainstream tastes--thus traditional's popularity--but manufacturers are quick to point out that reproductions blend well with the modern and ethnic-influenced designs that have been the hot decor trends of the last few years.

If history is repeating itself, it is being revised along the way. Most reproductions have been modified to ease them into modern living. Pieces have been scaled up or down, finishes changed, embellishments altered. Chairs are more comfortable, desks more user friendly. Every armoire, for instance, can accommodate clothing as well as a sizable television.

This may be the 21st century techno world, but at home we long to be enveloped in comfort and make a connection with the past, at least an idealized version. While furniture makers hope these reproductions appeal to a broad demographic, it's no secret they are seriously courting the boomer consumer to help keep furniture sales rising.

Manufacturers hope that by resurrecting the past, they'll tap into something consumers want: an emotional attachment to their furnishings. Skypad, for example, revisits the 1950s with its retro cabinets, chests and desks in neon brights and steel-case finishes.

"They're connecting with something in their past," said Paul Rosen, president of Toronto-based Skypad. His space-age Malibu collection reflects a time when "technology was going to make our lives seamless and perfect. The American dream was being realized through gadgetry." His furniture, which ranges in price from $150 to $1,000 or more, represents "the future that never was. We take a piece and interpret it and exaggerate its features, adding warmth and nostalgia."

And for those who prefer authenticity, Urban Artifacts recycles antique and vintage architectural salvage--tin tiles, doors and shutters--into armoires, tables, beds and accessories. "It's familiar and approachable," said Heidi Hopkins, the Wisconsin-based company's marketing and retail manager. Hang tags on corner cupboards (about $1,700 each) and distressed headboards reveal each piece's history, whether the materials came from a horse barn or an old schoolhouse. "People love hearing the stories," she added.

"People want to be rooted," said Aminy I. Audi, executive vice president of New York-based Stickley, which produces reproduction Arts and Crafts furniture as well as other styles. "We live in such a mobile society, and it is so easy for an individual to get lost. Being connected to the past defines a person's being."

Just as Arts and Crafts was a reaction to the fussiness of Victorian style and the complexity of the Industrial Age, a century later there's still a search for an antidote--this time to the impersonality of our high-tech world.

"There is a longing for something you can feel and touch," said Audi.

Sometimes our link with the past is tenuous. "I know movies have a tremendous influence on me," said San Francisco-based designer Jessica McClintock, she of the ultra-feminine bridal and prom dresses. Her debut line of Victorian-inspired furniture for American Drew includes pieces based on her own 18th and 19th century French and Italian antiques. A dining suite--a table, six chairs and China cabinet--is priced at approximately $8,500 to $10,000. And a bedroom suite--a bed, a dresser and chest-- retails for about $5,500 to $6,500.

"I love Merchant Ivory films," she said, "and when I leave the theater, I hear women say, 'That was so beautiful. Wouldn't you love to live there?' I've always felt that way."

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