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LATEST DESIGNS IN FURNITURE FOCUS ON THE CASUAL LOOK

SHARE LATEST DESIGNS IN FURNITURE FOCUS ON THE CASUAL LOOK

A trade show revealed that simple furniture reminiscent of Shaker and Mission periods is "in." Bedroom suite is by Ethan Allen.

Open pantry, in the popular country style, is from Pulaski.Remember formality? Sit-down dinners at home with all the wedding china, silver and crystal?

For most Americans, formality is a memory, not a practice, say the furniture makers who cater to consumers. We've become an eat-and-run nation, rushing to work, rushing to meetings and events, rushing to meet deadlines.

Our homes are our havens, our private places to relax in jeans and sweats. We like the pared-down look of simple furniture inspired by Shaker and Mission styles mixed with hand-me-downs and pre-loved antiques discovered on weekends.

We love bargains. The free-spending, excess-is-best '80s are behind us, and value is in.

Not that those who prefer a more formal style have been forgotten - indeed, Queen Anne and Louis XV have not been dethroned. But the furniture manufacturers and retailers who gathered last fall at the International Home Furnishings Market, the world's largest trade-only furniture show, seemed intent on wooing the professional adults who were blowing their budgets on electronics and sports cars a decade ago but today are raising babies and shopping for bargains.

Last spring, a few adventurous manufacturers scored with sofas dressed in Everyman's favorite fabric, denim. True to form, this time around the denim bandwagon was bulging. The sturdy new upholstery star turned up again and again, washed, brushed and in colors other than blue. It was everyone's symbol of casual comfort.

In addition to denim, manufacturers have looked into our casual closets and adopted ready-to-wear looks: soft, natural cottons; plaids; rugby stripes; cable knits; khakis; loose tailoring; or slipcovers that look a bit rumpled.

Alex Bernhardt, president of Bernhardt Furniture Co., a major manufacturer offering Chippendale to contemporary, called it the "Gapification" of the home furnishings industry. It's the casual look epitomized by the apparel sold at the Gap translated to furniture.

Yes, we love our jeans and T-shirts, but we still like to play dress-up, too. There will always be a place for the chintzes and the tapestries, the dressier upholstery fabrics that look right with the Waterford. Perhaps when we want to slip into something more comfortable, a denim slipcover could be the answer.

Country continues as the strongest furniture category, but it's become so broad it encompasses everything casual from rustic to contemporary. The latest interpretation is a real stick-your-neck-out collection from Lexington, the folks who hit bull's eyes with Bob Timberlake's country and Mary Emmerling's Old West designs in the past few years.

Are we ready for cabinets painted with kites, pinwheels on light fixtures, marbles in lamp bases, tractor tire track and seed packet print fabrics and red carved apples atop a bed's four posters? At Lexington they call these "the icons of our collective experiences, the symbols of our culture." They label it "retro country: touches of contemporary, whimsy and country."

Officially, it's Lexington's showy, attention-getting DeCristofaro Collection, with designs by 33-year-old folk artist John DeCristofaro from Southampton, N.Y. The artist said he was inspired by folk art, primitive furniture, painted furniture and architectural elements such as old louvered doors and picket fences.

Not exactly country but part of the more simple, easygoing style is the resurgence of the straightforward designs of the Arts and Crafts Movement in the early years of this century. Usually called Mission or Craftsman, these styles began their comeback several years ago with the headline-making auction sales of original pieces, followed closely by successful reintroductions of the Stickley line.

One of the best-looking new interpretations of the Mission styling came from Century, with the Prairie Crafters pieces in the Country Cousins Collection. There's an early Frank Lloyd Wright feeling to the handsome pecan canopy bed, and the square cocktail table with an open grid pattern apron would be striking in almost any setting.

Some of the fall market stars, besides denim and Mission designs, are:

- Sleigh beds. Everybody's doing them, from Baker to Thomasville.

- Metal furniture, from rough and "rusty" to antiqued finishes. Look for it to keep getting stronger as long as we're into saving more trees.

- Home theater and home office. It's all part of the new emphasis on the home in the '90s, and the manufacturers are finally catching on with furniture to house your increasingly bigger television and your ever-smaller computer.

- Painted furniture, from faux finishes to folksy motifs.

- Stripes and sunflowers.

- Upholstered ottomans, especially in fabrics that look like Oriental rugs or tapestries, often used as cocktail tables.

And what about the Old West or cowboy look that hit big a year ago? The Western look is alive and well for the companies who did livable, adaptable designs - sans too many trite motifs such as horseshoes and bucking broncos. Consumers in the '90s want style and value; good furniture costs too much to be cutesy or corny.