Reproductions. Skillful furniture lookalikes bring the design and craftsmanship of earlier times to today's homes

THE town of Williamsburg has come to symbolize colonial furnishings. ``Williamsburg blue'' and ``Williamsburg green'' are bywords for those seeking true colonial paint colors. All of which is thanks, in large part, to the missionary reproductions program that has helped put Williamsburg on the worldwide map. The Colonial Williamsburg Reproductions Program, now celebrating its 50th anniversary as the oldest and largest museum reproduction program in the world, grandfathered an industry, giving lasting status to Queen Anne tea tables, Chippendale sofas and wing chairs, Hepplewhite sideboards, and the gentle patterns of the fabrics, wallpapers, and pottery that were used in 18th-century Virginia.

Today, the industry the Williamsburg program grandfathered nourishes a desire for objects that reflect the stability, refinement, and traditional values of the past. It meets a yearning, tinged with nostalgia, for the design and craftsmanship of earlier times. As genuine antiques have each year become more scarce and costly, these museum reproduction programs have brought skillful lookalikes within the sight, if not always the financial reach, of the general public.

In turn, sponsoring cultural institutions get a return on sales, which help fund their operations; their educational purposes are served, as replicas of favorite pieces out of each collection are sold and used daily in thousands of homes around the country.

The result is a cornucopia of reproduced treasures from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Cooper Hewitt Museum of Decorative Arts in New York, as well as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, .D.C., the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Conn., and the Winterthur Museum near Wilmington, Del.

But it was John D. Rockefeller Jr. who, in 1926, first became interested in the preservation and restoration of Williamsburg, the 18th-century colonial capital. And it was he who first made the decision to develop a reproductions program. When visitors began to inquire how they might acquire similar pieces, Mr. Rockefeller reckoned that selling reproduc tions of objects used in Colonial Williamsburg could bring in additional funds and teach people a lot about the way people lived in that colorful era.

So, based on the criteria of beauty, soundness of design, and appropriateness for daily use in modern American homes, he selected a group of items that he felt could be carefully and faithfully reproduced.

Since this modest beginning in 1936, the Williamsburg Reproductions Program has developed over 2,500 products that are now being made by 39 licensees and sold in Williamsburg Shops in more than 80 stores around the United States. They have also found an appreciative audience in both Europe and Japan. An entire home could today be furnished with these reproductions and adaptations, right down to note paper, dried flower arrangements, dinnerware, and lamps.

Asked how continuing research over the years had affected the reproduction programs, Richard A. Schreiber, vice-president of marketing for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, replies: ``Scholarship has proven untrue some things we thought were true, so we have painfully had to take some products out of the line. We don't compromise when it comes to authenticity.''

For the last five years, he admits, there has been speculation as to the accuracy of the traditional Williamsburg paint palette. ``Although our research will continue, our tentative conclusion at this time is that the colors we now have in the line are accurate but need to be supplemented with some of the more vivid colors of the somewhat later Federal period, which are being added. So, yes, further research has resulted in both subtractions and additions to the lines.''

The Williamsburg Reproductions Program is now returning a profit of more than $1 million a year to the Williamsburg Foundation. ``So it is little wonder that we have helped spawn a museum reproduction industry,'' says Mr. Schreiber, ``as many other nonprofit institutions have felt the need for alternative sources of revenue. Our hope is that we can help other museums begin their programs with the same high standards to which we have adhered.''

Williamsburg reproductions will become more widely available through retail outlets over the next few years.

They will have lots of company:

The Winterthur Collections, second only to Colonial Williamsburg in full furnishings, is now three and a half years old and involves 21 licensees in reproducing around 600 objects, mostly chosen from the Queen Anne, Chippendale, and Federal periods. ``We think of those years between 1740 to 1815 as the golden age of American design,'' says Terry Learned, marketing director.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington will debut its own reproduction program this fall, with furniture made by Kindel, porcelains by Mottahedeh, fabrics by F. Schumacher, lamps by Paul Hanson, brass by Baldwin Hardware, and prints by New York Graphic Society Ltd. As the owner of 15 historic properties, the National Trust is the steward of a wide variety of collections in the fine and decorative arts. Each reproduction (including regional handicrafts) will be sold with information cards giving full historical background.

The British National Trust Collection, launched this year, is a long-range licensing program arranged through Heritage Arts Ltd. in Tappan, N.Y. At present it involves furniture reproductions by Century Furniture Company, fabrics and wall coverings by Payne Fabrics, and a limited edition of handmade copies, from Arthur Brett and Sons Ltd., of Winston Churchill's desk. In the future, objects can be chosen for reproduction from 276 Trust properties ranging from modest farm cottages to palatial manor houses. Other licensees will eventually round out the program.

Other museum complexes or historic house confederations that now have reproduction programs include the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, Historic Charleston in South Carolina, and the Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia.

In addition, dozens of companies have introduced fabric and wallpaper lines based on documentary research in America's historic houses and inns.

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