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Romancing the familiar

In design, nothing is born in a vacuum. Architects, couturiers, and home-furnishings designers often draw inspiration from the past. This connection is vividly illustrated in a textile exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Technology here which shows how closely new home-furnishings fabrics can dovetail with designs from other periods and cultures.

''Fabric for Living: An Exhibition of Designs for the Home from 1750 to the Present'' includes examples from the United States, Britain, France, the Middle East, and the Orient. In each section, modern-day fabrics by design houses such as Brunschwig & Fils Inc., Clarence House, F. Schumacher & Co., and Boris Kroll Fabrics are juxtaposed with historic textiles. Most of the original fabrics were chosen from about 4 million samples in the institute's collection.

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Strolling through the gallery, it is difficult to distinguish the new fabrics from the old without referring to the exhibit catalog. In some instances the new fabrics are exact reproductions of historic textiles. Others are modern interpretations of past designs, borrowing elements such as color, pattern, motif, and scale.

''If the designer does his homework well, his design will capture the feeling of the period in which he is working,'' says Dorothy Tricarico, curator of textiles at the institute.

The historical focus of the exhibit underlines the renewed interest in 18th- and 19th-century fabrics and furnishings spurred by the trend toward historic preservation during the past two decades.

When people began renovating historic houses, Ms. Tricarico explains, ''the need to furnish homes with authentic fabrics became a very important part of the (fabric) market.''

Today traditional fabrics such as English-style chintzes and Americana patterns are popular for decorating many homes and apartments, she says. ''It's the romance of the familiar.''

Among the abundant florals from Britain, for example, a contemporary glazed chintz by Brunschwig & Fils is clearly based on a mid-19th-century English cotton fabric featuring ruddy zinnias on a pale yellow background. In the new version, the zinnias are larger and more vivid in color and are placed against a fresh white-and-blue-striped background.

French designs, redolent with ribbons and garland motifs, include a modern fabric by Clarence House that reinterprets a cotton fabric dating from 1910-20. The document textile has a graceful pattern of rose sprays caught up with ribbons on an ecru background. The new fabric substitutes red tulips for roses against bright white, creating a bolder effect while retaining the fluid lines, ribbon motif, and scale of the original.

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The Japanese section, significant for the current revival of Japanese influence in interior design, offers a study in restraint, shown in subtle color , sensitive line, and rich texture. Several of the fabrics incorporate forms from nature.

''Kikko,'' by Waverly Fabrics, borrows a diamond pattern from a turn-of-the century silk kimono. Contemporary upholstery fabrics and office furniture from Knoll International reflect the perfect proportions and studied simplicity of Japanese design.

The enduring elegance of Chinese design is illustrated in a modern-day reproduction by Brunschwig & Fils that adapts an elaborate 18th-century hand-painted silk panel to current manufacturing methods. Originally designed for the European market, the fabric includes New World elements such as Indian corn, hot peppers, pineapples, and 18th-century bowknots among the birds and flowers typical of chinoiserie.

''It's like a painting,'' says Ms. Tricarico. ''You don't see everything at first glance.''

Persian selections include some of the more flamboyant designs in production today. The vibrant jewel tones and complex patterns of Persian-inspired fabrics are derived from the luxurious shawls originally produced in Kashmir and brought to Europe by traders.

A sofa upholstered in a popular fabric called ''Mongolia,'' by Clarence House , contrasts bold strokes of color with a paisley pattern in muted tones of purple, orange, and jade. The fabric relates to motifs in a 19th-century patchwork quilt from Persia.

The exhibit comes full circle when one spots Persian motifs in the early-American fabrics on display.

In addition to the direct style influences from Britain and the Continent, Ms. Tricarico notes, ''Many fabrics in American patchwork quilts came from England via Persia. We are a product of all these cultures.''

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