Retailers Pick What's Hot For the Home

Buyers flock to High Point, N.C., in search of top furniture designs

WITH a couple of days and a sensible pair of shoes you can run the gantlet of settings for the American dream here:

Country French, English or American; the Bubba-recliner and big-screen TV motif; the Brady Bunch matching suite of indeterminate style; the fly-fisherman's lodge look; the calculated geometry of acrylic and metal; or the latest melange of Shaker-Prairie-Mission.

The International Home Furnishings Market - a twice annual event that swells this town to double its 75,000 population - is the crossroads of design theory, manufacturing reality, and retail bottom line. In short, this wholesale market, the biggest of its kind in the world, is where the colors, textures, and shapes of our home life are chosen for us. If a sofa, a lamp, or a fabric design doesn't cut it in the eyes of retail buyers here, it will never end up in your living room.

Some of the "new" ideas from fashion leaders at this spring's show were slipcovers, velvet upholstery, home entertainment centers, and "motion" furniture such as high style, damask chaises with adjustable backs. If retail buyers bite, consumers will begin seeing these things in magazines and furniture stores.

This mammoth bazaar is a window on the American economy as well as on the direction of tastes and values. A hint of economic optimism was evident this spring in the introduction of more new lines of furniture than in the past three years.

In the longer term, the evolution of this 70-year-old market from a sales point for Carolina country woodcutters to a fashion hot-point for the nation parallels the sophistication that technology has brought to consumers, say industry observers. Technology has cued consumers to their environment, opening markets once limited to the rich and famous, says Ronna Griest, president of Expressions Custom Furniture in Louisiana.

Even as late as the 1960s, she says, "there was not a fashion awareness" in this country. Furnishing your home often meant "you got your grandmother's couch."

Technology led to faster, cheaper production and a wider choice of fabrics, Ms. Griest explains. More broadly, with technological advances, people became more traveled, saw more picture-perfect homes on TV, and were bombarded with the proliferation of slick "shelter magazines" such as Metropolitan Home, Colonial Homes, and Southern Living.

Portrayals of fabulous settings inspired consumers to cast themselves in "stories" as a way of decorating, says Griest. That's what this show is increasingly about: selling a story, or making what is called "a total statement."

This is palpable in the pace of showroom activity here. The quietest rooms seem to be the ones with rows of something - roll-top desks, sofas, case goods - tended by a bored salesman, elbows on knees, hangdog face cupped in hands.

Meanwhile, the coloratura of "oohs" and "ahs" wafts around corners on the approach to sumptuous showrooms that have "vignettes" portraying certain lifestyles.

One of the most extensive of "total statements" being made here is the Masco Industries conglomerate's new venture: the moderate to upper-priced Lineage company. (That price range means $2,000-$3,000 for a wrought-iron bed or $1,200 for a waxed pine dining table.) Drawing on the manufacturing capability of the parent company's far-flung factories around the world, Lineage combines an eclectic array of furniture and accessories that look like one-of-a-kind items collected around the world.

"People don't buy individual pieces but a vision for how they like to live. They tie a lot of intangible things they're wanting to that," says Ron Jones, president of Masco Home Furnishings. Along this line, consumer research suggests that giving a history to a piece of furniture helps create a vision, Mr. Jones says.

Furniture pieces in the Lineage collection are given "histories" to help consumers feel they are buying something of substance. There's the tooled leather desk with carved legs on which Nancy Marney, a Masco-invented character, wrote love letters to her tutor. The unique leather and wicker "Chartwell bed" has its own fictional pedigree as the bed Winston Churchill and his wife settled on as a happy compromise of masculine and feminine design.

ALL this high-fashion theorizing and design talk can get pretty fickle, pretty fast here. Take, for example, these dueling color predictions:

"Purple and gold are out," one major designer told a press conference here. But another retail guru said: "Purple is in this year. And if yellow is its compliment, yellow is next."

Jim Peed, a long-time designer and executive, is known for irreverently putting it all in context: "If you're rich, you can afford a shirt made of fine silk or your neighbor's dog's teeth," he says, joking about all the kinds of finishes manufacturers tout for furniture. "But when it comes to putting money down, most people play it safe and choose carefully. When you say something is in style, I ask, 'whose style? A rich drug dealer's? People shopping on Rodeo Drive? A guy living in a mobile home?' "

Indeed, any style of furniture fashion can be found at the market. It can be difficult to know just what is "in," Mr. Peed says.

But nearly all industry experts point to certain values today that are crossing all styles of decor: the return to the home, "nesting," comfort, saving money, and being with the family.

Sergio Orozco, a young designer in the more stark, contemporary category, says he tries to introduce into his style some of his fondest memories of childhood, like chipped paint on chairs and his mother's big bed where the family all congregated.

"You can have all the furniture in the world in your living room and no one wants to sit there," he says. This can be because the lighting isn't right, or the furniture isn't comfortable. "People are going back to country [styles], because they want to be comfortable, relaxed, and have that simple feeling of a family gathering."

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