Whatever happened to the old-fashioned curio cabinets or vitrines? Or those corner what-not stands that displayed so many whimsical knickknacks and needed to be dusted so often? Take a look in any furniture store or department, and you will witness the metamorphosis of the ''curio.''
In the past five years these distinctive, beautifully designed, and useful pieces have become one of the fastest-growing segments of the occasional furniture field.
Why? Because they satisfy the needs of people who have interesting collections or a few precious objects and want handsome showcases in which to display them effectively. Many curios have glass on three sides, a mirrored back panel to reflect the objects placed on the glass shelves, and light strips to illuminate and highlight them. Some curios with glass on four sides can serve as a room divider or be used in the middle of a room with their contents visible from all angles.
Because many of the pieces are tall and thin, they have the virtue of taking up less floor space and fitting into more places, like those narrow areas between doors or windows. They come in every wood, style, and period, and are sometimes made in metal or bamboo, as well. Most have glass doors that close tightly to protect objects and keep out dust. Some consist of open shelves, which makes the collectibles easier to handle and rearrange and eliminates the screening effect of a glass door.
Another reason for the popularity of the curio is that it is an extra, or accent, piece. From the fashion point of view it is a ''separate'' that can be purchased at any time. It will mix or match with other furnishings, and can always be counted on to add a fresh new note to a room's decor.
Gary Hokanson, designer for American of Martinsville, says he has designed curios in at least 35 designs for his company and still finds a demand for more.
''We do not design curios to add to existing groups or to new collections of furniture,'' he says. ''We think of them as pieces which people buy separately, not as a part of suites. But we give curios the same careful cabinetmaking touches and fine finishes that we give all our best pieces. Right now homemakers seem to prefer wider curios - those from 28 inches to 32 inches wide.'' The best-selling retail range for this company is from $700 to $1,000. One store in the Middle West reports that its best-selling curio sells for $198.
Pulaski offers almost 50 curios - the most extensive collection in the market. ''People need vertical storage and display space and they like it well designed,'' is this company's explanation for soaring sales of the curio.
Mack Tenney, president of Jasper Cabinet, says, ''Lights, heavier glass shelves, mirrored backs, and beveled or crown glass doors all help make curios more attractive.'' He says some customers bunch two or three curios together to form a china or wall system. Others use them as focal centers for rooms.
Many stores are developing ''curio galleries'' in order to show off their range of styles. Almost every furniture manufacturer exhibiting at the recent Southern Furniture Market showed some version of the curio. ''This stow-and-show piece is no longer an afterthought,'' one manufacturer admits. ''We are giving it a lot of design and marketing attention.''