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FURNITURE COVERING IS KEY TO ROOM'S LOOK

Cutesy country is history, mauves are fading and earthier tones are coming on strong.

Those are among the trends in upholstered furniture.But the coverings for furniture range from rich leathers to light cotton florals, so picking a covering that's just right can overwhelm.

Still, the decision, no matter how difficult, is crucial to creating the right look.

"It's probably the key to pulling the room together," says designer Hope Stubbe. "It affects the largest pieces in the room and will set the mood, the feeling, for the room - whether you want a warm cozy room or one with a clean, sharp feeling."

To suit the tastes and needs of consumers, furniture manufacturers are constantly turning out new patterns, designs and fabrics. And one of the things that's changed is color.

"There's been a very strong color wave going on for several years that had greens, roses and mauves dominate. We're seeing a shift back to earth tones with the golds and more avocado-green colors coming back," says Stubbe.

Joy Walker, furniture store owner, calls the new hues "graded colors." Grays or yellows have been added to greens, golds and purples to give them a subdued look, she says. And jewel tones such as hunter green, deep burgundy and navy blue continue to be popular. But, she says, "the real pastel prints are gone."

Also departing are the "cutesy country prints," Walker says. As a style, country continues to be popular, she adds, but it's evolved into "a sophisticated country look."

While florals continue to be favorites, they are now more tapestry-like florals. "They have kind of an Old World feel," says Walker. "They look like they could have been in a home a hundred years ago."

In demand, too, are fruit motifs mixed with florals.

Chintz, a light cotton fabric with floral designs, is popular in rooms where the sofa or chairs will not be used often, according to Walker, while rougher plaids continue to be a strong favorite for family rooms that see a lot of activity.

Stubbe says tone-on-tone fabrics with just a slight pattern are popular, as are elegant, more opulent fabrics.

"Southwest has pretty much passed, though there is still some life. The lodge look, I think, is pretty much fading, too. It's still in the marketplace, but it's pretty much peaked."

Leather, especially glove-soft leather, is very popular.

Initially, soft brown leathers were big, but coloring has now expanded into furniture upholstered in leather tinted in burgundy, green or other deep colors.

Good quality furniture upholstered in fabric should last 10 to 15 years, while well-made leather furniture should last 40 years or beyond, Walker says. Therefore, it's important that furniture decisions not be made on a whim.

"Look through magazines; pick out things you like," Walker suggests. "Ask yourself, `Can I live with this for 10 years?' "

She says it's better to be a little bit cautious with a print or fabric choice for a sofa and chairs. But be bolder with the area rug and accessories, which can be changed more easily.

Stubbe says customers worried about buying something and having it look dated a few years down the road should look for timeless patterns. "There are certain plaids, stripes and mini-prints that really never go out of style."

If moving into a new home, it's best to pick out the fabric for the couch before making a decision on the carpeting, drapes or other decor, Walker says. "The sofa is the key element," she says, adding that selecting carpeting or drapes first will limit the choices in furniture.

When choosing furniture, don't ignore the possibility of mixing and matching. The eclectic look is still strong. "Some companies have gone into preselecting fabrics (that work together)," Stubbe said. "It's usually a plaid and a floral and a mini-print."

When mixing patterns on your own, it's important to keep a few principles in mind to avoid a hodgepodge look:

- If mixing a floral with a plaid, make sure the plaid picks up the colors that are in the floral and doesn't introduce a new color.

- Never mix one large pattern with another large pattern. Differing patterns should pull together and have continuity.

Before buying any furniture, it's wise to take a fabric swatch home to see how it looks in home light vs. store light. It can completely change colors.