JUST BEFORE Thanksgiving, there is always a panic of sudden interest in the house. Householders start to look at tables that will unfold to seat 20. They finger $20-a-yard fabric in fear that the living room curtains won't make it through until Christmas. And they dash down to the store to search for a sturdy lounge chair that might possibly survive Uncle Jud's post-Christmas dinner sleep.
Furniture folk are just as hyper. They're been up to Designer's Saturday in New York or down to the home furnishings show in High Point, N.C., or over to Italy for the Milan furniture fair to see what's new, if anything.
Sarah Jenkins, head of interior design of W&J Sloane here, always lists the High Point trends for other designers and salespeople at Sloane's.
She sees as new trends "shine in fabrics and finishes. That means chintz, polished cottons, satins and lustered velvets in fabrics; high-lacquered finishes and mirrored accents, 24-carat-gold plating and an abundance of brass in furniture."
The Italian Modern look - sculptured frame, soft interior with stacked cushions - seems important to Jenkins.
She notes that oriental design appears to be continuing in strength with chinoiserie accents. Some manufacturers are still using bamboo or wicker, including contemporary designs such as Selig's Marimekko, Eclipse's "Plaza" line wicker bedroom suite and Comfort Designs' wicker sleigh chair, which extends to form a bed.
Jenkins also finds the Plaza Aurora bed interesting. The head and foot-board are rainbow-shaped with bands of beige, blue and brown, sort of a "Wiz" look. Built-in lighting has a two-position rheostat switch.
The new knockdown "lifestyle" furniture is better designed than ever, she believes.
Watercolor pastels and sherberts with deep aubergine accents seem prevalent, though she also saw a great deal of white.
Marimekko fabric fans will think that the biggest news on the market is that Selig, probably the largest American manufacturer of contemporary upholstered furniture, is introducing Marimekko-covered furniture. The designer is - guess who? - Ristomatti Ratia. He is the son of Armi Ratia, founder of the Finnish firm, whose colorful, stylized modern designs seemed so new in the early '60s. Ratia is an industrial designer.
The group includes "Sandbox," a modular system of corner, armless and ottoman sections; "Big Mama," a sofa or chair, low to the ground and soft and squashy; and "Guest Bed," a cane-based sitting/sleeping unit. Marimekko fabrics also will be available on other Selig designs. Locally, Sloane's will carry the line.
Jenkins is particularly interested in Directional's new knocked-down, corrugated, take-with contemporary casual furniture, which she thinks is inexpensive. One sofa has arms and a back made of metal wire in the "high-tech" look, derived from industrial equipment components.
The "high-tech" look, so named by Joan Kron in The New York Magazine, uses furniture and accessories made from industrial components - or made to look like industrial units - hanging metal lamp shades, rolling metal carts, wire shelving and such. In architecture, the factory look used by the late designer Charles Eames in the design of his own California house in 1953 recently won the American Institute of Architects 25-Year Award.
Currently, major department and furniture stores are showing the new furniture and design ideas of the seasons in their model rooms.
Claus Mahnken, home fashion director for Woodward & Lothrop, may have scored a first in model rooms when he took down two ancient layers of plywood and wallboard (in the downtown Woodie's) to reveal two walls of real honest-to-goodness windows with a view. He made these windows, with their marvelous roofline view of the Washington Monument, the Mall and the city, the focus point of one of his rooms. In most other model rooms, the windows are like stage sets, faked.
"I used the city as a picture!" Mahnken says.
He designed the room to suggest a way to use a loft or an attic as a one-room apartment. "More people are moving to the city and living in spaces we might not have used before, such as lofts or attics. So in this room, I tried to show a creative way to use such a high-ceiling space," he says. He took advantage of the high ceilings in Woodie's Victorian period building to make a split-level room.
Along one wall Mahnken built a sleeping platform, just far enough from the ceiling so you can sit up in bed without bumping your head. A straw basket makes a night table. Underneath is an exercise room, with a bike, pulleys and hassocks for when you collapse. The exercise mat is covered in leather, perhaps not that practical for exercise (unless you're into dry swimming) but good looking.
In the main part of the room he used contemporary-styled Flair furniture upholstered in two handsome patterns - one geometric, one flowered - in Jack Lenor Larsen fabric. The seating isn't the passion pit modules we've been seeing but high-backed units with ottomans that push together to form comfortable places to lounge. The high backs give a feeling of cozy privacy. The armless chairs are $825 each, the corner chairs are $1,045 and the ottomans are $328 and $385. The seating cushions are $86 and $169.
The corner fireplace (fake, not real like the windows) is covered in bamboo to match the octagonal table by Tableworks and the bamboo chairs, in a vaguely modern Chinese style.
The floor is covered with sisal - don't go barefooted.The walls are painted cognac with shutters covered in the geometric Larsen fabric. Mahnken sees among the new interior design trends "less plants, except in budget deocrating where a plant is cheaper than an important piece of furniture . . . a new interest in ceilings - skylights, or where that isn't possible, mirrored ceilings that look as though they go to the sky."
He uses a mirrored ceiling in one of his model rooms. It reflects a marvelous circular window and a curious fantasy table whose legs are really legs, by Harris/Kosmas Ltd. The colors in this room are mauve, rust and garnet red. Another Mahnken room has a stainless-steel floor made of tiles, with gray velvet walls.
Among the best buys in Mahnken's rooms are the gorgeous East Indian temple paintings and art objects. The prices are remarkably low - $82, for one good-sized painting, for instance.
Woodward & Lothrop plans to carry John Mascheroni's modern modular seating by Simmons, which has tables that slip over and chaises that slip under other pieces for a split-level living room - along the same idea as New York designer Vladimir Kagan's earlier Elevations line. But Woodie's Claus Mahnken didn't like Macheroni's case goods.
Ben Flowers at Bloomingdale's at Tyson's Corner especially likes the new furniture by John Saladino, the New York interior designer, and has used it in a model room. "It isn't derivative of art deco but it does have a soft, rounded look," he says. Its name is Bumper Crop.
To get a high-gloss lacquer look, Saladino uses a Formica laminate in sort of a putty color. Flowers points out the utility of the pieces for today's tight spaces - the dining table not only stores its own extra leaves but tucks away from silver flat ware (don't tell the burglar) in the pedestal bases.
The "cockpit" headboard ($3,500) on the bed opens to make a backrest. (For that amount of money you maybe could hire someone to stand behind the bed and hold you up.) The stairstep units ($600 for the wardrobe, $200 for the one drawer) stand together to form a wall of storage. Each is an inch shallower than the other to make a sort of receding line. The upholstered pieces are often in quilted duck ($1,510 for the sofa). The Saladino line has been hailed by furniture freaks as among the best looking of the season.
Another, cheaper (relatively speaking) line that Flowers likes is the rustic Pine-knapple by Sugar Hill. You got it - it's pine furniture, designed by Richard Knapple of Bloomingdale's. THe chaise of $555, the 42-inch round dining table is $375. The natural pine is accented with a black aluminum strip. The effect is very "lofty," so Flowers uses it in a model room with a built-in loft bed with a desk below.
In another model room, Flowers uses a very deep suede sofa ($2,500) on a ceramic tile floor. He covered the walls with cotton cleaning fabric, similar to mosquito netting, very cheap at $70 for 100 yards. Not a bad idea to mask rough walls. The result looks rather like some exiled Frenchman has tried to keep up standards on a remote colonial island.
George Barber, director of Home Furnishings at Hecht Co., particularly likes the Korean chests he saw at the High Point market. Hecht's is doing a mini-boutique of them, though some might suspect they won't sell many to congressional types after the Koreagate scandal. He is also high on Hecht's "high-tech" shop at Gaithersburg. The merchandise is at all stores.
Hecht's "high-tech" furnishings look like industrial equipment: a tractor seat, a sawhorse table with a glass top and a tractor-styled red/white serving cart ($100). Most versatile are the chromewire shelf units, legs and a shelf ($25 each). They can make a bookcase or a stool or a towel rack, to name a few variations.
From the Knoll International showroom here comes a report that the company, a pioneer in modern design, soon expects to market a separate line of furniture through retailers. Hithertoo, the designs, mostly by well-known architects like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe/Lilly Reich, have been largely sold through architects and decorators, though locally they were briefly available through Scan. The new Knoll furniture won't be introduced until spring. In the meantime Knoll's own early early "high-tech" design, Harry Bertoia's wonderfully light wire chairs designed 25 years ago and never excelled, are now available in bright colors of red, blue, green, yellow and brown, as well as the traditional black, white and chrome. The chairs are splendid in tight quarters because, as the remark always goes, "space flows right through them." Or as someone else said, "I love them as much for their shadow as their substance."
Recently, Washington has had a notable number of lectures by important designers and design critics, both at furniture and department stores and at the Smithsonian Associates. They bring us tidings of design trends from elsewhere as well as rumors of innovations to come.
Fabric designer and writer Jack Lenor Larsen, in town to speak at Sloane's recently, said he is producing his first line of furniture. The design is by Ben Baldwin. "I call it extremely classic universal elegant. It can be part of an office or a living room or bedroom. The prices are moderate."
Larsen believes that the furniture designers are thinking again about designing for mass production. "Furniture is overpriced, it's still essentially handmade by small producers. I don't think molded plastic is practical. But we need to do chairs and sofas that can be covered with something like socks or sweaters - flexible, stretchy slipcovers. Recovering furniture is just too expensive. We need to make covers that are the equivalent of blue jeans."
He doesn't think much of the "high-tech" look, except "in servant roles, like industrial shelves for instance. It's best where it doesn't dominate the whole space, the way Ward Bennett always used it. Denmark has some good cheap bookshelves in their new design supermarkets."
Larsen thinks that really creative design is currently underground but will be revealed soon.
To Larsen, one of the biggest things happening in design currently is the great interest showing all over the country in the Chinese and Egyptian shows. "At last the museums are beginning to recognize crafts." Larsen says. "But I'd like to ask them, does it have to be old to be art?"
Larsen, a firm friend to the craftsman and a weaver himself, says he believes that crafts are the most important thing to collect today - not art or antiques. "If I bought paintings or sculptures, I could afford only two or three pieces in a decade.But I can be quite acquisitive with crafts." So much so that he hopes to build storage walls on every side of his new loft apartment.
The strong movement under way today for people to make their own living spaces - remodeling lofts, rowhouses and even chicken coops - is very healthy, in Larsen's opinion. "Everyone in my studio has bought a loft. People now are concentrating on buying the space, then remodeling it to make it look the way they want it to. A house is such a large part of your expenditures today, you want it to be your own. Builders can't afford to put money into interiors now. So what you can get is essentially a shell. The occupant has to put his own work into it to make it right. But since people are more conscious of what their living space should be, they don't mind."
Larsen also thinks that people get better craftsmanship when they do it themselves. "My father was a building contractor in the 1930s, and even then he was upset at the poor craftsmanship. "It's gotten worse since then."
Stewart Johnson might be said to have certified good taste. He's the keeper of the Museum of Modern Art's design collection in New York. He and his museum committee say, for example, which typewriter is worth enshrining, which one should be cast on the junkheap; which modern chair will be an heirloom, which should be kindling; which vase is in good taste, which one wouldn't even do for a wedding present.
Johnson, who was in Washington recently to lecture, thinks that we are in a transitional period of time in design. "We are floundering around, trying to find someway to go. Bauhaus and modern are at an end. But there's nothing yet to replace it.
"I went to the furniture fair in Milan, and it was very depressing. There was an awful lot of junk, few exceptions. No surprises, no sense of anything fresh or new. There are a few refinements, but everything was wildly expensive. There was nothing for anyone younger than 40; it was all aimed at the conservative, the rich."
The "high-tech" look doesn't excite Johnson. It gives him a distinctly deja vu feeling. "After all, Philip Johnson and H.H. Hitchcock did a machine art show at the Modern in 1934."
He thinks that somewhere out there the designers are regrouping, rethinking things. "Maybe there are harbingers in all sorts of basement workshops." Johnson doesn't believe that crafts are the answer. "I'm afraid furniture will be mass produced out of cheaper and cheaper materials. Though it doesn't look likely that petrochemicals will be important in our future.
Johnson is much encouraged by the new one-piece plywood chair by Peter Danko of Alexandria. "It's wood, its quick; everybody can afford it, the design is simple."
Johnson spoke at Bloomingdale's White Flint. The staff may have been a bit surprised because he went through the store collecting items, brought them up to the podium and explained why he liked some things the store sells and hated others.
"They had several knock-offs of the side chair designed by Marcel Breuer, for instance. One was good, one fair, one awful. It's a matter of proportion, the quality of the materials and the faithfulness to the designer's intentions when the chair was first made in 1928."
So what does it all mean, these varying directions? Well, just remember that in 1878, things looked pretty bleak - eclecticism had developed great horrors of baroque grafted onto classic pieced out with rococo. Yet in 1890, art nouveau, one of the really creative periods of design, was in full swing. Somewhere, as Larsen and Johnson say, good creative design is underground in somebody's basement studio. And any day now, we'll be in the midst of another golden age.