Never mind the economy — from the looks of it, Sara Pelowski is doing pretty well. Her living room has designer touches like maple hardwood floors, an intricate Oriental rug and an elegant dining-room table. But here's a little secret: That table is an $850 knockoff, and the "wood" floors are actually plastic. "People can't tell the difference," says Pelowski.
When it comes to the American home these days, the in thing isn't always the real thing. Thanks to a new crop of improved look-alikes, from art deco chairs to faux-granite countertops, more folks are turning to high-class fakes, mixing them in side by side with pricey genuine decor. Indeed, use of look-alikes for flooring and counters alone is up 10 percent in the past three years to $20 billion. And now makers are rolling out an ever-growing lineup of less-expensive items with upscale aspirations, like an Amana refrigerator with a Sub-Zero look at half the price and $150 floor lamps from Pottery Barn that mimic designer lighting.
But if the array of classy home knockoffs is growing, the bigger change may be how they're winning over some picky homeowners who'd never think of hanging a fake Degas on the wall. Part of this, of course, reflects the slow economy; though some of the wannabes are pretty expensive, most are obviously lower-priced. Fans also argue that some of the new fakes are so good, there's little point in spending more. "You really can't tell," says Larry Mufson, an interiors expert who runs an award-winning design firm in New York. Still, we wondered: Who are they really fooling?
So we built a fake house. Or at least two rooms of one. Taking the best of the faux, including a machine-made "Oriental" rug and a spiffy magazine rack from Target (cost: $20), we created a complete living room and kitchen — and mixed in some upscale stuff, too. Then we had a panel of regular folks and experts, like the host of cable's "Fix It Up!" house-makeover show, come and identify what's real and what's not.
While our panel wasn't fooled by our cheaper ottoman — sorry, Crate & Barrel — it also couldn't tell a couch that retails for $7,700 from the phony. And we found some other surprises: For all the fuss about high-tech kitchen materials these days, when it comes to granite, imitation isn't all that flattering. And while some designers say it's pricey details that make a home, we discovered you can do the same thing for peanuts (in the living room, think romantic lighting; for the kitchen, a good trashcan).
Of course, homeowners have been scrimping with knockoffs for years, from fake Tiffany lamps to "ultrasuede" upholstery. But now it's all becoming much more seamless, thanks to a combination of new materials and manufacturing techniques, along with the rise of chains like Restoration Hardware and Room & Board that push the look in their stores, as well as catalog outfit West Elm. What's more, in some cases they're getting as expensive as the real thing; Karastan's machine-made Oriental rug costs $2,000, in fact. Corian's new Private Collection of fake- stone countertops isn't cheap either, running as much as $75 a square foot.
For our test, we figured we needed to build two actual rooms to make things realistic, so we enlisted the help of Home Depot's Expo Design Center in suburban Atlanta. (To us, "fake" meant something trying for a high-end look, without a high-end price.) We mixed high- and low-end items together, then walked our panelists through to pick which was which. (We also asked them to estimate prices, scoring how many came within 20 percent of the actual amount.) The score: Out of two dozen products, our panel couldn't pick out the high-end versions in more than a third of the cases. But what about the fakes? Below, some of the highlights.
COOLEST FAKE: Special shelves for pot lids, olive oil
DON'T TRY THIS: "Furniture look"
We figured this was a good place to start, considering that cabinets make up a third of the cost of the average kitchen renovation. But when we started building our fake kitchen, we got a surprise: This is one area where the look-alike industry still has a ways to go. Indeed, most bargain prefab jobs — "stock" cabinets in builder lingo — don't fool anybody at all. They fared among the worst in our house, with everyone guessing that our $540 cabinets (solid wood, but with few details and little visible grain) were low-end ringers. "You'd have to pay me to take them," one panelist told us.
Maybe that's why the hottest part of the market these days is so-called semi-custom cabinets. Unlike custom jobs, which are cut exactly to order, semi-custom cabinets don't come in every size. Still, there are a lot of options: One big outfit, Kraftmaid, now offers 100 different door styles, up 40 percent in three years. Semi-custom went over well with our testers, and even stock makers are taking notice: One of them, Merillat, is adding more knobs and pulls to let buyers choose from 48 kinds.
COOLEST FAKE: La-Z-Boy, really
DON'T TRY THIS: Anything white
Our fake house got a lot more fun when we moved on to the living room. We enjoyed mixing up expensive pieces with look-alikes, plopping our bargain $200 bookcase down next to a designer chair costing $4,600. We're not the only ones. This is a big trend, with midprice retailers pushing design looks meant to mesh with high-end products. Overall, growth in this "better" category now outpaces the "best" in the $67 billion furniture market, says Jerry Epperson, a furniture analyst at investment-banking firm Ferris, Baker Watts.
That was certainly true in our test, especially with our $7,700 white leather sofa, which only three out of 12 folks guessed was the real thing. (Ritz-Carlton Buckhead General Manager Otto Svensson bent down to sniff it, then told us, "It doesn't smell like leather.") As for wowing our group, the winner was a humble La-Z-Boy recliner, done up for modern homes with stylish wooden legs. Says Mr. Svensson: "That's a designer look."
COOLEST FAKE: Dishwasher — on the inside
DON'T TRY THIS: Viking look on a budget
Back in the kitchen, our experiment was causing some sparks. Mary Lou Lanaux, a real-estate agent who sells luxury homes in Atlanta's suburbs, took one look at our fake stove and pronounced it "garbage," despite its trendy stainless-steel finish. "My clients only buy European," she says. But another panelist, Jim Cox, says that's ridiculous. And he ought to know: For the kitchen in his high-end Buckhead house, he picked a Sub-Zero knockoff from Amana (and also liked our $2,000 Jenn-Air). "It's hard to tell the difference," says Mr. Cox, an event manager whose clients include the Atlanta Braves.
Either way, the fakes keep coming. At a recent home show, General Electric came out with a dishwasher that includes a stainless-steel interior — a look that's mostly been limited to high-end European brands like Miele and Bosch.
COOLEST FAKE: 'Upscale' sisal
DON'T TRY THIS: Faking the fringe
To get an acceptable fake rug, we asked Ken Schilder, rug guru at New York's ABC Carpet & Home, who told us it's not as easy to fool people as you might think. Authentic handmade Orientals have lots of cues, from the fringe (woven in, not tacked on) to the surface (real ones are rougher).
Still, the fake industry has been doing its homework here. Manufacturers have improved their systems to include more colors in the rugs, now up to a dozen or more compared with four or five just 10 years ago. They're also getting more clever about making their rugs look a bit sloppy. In handmades, rug aficionados look for "abrash" — imperfections in colors caused by traditional wool-dyeing methods. Karastan has a new Ashara line that uses multiple colors to imitate the flaws.
For our panel, it was practically a tossup between the real thing and an inexpensive look-alike. Six of the 12 testers correctly identified the pricey rug — but five thought the low end was expensive, too. And things should get even better for homeowners: Even those ubiquitous sisal rugs are getting the fake treatment, with softer and better-wearing knockoffs in high-tech nylon materials.
COOLEST FAKE: "Wabi sabi"-inspired stone
DON'T TRY THIS: Laminate granite (OK for guesthouse)
For Jim Whalen, overhauling the kitchen in his Milford, Ohio, home meant a pricey commercial stove and other expensive touches, spending $40,000 in all. But when it came to the countertops, he went with a faux-concrete material, which he liked for its clean look — and the fact that it won't crack like real concrete. "There really isn't any maintenance," he says.
To hear the manufacturers tell it, we're in a golden age of high-tech kitchen counters. Formica says its new granite laminate — coming out in a month — is meant to look more realistic (thanks to the same kind of color printing used for magazines) with the feel of granite at a third of the price. (Too bad you can't put hot pots on it — it'll burn.) When it came to our own fake kitchen, the space-age contenders were no match for our stone-age genuine granite. Panelists picked out the low- and high-end surfaces with ease.
COOLEST FAKE: $30 garbage can
DON'T TRY THIS: Anything wrought iron
We saved our smallest stuff for the end but learned a useful lesson here. Sometimes it's the little touches that count — even if they're fake. While most testers had no trouble picking out a low-end lamp, we could hardly believe it when our bargain-basement glass candlesticks ($10 each at Linens 'n Things) did just as well as pricey crystal ones from Tiffany. The surprises didn't end there: A $400 designer magazine rack didn't impress folks any more than our $20 version, a Michael Graves design we picked up at Target.
Design experts say it's all part of the plan at big home stores, which are moving much faster these days to copy high-end looks, often taking their cues from clothing fashions. That may seem odd at times, like when retailers rolled out embroidered pillows to cash in on the beaded-skirt/peasant blouse craze, but decorators say it usually makes sense. Sprinkling a few of these items around a room can make it look trendy, and because they're cheap, it's easy to replace them when tastes change.
Of course, you can't please everybody. One of our panelists, Ms. Lanaux, passed right by our fake picture frame for the real thing. "It's Tiffany," she says. "That's all I buy."