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THE NEWEST LOOK IN FURNITURE APPEARS OLD, WEATHERED, WORN

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Jean Parrish's faded sofa of floral and awning-striped fabric looks like something her grandmother in the country let her bring home to the city.

But the furniture in Parrish's Studio City condo is brand-new, from the rustic dining table to the china cabinet of distressed pine.Parrish has adopted the modern country style, the most popular decorating trend in the United States. It's where the new looks old.

"The older it looks, the better it sells," said Kevin Hines, assistant manager of the Glorious Nest, a home-decorating store in Camarillo.

Parrish said she wants the look and feel of antiques without scavenging for them herself. "When I walk into this house, it's like coming home to another world," she said.

Today's modern country look is light years from its gingham-and-geese predecessor, said Den Fenske, an interior decorator who owns the Decorating Den in Canoga Park. "It's not so `cutesy' country."

The new country owes a huge debt to the West Coast, which has played an influential part in the style's evolution in the last several years, said Jay McGill, publisher of the magazine Country Living.

Country decorating began in the rural Northeast and Midwest, where it was based primarily on decorating with antiques, for an Early American look. Regions across the country each added their own imprint, McGill said.

"The last region to adopt the country style was the West Coast," McGill said. "I think what we're seeing now is the influence of the West Coast on what we define as the country style - brighter rooms, less clutter, lighter finishes on our furniture. It's a slightly more sophisticated look."

Ken Wingard, a senior buyer for the San Francisco-based Pottery Barn, said the new country style combines elements of not only America but of Europe as well, especially the rural life of Mediterranean countries.

"It's sort of like taking all the best of those countries and what they have to teach us and then owning it and making it American," he said. "The West Coast lifestyle is the most similar to Tuscany (Italy) or Provence (France) in topography, weather, interest in food. Californians have had an easy time adapting it. They've also been able to Americanize it."

Distressed furniture that looks like it's served several generations; faded fabrics on upholstered pieces that look like they've been retrieved from the attic; cabinets that look like they've been painted, repainted and left out in the sun; and wrought-iron work that looks as if it has rusted in the rain are some of the more popular manifestations.

"It's all a return to the wonderfulness of simple things, which . . . the Europeans never forgot. We're coming back to the simple things and the comfortable things," Wingard said.

McGill's magazine commissioned a study, "Capturing the Country: A Strategic Road Map to the Market of the '90s," which found that 70 percent of people who said they were pursuing a "country lifestyle" actually live in a city or suburb.

"They're trying to re-create this more casual lifestyle environment for themselves in this urban setting," he said.

Why is another matter, and it's largely sociological. In the '90s, baby boomers may be dealing with taking care of two careers during a recession, raising children and perhaps taking care of their parents.

"They needed an escape," McGill said. "What this country lifestyle has brought is a comfortable, laid-back lifestyle that they can escape to to help them deal with all these stress levels in their daily lives."

Lorenda Starfelt, a saleswoman at Modernism in Sherman Oaks, embraces the new country as a trend that is functional.

"They didn't want furniture that they had to run their lives around," she said. "When you have lacquer, you have to think about what you're doing in your home and how it's going to impact your furniture. When you have pine, you have furniture that develops a patina as you use it."

Pine can stand some abuse. "It takes the nicks and scratches and dents that occur in life and it makes it part of the furniture. When you knock it, your new dent isn't going to ruin it for you. Fingerprints, dust, scratches - none of that shows up on waxed pine," she said.

She compared the slick designs of the '80s - she called it "Darth Vader furniture" - with the more natural style.

"The '80s was about making everything in your life art," she said. "Your furniture was not so much for living with as for making a statement about what your values were. And your values had to be serious housecleaning, serious organization or the furniture just didn't work."

And we've had enough of that.

"The '90s are about the fact we want to be home, we want to be safe, we want to be comfortable in our home. We want it to be something we can live in and work with, and we want our furniture to serve us rather than us serving our furniture," Starfelt observed.

Ikea, the Swedish furniture store known for its inexpensive, black-and-white melamine bookcases and high-tech furnishings, also has turned to the past for its new Swedish Cottage Collection.

Swedish furniture makers are working in birch, beech and pine and then finishing the wood in colors you may not necessarily associate with a country style, such as deep olives, dark reds or even black.

"This is a really nice country look," Brooks said.