New York — The country look has always been with us in some degree, but the current manifestation has been brewing for years. Its beginnings were undoubtedly encouraged by the back-to- nature movement of young people, the communes and flower children of a decade ago. Adults may have sniffed at their back-to-basics life style, but many got the message of simpler living with fewer material possessions.
The current age of renovation and restoration of old buildings has also spurred the desire to furnish with things from an earlier-day America.
This year the auction houses of Sotheby Parke Bernet, Christie's, and the William Doyle Gallery all reported record sales of Americana, and they claim the end of rising demand and prices is not in sight. Flea markets and roadside antique barns continue to flourish, as do house and yard sales that offer American collectibles. "In every year since the Bicentennial, we have seen a dramatic upsurge in Americana collecting at all levels," says William Stahl, A vice-president of Sotheby Parke Bernet in New York.
Certainly, the more people who tackle the remodeling into homes of old barns, firehouses, forges, taverns, schoolhouses, and churches, the more who will be embracing some aspect of country-style decorating.
Country decorating is practiced not only in New England but in the Pennsylvania Dutch country, in the Midwest farm belt, in the adobe country of the Southwest, and in old Rocky Mountain mining towns.
In southern California, the country look has long since grown sophisticated and rich- looking. "We aren't all that cottagey and quaint in this part of the country," says Ed Edson of Robinson's in Los Angeles. "I guess you'd say we go for updated country. We like painted finishes, and not raw wood, and this fall we'll combine handsome porcelain stoves with the country look in our new Santa Monica store. We are much too urban to go for too much of the farm look."
The much-discussed "natural look" of the last decade has also contributed to the country style, because of its emphasis on natural fibers, natural woods, hand-woven textiles, quarry tiles, rag and braided rugs, neutral colors from nature's palette, and the use of handcrafted accessories.
The current country mix can even be quite international, of course, and includes country American, country French, country English, country Italian, country Scandinavian, and even country Japanese. As designer Lawrence Peabody points out, from his own rural retreat in Rindge, N.H., "Country is actually a universal style, a kinship of rural styles and points of view of many countries. It has great appeal and is a counterbalance to all the coordinated dullness of many all-modern interiors. I think the ambiance of the 1980s will be a continuing mixture of modern modular seating, earthy-looking jugs and baskets and old woods, and, yes, even plastic pieces. This is the kind of eclecticism that we have come to understand."
The old-time country look is being interpreted by dozens of furniture and texile manufacturers, including Riverside, Drexel Heritage, Thomasville, Bernhardt, Pulaski, Ethan Allen, Century, Laura Ashley, Schumacher, Waverly, and many others. The Bell System has even brought back its wall- mounted oak telephone, which was first introduced in 1913 and has not been manufactured since 1940. The new version is modern inside, but looks its 67 years on the outside. Seth Thomas has also introduced a new model of its ever popular wall-hung schoolhouse clock.
Meanwhile, a new total design and marketing program called "New Country Gear" was founded in Bucks County, Pa., in 1978 by Bettye Martin and Raymond Waites. They took an old barn to serve as a laboratory and gathered up old quilts, crockery, and furniture to study as inspiration for their contemporary version of an American design movement based on familiar themes and colors taken from slate, Indian corn, stones, and barn siding. So far the partners have licensed their designs for fabrics, table and bed linens, wall coverings, kitchen accessories, paint, pillows, shower curtains, and soap. The entire freshly new but reminiscent Gear collection is, or will be, presented by many leading stores this year.
The latest book on country living is called "American Country, a Style and Source Book," by Mary Ellisor Emmerling. The book, with over 500 handsome color photographs, is the result of Mrs. Emmerling's 13 years of collecting and loving American country furniture and antique accessories. She says it is a look that came about in the 19th century before machine technology took over, and she shows plenty of examples of houses decorated with painted furniture, quilts, baskets, folk art, pottery, and tables set with stoneware and pewter. Since the author believes that the American country style also involves the vegetables you grow, the foods you cook, and the decorations you put up at holiday times, her book includes recipes, decorations, and many other aspects of country living.
Says the author, "While American country is based on the past, it is a style that is ideally suited to active, informal styles of today, for there are no rules to follow in assembling it and little upkeep is required to maintain it."
Mrs. Emmerling has also, this summer, opened the American Country Store in South- ampton, Long Island, where she is offering cupboards, twig tables, slipware pottery from Pennsylvania, weather vanes, rag rugs, and various other objects dear to the hearts of country-look fans.
The newest magazine touting the virtues of country life is Good Housekeeping's Country Living, which was launched 16 months ago and has a circulation of half a million. It is now published six times a year and is bought by a youngish audience averaging 34 in age, with average annual incomes of $25,000.
The publisher, John Mack Carter, says, "We struck a most responsive audience of people who apparently want to know a lot more about county kitchens, country foods, and country houses and gardens, and so far we are unique in our presentation."
The country look was once described by House Beautiful as being a "nostalgic back- to-the-grass-roots movement, a new evaluation of the pastoral past, mixed with a measure of urbane stylishness. It represents a yearning toward simpler days, a turning toward the symbols of farm and farmhouse, ranch and range, meadow and woods."
Certainly, "country" is an attitude as well as a style, and it has crept into the mainstream of American thinking and decorating.