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STYLE TO GO
HIP STUFF FOR THE HOME, PRODUCED AND PORICED FOR THE MASSES

So 18th century mahogany isn't your thing?

You prefer denim sofas to Chippendale camelbacks.

Framed museum posters to oil-painted still lifes.

Halogen reading lamps to anything with tasseled silk shades.

Chances are, you've been Gap-ized.

Not only do you knock around in familiar khakis and T-shirts, but you are most comfortable with furniture that is more soft- than stiff-collared; more Birkenstock than wingtip.

Even if everyone on your block has a slipcovered sofa similar to yours.

Though people still furnish their homes the traditional way -- with hand-me-downs, estate sale finds and purchases from furniture stores or interior designers -- today's consumers have access to the sort of eye-catching, mass-produced household goods never seen by earlier generations.

"Today, it's hard for people to have bad taste," said North Tonawanda resident June Leffler, while shopping for gifts last week at Homeward Bound, a store on Hertel Avenue specializing in furniture and accessories.

"Even if you walk into Kmart, Martha Stewart has put together all the colors for you," she said, referring to the retail chain's Martha Stewart Everyday collection of bedding and bath accessories.

"What is available to the general public today is a cornucopia of wonderfully designed items. We have so much laid at our feet. All we have to do is pick and choose," said Michael Starks, a local designer, estate liquidator and appraiser.

At one time, "affordable" was sometimes synonymous with tacky. One of the reasons that Arts and Crafts furniture lost favor in the '20s and '30s, for example, was because it was so poorly copied by imitators.

When it comes to today's household goods, however, this is no longer necessarily true.

Today, simple, well-designed merchandise is easy to find (look for it everywhere from retail chains to independently owned specialty shops). It's easy to decorate around. And to many, it's easy on the wallet.

Even if it can't be called cutting-edge. Even if it may not be made in America. Even if it won't last forever or appreciate in value as an investment purchase will.

To consumers who love to buy the newest things for their homes, this stuff is irresistible.

That's because stores such as Pottery Barn, Crate and Barrel and others "have raised standardization to a high art. Together, these companies have brought to the mass marketplace a level of design quality that once existed only at a high price," reported the New York Times Magazine last spring.

The downside: While everything may be better-designed, it is also increasingly the same, wrote Paul Goldberger in the Times article.

One family's striped cotton-canvas sofa looks just like the one sitting in the den down the street. Same with the iron table lamp in the family room, the maple Windsor-style chairs in the kitchen and the long-stemmed wine glasses in the dining room.

Some will argue, however, that the surplus of well-designed household goods in the marketplace also opens the door to creativity. Consumers have more choices when it comes to choosing purchases they feel reflect their personalities.

Some new pieces are even designed after vintage ones -- which adds to their appeal.

"When we were decorating our first home, we had gold and olive green and Colonial -- and that was it. Even Corningware came in just one color," Mrs. Leffler said.

Not so for her three sons, all of whom are in their 20s.

"Now everything is much more artistic, and young people are getting more and more sophisticated," she said.

And manufacturers have delivered the goods -- whether they're churning out the latest looks in fashion or home furnishings.

Buffalo resident Susanne Sack, who calls herself a compulsive collector of objects from all eras, said that people are easily drawn to what she terms "popular decor."

And she wages a guess as to why.

"There are visual people who derive a certain degree of pleasure from their possessions. You have one person whose home is full of '50s pottery. Someone else may go the Hummel route," she said.

But there's more to it than that, she said.

"There's the visual pleasure factor and then there's the 'I have taste; let me show you just how tasteful I am' factor," she said.

Indeed, these objects -- be it a $5 stainless steel soap dish or a $700 iron bed -- connote good taste to today's consumers.

It's also the culture we live in -- and the accessibility to so much attractive "stuff."

"The culture helps to create the need, and places like Pottery Barn, Crate and Barrel and Ethan Allen make it all possible. I don't really know how, but I just keep getting all these catalogs in the mail," Ms. Sack said.

Not that everyone decorates his home like the pages from a catalog. Most people have a mix of items.

Ms. Sack and her husband, Daniel, have a Pottery Barn rug (purchased at a garage sale) but also a handcrafted cherry dining room table, an Arts and Crafts-style sofa, funky '70s lamps and a Windsor chair from 1800, for example.

Yet for many consumers, that rug from Pottery Barn -- or bookshelf from Ikea or iron-frame bed from a family-owned store -- fits into their lives as comfortably as a pair of Gap jeans.

For one thing, the designs are simple and straightforward -- a concept embraced by many American consumers.

In fact, Times writer Goldberger credits the Gap as the driving force behind the shift in American taste toward simplicity in the past 20 years.

In response, big-name furniture manufacturers have expanded their offerings. Ethan Allen not only offers an 18th century mahogany collection to its traditional customers but also its bold "Radius" collection to those with more contemporary tastes. Similarly, Drexel Heritage has its Drexel Studio "Solutions" collection, which is geared toward Generation Xers, midlife divorcees and other target groups.

Homeward Bound owner Elizabeth How, who once worked for the Gap, sees the growing casualness trend, too.

A visitor can walk into a formally furnished living room and know one thing about the people who live there: They own formal furniture, she said.

"But if you walk into my living room, you know where I've been and what I'm into," said Ms. How, who furnishes her home with items -- old and new -- that reflect her personality and interests.

And it's not just customers in their 20s and 30s. Homeowners who are downsizing may find that these functional, more casual designs fit into their new lifestyle, she said.

Overall, people are just more visually "tuned in" to design these days.

They pay attention to what Paul and Jamie Buchman's apartment looks like on "Mad About You." They take note of Jerry's kitchen cabinets on "Seinfeld." They notice the drinking glasses on "Frasier."

And more times than not, what they see on the screen is as close to them in real life as the nearest shopping center or mail-order catalog.