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Modern Italian design

Ranging from the understated to the flamboyant, the upscale contemporary furniture created in Milan continues to challenge American interior designers with its freshness and force.

''It certainly is the new pacesetter for the look of the '80s,'' says Chicago designer Chele Benjamin. ''It's sculptural, yet it's functional. A few pieces go a long way.''

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While refining their traditional use of supple leathers, fine upholstery materials, lacquered finishes, and stones such as travertine and marble, the Italians are also experimenting with bright colors, new materials, and unusual forms.

This move toward the fun-loving and the avant-garde in furnishings is led by Memphis, a group of innovative international designers described by one industry member as ''the intelligentsia'' of furniture design. And Italy, true to its past, is proving to be fertile artistic soil.

''We're speaking about a society that is hundreds of years ahead of us in terms of art and the appreciation of beauty,'' says New York designer Bob Patino of Patino-Wolf Associates. ''Italians have a highly tuned sensibility about what's going on around them when it comes to furniture, food, and clothing.''

In furniture, this sensibility comes at a price. A large, lacquered buffet designed by Lodovico Acerbis, for example, costs $2,775 at Roche-Bobois, an international retail and design firm specializing in European contemporary interiors. Upholstered chairs with lacquered woodwork cost between $250 and $450 each, travertine dining tables range from $995 to $3,200, and standing lamps from $300 to $1,000. The price reflects, in part, the Italian emphasis on careful workmanship and use of new technologies.

Italian designers are especially innovative in lighting design. Much of the new lighting coming from Milan is architectural and hard-edged, fashioned with metal frames and geometric shapes. One of the newest developments is the use of high-intensity halogen bulbs which, when used in uplighting, reflect off the ceiling and create a warm light.

Italian designers are also expanding the lighting vocabulary with stretched fabric, clear plastics, neon, and lighting pieces with movable parts. Glass lamps that are hand-blown in Murano, near Venice, feature unusual colorations and stripings.

''Most of the beautiful lighting implements come out of Italy,'' Mr. Patino says.

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In upholstered furniture, Skip Freeman, president of Roche-Bobois in Boston, divides the Italian offerings into three categories - the low-slung, loose-pillow sofas now copied widely by American manufacturers; the newer ''kicky'' sofas with light, puffy cushions; and sleek, finely tailored pieces, supported on thin legs, which give the impression of floating in air.

According to Joan Blutter of the Blutter Design group in Chicago, ''Italian furniture gives a feeling of sculpture in a room. You hardly need to accessorize it.''

''Good design is good design, it stands on its own,'' agrees Bob Patino, who also likes to juxtapose contemporary pieces with antiques. ''Beautiful objects can be far more interesting when pitted against something of another period.''

Because of its singular impact, designers find that the sculptural quality which gives much of contemporary Italian furniture its vigor can also make it difficult to blend into both modern and traditional settings.

''Italian contemporary does not mix as well as some of the others (modern styles), because it makes such a statement,'' says Martin Elinoff, Boston designer and national president of the American Society of Interior Designers. ''I use it sparingly - usually as accent pieces.''

Chicago's Chele Benjamin uses modern Italian pieces to update traditional homes. In one room she added a striking Italian table; in another she incorporated a graceful chaise made from steel, leather, and fur.

''Italian furniture has a punch that adds a sparkle,'' she says. ''It's not only functional, it adds a sculptural chic to the total design.''

Ms. Benjamin also likes to use the ''high-tech, sleek, ambiance-type'' Italian up-lighting, because it ''gives a luxurious feeling - a low-key elegance.'' Again, she has added dash to a traditional room by using a modern Italian lamp on an antique desk.

For all its sophistication, Ms. Benjamin admits the look is not for everyone: ''It takes an upper-fashion-oriented client who can accept this offbeat combination because it is not the norm,'' she says.

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