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FURNITURE DESIGNERS ARE COPYCATS

SHARE FURNITURE DESIGNERS ARE COPYCATS

Chippendale did it. Hepplewhite did it. Even Mies van der Rohe did it. And today's furniture designers do it just as shamelessly.

They repeat tried-and-true styles, copy others' winning designs, blend them with their own ideas and call them new.In 18th-century England, Thomas Chippendale - the best-known cabinetmaker ever - borrowed ideas from French, Chinese and Greco-Roman designs, mixing them with his own creations.

A few years later, George Hepplewhite also looked to the French, who were repeating earlier classical motifs.

And 20th-century genius Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's famous Barcelona Chair appears to have been inspired by the medieval X-chair or an even earlier Egyptian folding stool.

So what's new in the world of furniture design? That was the question on the minds of some 70,000 international buyers, manufacturers, designers and journalists who attended the spring International Home Furnishings Market.

They rushed around this normally easygoing Southern city, trying to see as much as possible of the furniture and accessories from 2,300 exhibitors displayed in 150 buildings here and in neighboring Thomasville.

For the most part, they concluded that the designs heading for stores this fall look familiarly conservative.

Or, as hot designer Alexander Julian says of his best-selling Home Colours Collection, it's traditional with a twist. In his designs for Universal, inspired by 18th-century antiques, Julian adds signature menswear details adapted from neckties, wingtips, argyle patterns, buttons and cuff links.

Many new designs pay homage to 18th-century styles, but usually with a less formal approach. There are low-sheen and lighter finishes, less detail, larger scale - all adaptations aimed at today's more relaxed lifestyles.

Meanwhile, the casual category seems more refined and better tailored but still soft and comfortable. This is also true of the country looks, with "down home" seeming a little more uptown.

Several years ago, much emphasis was placed on licensed reproductions of antiques. Now you hear the words "adapted from" and "inspired by," even "updated," applied to new traditional designs. Even venerable Baker, while celebrating the 20th anniversary of its collaboration with the Historic Charleston Foundation, showed many pieces in lighter finishes for a less museumlike feeling.

Councill Companies, a firm that's been quietly making fine traditional furniture for years, made some noise with the 70-piece New Orleans collection. Second-generation furniture manufacturers Moore and Brown Councill say the designs are "inspired" by New Orleans interiors and "recall" the flavors of Louisiana plantation life, the French Quarter and Creole style.

The concept of collected, individual pieces - not matching suites of furniture - is played up in the New Orleans Collection. Moore Councill says each piece is designed to be a stand-alone winner, as well as a good mixer.

Interesting touches include the brass stars on the base of the striking Regency-style sofa, both front and back; the faux copper pagoda top on a pine Chippendale-type display cabinet; the "beehive" feet on several chests; and the leather, aged and embossed to look like alligator, on a 1920s-style French smoking chair.

Thomasville pulled out all the stops with Renaissance, a collection of more than 100 pieces reflecting the centuries-old art and architecture of the Mediterranean coasts of France and Italy. This "Mediterranean" furniture is nothing like that cranked out by manufacturers several decades ago. The oak pieces come in a white "Stucco" finish and a fruitwood "Riviera" finish.