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Home furnishings. Diversity's the word. Today's customers like to pick and choose from an array of styles

Although interpretations of Country French and Far Eastern styles were strongly resurgent here at the recent spring Southern Furniture Market, and nostalgic turn-of-the-century wicker was everywhere, the overall theme this season is diversity. This twice-annual market attracts thousands of store buyers from across the country to choose goods from a vast international assortment. This spring, optimism reigns. Many manufacturers see 1987 as the year of the home, and predict that interest in refurbishing and refurnishing will run high, as opposed to 1986, when the big-ticket purchase for many families, they claim, was a new automobile, not new furniture.

Furniture buyers today rarely purchase complete suites, according to surveys. They tend to be more savvy about their real needs, and they look for what works best for them as well as what looks good. Consumers also do more homework and shop around more before they purchase. They often buy `a la carte, whether they are looking for major focal-point pieces like armoires or sofas, or for compact wall storage systems or the new down-sized recliners. So most will sample many of the new collections and blend styles and finishes to suit themselves.

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Style choices this year will not only include the flavor of France and the Orient - such as the China-inspired Ming Treasures group by Drexel Heritage and the L'Esprit Nouveau Country French collection at Pennsylvania House - but also the casual country look of the American Southwest, overscaled California contemporary, and many more formal 18th-century Williamsburg-type groups.

The neo-classical Delphi Collection at Hickory-Kaylyn incorporates architectural elements from the Parthenon, the Temple of Apollo, and other sites of classical Greece. Far Eastern design is popular now, says George Smith, designer of the Sanmen Bay collection at Hekman, because it is subtle, refined, and elegant and because it mixes well with many other styles and periods, from contemporary to 18th-century English and French.

One company, American Drew, is tying its American Independence Collection, based on the 18th-century furnishings found in Philadelphia's Historic Park and Independence Hall, to observances of the American Constitution's bicentennial. Clearly, the mood for many manufacturers tends to be traditional and conservative.

Newsmaking wood finishes vary from light to very light, and are described as being stripped, weathered, washed, bleached, whitewashed, scrubbed, and pickled. Their names include bone, almond, ivory, and sandstone.

According to Michael Delgaudio, interior design director for Henredon, lighter finishes are riding the crest of today's architectural and interior design waves. ``Architecturally our homes have opened up,'' he says. ``Lighter finishes fit the design scheme that includes larger windows, skylights, cathedral ceilings, open floor plans, and pastel color palettes.''

New super finishes, introduced by several companies, are also grabbing attention. At Richardson Brothers Company the new finish is called ``Resistovar,'' and is considered so successful that the company is now discontinuing all its plastic-laminate tops. Broyhill features its own resistant super-finish, and Virginia House is using the 3M Scotchgard wood protector finish. Manufacturers contend that the super finishes do not affect the look or feel of the wood, but do guard against damage from corrosive liquids, minor abrasions, glass rings, heat marks, as well as nail polish and ammonia and the normal wear and tear of children's play.

These new super finishes, it is claimed, will last the lifetime of the furniture, and most of the companies now showing them are introducing them at no extra cost, but as ``added value'' to enhance durability and performance.

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Such added values make furniture a good bargain, manufacturers say. In fact, dollar for dollar, furniture prices have risen far less than many other goods and services over the past 20 years, according to the Furniture Information Council. Modern crafting technology, improved materials, more scientific handling of woods and veneers, stronger gluing procedures, and more intricate finishes have improved furniture appreciably - all without steep increases in cost.

Stylish ``hits'' at this market included camelback sofas in many variations, brass beds, chaises, exuberant print fabrics, and stone and stone-like pieces of furniture. The look of Italian Memphis modern has waned, and so have many of the high-gloss lacquer finishes.

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