Furnishings outlook

Probably the best news out of the April Southern Furniture Market is that the cost of your new sofa will not be higher than it was last year, and it could well be lower.

Prices are not only holding firm, but manufacturers are making every effort to absorb any increase in the cost of materials and to give consumers more solid value than ever before. Many manufacturers showing at the Southern Market offered special economy packages that should enable homemakers to buy furniture for less money.

For many of the 36,000 companies exhibiting at this spring market, business has been badly dented by the continuing recession, the small number of new homes being built, and the fact that fewer people are moving into houses.

''We are in an era of around one million housing starts a year,'' says Henry O. Timnick, president of the Stanley Furniture Company. ''This is about half of what it was only three years ago. We recognize that in times like these consumers tend to be far more conservative with their dollars, and in their taste. This may also account for why 18th-century traditional has been our fastest-growing style over the past three years.''

As Harley Shuford, president of Century Furniture in Hickory, N.C., admits, ''It's been a difficult year for the furniture industry, and we have worked a lot of four-day weeks here. We are not looking for our usual profit margin. We think it is more important to offer even more value and to keep things going.''

Century is making a style statement with about eight painted lacquer colors that give a distinctive new glow to wood pieces, particularly chairs. Its Chinese-inspired group, ''Chin Hua,'' introduced a few seasons back, continues a best seller.

There are many stunning new Oriental groups at this market. They include the ''Tai Ming'' collection of 60 pieces at Drexel Heritage, drawn by Brian Palmer from the Ming Dynasty period in China. The ''Shoji'' collection at Bernhardt/Flair in Lenoir is a new interpretation by designer Tom Keller of ageless themes from Japanese architecture. Bassett's new Oriental group, ''Passport,'' features landscape scenes, applied by silk-screen process, on fronts of panels.

It is the 18th-century styles, both English and American in derivation, that have continued to proliferate most noticeably since the 1976 Bicentennial celebration. The James River Collection at Hickory Chair Company now includes reproductions from seven famous Southern plantation homes, with 36 new pieces introduced this spring. Camelback sofas and love seats are reigning favorites.

''Today we consider ourselves the complete 18th-century resource, specialists who know exactly what we are doing,'' says company president Hugh Boyer. ''We see no slackening of interest at all in 18th-century reproductions and adaptations, and we have not been able to make them fast enough. Our business has been terrific these past months.'' This is the positive side of the economic picture.

The Kittinger Company, opening a Southern Market showroom for the first time in High Point, also reported an 18 percent increase in sales volume this past year. This company has produced the Colonial Williamsburg reproductions since the 1930s. Other companies that make expensive, top-quality merchandise appear to have fared better in recent months than those making medium- and low-priced furnishings.

Modern or contemporary styles continue to hold their own. Designer Alessandro made a big splash at Selig with an avant-garde approach to upholstery. His sofas , chaises, and other items would not be for everyone, as they are futuristic and different. They represent his own yearning toward elegance, a yearning he thinks he shares with the general public. Meanwhile, Milo Baughman terms his new Art Deco-inclined look ''the New Formalism,'' which is smooth, restrained, and opulent.

Modern designer John Mascheroni continues his low, lush, curvaceous seating designs for Swaim. He predicts that the American Southwest will become the next big color influence in home furnishings. He sees soft pastel colors of adobe, sandstone, Western sunsets, sagebrush, and other desert vegetation replacing today's ice cream colors.

The spring market turns up other observations. The newest metal color around is a soft, burnished pewter. Scrubbed pine and scrubbed oak finishes are new at some companies. Fabrics have gone astonishingly dressy. Several companies are using silk again, and the Charlton Company is featuring a delightful range of Thai silks. Homemakers can expect to see richly beautiful damasks, jacquards, satins, and taffetas covering the chairs and sofas that will be coming into stores over the next six months.

Laura Ashley cotton prints, quaint, small-scaled, and ''country,'' are an important element of the Lambert Company's market presentation. The casual country look continues to be popular at all levels, but the drumroll promotion of it has waned somewhat. Rural American and country French looks are everywhere , however, and the new English country group at Baker is Georgian in period.

The spring market also reflects the growing eclecticism expressed in American homes. It is the non-groups and non-suites that keep gaining in strength and acceptance. Individual accent pieces styled with real flair are getting more and more attention.

Consumers love them, whether they are curio cabinets, big focal-point armoires or breakfronts, occasional tables, small chests, or assorted stools, boxes, and benches. They don't match anything, but they mix with everything. Many companies have set aside these special collections under names like Drexel's ''Et Cetera'' or Pennsylvania House's ''Connoisseur'' or Peters-Revington's ''Collectors' Cabinet Program.'' These very different accent or novelty pieces add new interest to homes, and they certainly spice up the marketplace.

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