American Country

It's everywhere these days. From the display windows of the Washington branch of Bloomingdale's to trendy little restaurants in San Francisco, American Country has arrived.

Anytime you see the stuffed toys, the baskets hanging from exposed beams, the painted wooden slices of fake watermelon, one thought flashes to mind: American Country.

Accessories are the key to the look. They can be a very expensive key if one thinks only in terms of authentic antique country accessories. Fortunately, the look can be achieved without using antiques.

There are two alternatives to using genuine antique accessories - three, if one counts buying lesser-grade or damaged antiques instead of perfect pieces. The first consists of making your own accessories. That isn't as hard as it sounds.

Quilts can be sewn and samplers stitched. There are kits available for both. New decoys are available in raw wood, ready for painting. New tinware can be decorated with the aid of books and kits. New wooden boxes can be painted with buttermilk-based paints and scuffed up to simulate old ones. Pick up a craft magazine at the newsstand for further suggestions.

You can also use reproductions. Many find this the easiest and quickest way to go. In the last two years a number of stores have sprung up, coast to coast, featuring the American Country style. Be aware, though, that many of the accessories are expensive when purchased in a specialty shop.

The wise shopper should first look through regular department stores, check out area antique shops for reproductions, and visit local museums. Most museums feature a well-stocked gift shop and a wide array of reproductions. Finally, check out local craft shops or fairs for copies of country pieces.

It's possible to spend a lot of money if you insist on quality in country antiques. Antique collectors and dealers have discovered the desirability of those finely crafted country baskets and finger-lapped storage boxes.

A desirable cheese basket easily costs $300. Stacks of those storage boxes, in the original country colors, run from $1,200 to $1,800. A big burl bowl, which looks great when filled with ripe red McIntosh apples, can set you back nearly $1,000.

Visit secondhand and junk shops. Look for the damaged and lesser pieces the serious antique collector passes up. You can put the basket with the hole in it on top of a cupboard and turn the hole to the wall. The chopping bowl with the worn base can be filled with fruit.

Once you start considering damaged antiques as decoration, there are a number of possibilities. Look for chipped or cracked pottery pitchers to hold bunches of dried flowers. Damaged stoneware jugs make great lamp bases in any room. Every hardware store or lamp shop has kits for making lamps out of just about anything. The possibilities for country-look lamps are endless. Decoys, toys, painted tins - all will work as long as you remember one thing: Never drill or otherwise damage a genuine antique in any way. It's better just to provide a base for the piece to sit on in front of the lamp.

Try assembling a collection of old food choppers, cheese graters, or wooden spoons and forks for wall decoration. Consider hanging an antique quilt on a living or bedroom wall. If you sew a Velcro strip to the top edge and attach another to the wall, the quilt won't be hurt. The museum shop will have prints of the finest American country paintings. You can buy a country-looking frame or make your own. An old veneer- or plaster-covered frame can be soaked in water for a few days, and you'll end up with a plain pine frame for those prints.

Use one of the new reproduction weather vane figures for wall decoration. These chemically aged copper copies of the real thing can be found almost everywhere now for under $200. Ask about a price without the base. You won't need it.

It's hard to find, or afford, good examples of good-quality country folk art today. That's the reason most people buy reproductions of such objects as a cigar store Indian or an American eagle carving. Look in department stores, museum shops, or the classified sections of antiques publications.

The nice thing about the American Country look is that there are so many ways to achieve it. A collection of country hooked rugs will do it. So will an assortment of sponge and spatter decorated pottery on the kitchen shelves. Pine and brass, samplers and Currier and Ives prints, baskets and boxes, toys and teddy bears, they all do it.

Remember, the American Country look is in your perception of the way people used to live in the country in bygone days. Some will choose expensive Amish quilts and $300 baskets. Others use a collection of under-$10 wooden spoons on a wall.

You can spend a million or a hundred. It's your home, your budget, and your concept of what American Country is all about.

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