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Furniture inspiration comes from far corners of globe

(ran HS edition)

It was the Same-Old team up against the Derring-Do at the International Home Furnishings Market here last month, and it was the Derring-Do that got the crowd going. With lesser-known newcomers, such as Hector Ruiz of Ruiz T Signature, to veteran heavy-hitters, such as Henredon Furniture Co., the Derring-Do scored with collections infused with detailed handwork and global views. In design, hardware and upholstery, strong ethnic African, Asian and Hispanic influences were unveiled to the estimated 70,000 buyers, designers and journalists who attended the 10-day market.

"People in my generation want something that has meaning," said Alan Price, 33, president of the William Alan furniture company. "We used to offer basic styles, kind of middle-of-the-road things, but in the last few years we've looked at what will set us apart from others."

A welcome and timely approach, said Michelle Lamb, home-furnishings trend forecaster for the Minneapolis-based Marketing Directions Inc. "Anything done to differentiate one product from the other is important," she said. "Companies finally realize how much it helps to make a distinction between so many similar things."

"There are a lot of creative people in these companies," added Britt Beemer, founder and senior research analyst of America's Research Group in Charleston, S.C., "but many times corporate doesn't want them to be as creative as they can be to make a difference, and to make a difference means you have to be willing to take some risks."

William Alan is doing it with hand-woven kente cloth from Ghana. Working with Kente Ventures Inc. and Kwaku Ofori-Ansa, noted authority on kente and professor of African art history at Howard University in Washington, D.C., the High Point company is creating Queen Anne and Louis XVI chairs upholstered in kente ($957 to $1,400).

That African theme was seen in other forms in the Finn Juhl Collection, which was reintroduced by Baker Furniture Co., and in the Ralph Lauren Home Collection's Africa line for Henredon.

Originally designed in 1951, the Finn Juhl Collection was greatly influenced by native African forms as well as modern art, according to the late Scandinavian architect who is recognized as one of the creators of Danish Modern style.

Pieces in this collection range from Juhl's delta-shaped, walnut cocktail table ($2,782) to the walnut-framed, leather Chieftain chair ($3,432).

In the Africa line from the Ralph Lauren Home Collection, Lauren found inspiration in the traditional colors and spirit of Africa. The result was a modern interpretation he achieved by mixing metals with materials indigenous to western and central African countries. The pieces are suited to terrace apartments, urban lofts and contemporary homes where windows open to nature.

Standouts included the Kigali chair ($3,400), which is upholstered in a buttery, soft brown leather painted in earthen red, chocolate brown and beige; the Nairobi bed ($6,000) made of mahogany wood with bamboo and steel slats; and the Benin sofa upholstered in linen, inspired by Kuba and mud-cloth patterns.

Other global influences were evident in another Henredon collection. Aston Court, which marries 18th-century style with an Asian-inspired muse, was first introduced by Henredon in the 1980s. This time around, however, there is more emphasis on the Asian-inspired themes.

"We wanted to update the collection, brighten its look and its finish," said Kelly Burleson, a spokeswoman for Henredon. "We felt the best way to do that was to focus more on the Asian-inspired themes to bring it more in line with the "90s lifestyle."

The collection includes iridescent fabrics of celadon hues, a chow cocktail table with walnut burl top and open fretwork base, a Chinese rattan carved console table and a silk-covered ottoman with carved wooden base.

Other clutch hitters for the Derring-Do came from Mexico and brought with them amazing examples of handcraftsmanship.

"For me, it is art," Hector Ruiz said of his limited-edition, signed tables of Central American cedar, copper and hammered, hand-forged steel. "Not everyone wants to have the same table. Even people with a small amount to spend want to feel as though they have something special."

Pieces from Ruiz T Signature, which is based in Huatabampo, Sonora, Mexico, will sell from $450 for pedestals, $1,300 for cocktail tables to $3,000 for dining tables.

Though the company started five years ago with Ruiz's first collection called Dulce, this was the first time Ruiz showed his designs at High Point.

The Derring-Do's appearance at this fall's market seems to be just what a sluggish industry has been waiting for.

"Hispanic, African-American and Asian populations are growing at a much more rapid rate than white populations," said research analyst Beemer. "For so long the white Anglo-Saxon group was the only group that product was designed for. There needs to be greater emphasis on ethnic looks and styles."

Enter Alfonso Marina and Emilia Rivero Porras and her husband, Jose Luis Porras Razo. Like Ruiz, they bring those qualities _ not to mention Ruiz's high regard for handwork _ to their furniture.

Marina, whose namesake company is based in Mexico City, pays meticulous attention to detail in the carving of bone and woods indigenous to Mexico. His two-door Taraceado chest (about $6,000) is made of engraved rosewood, white cedar and granadillo (a wood indigenous to Mexico) regally stands on carved bun feet.

"Individual attention is what makes the difference between something that is mass-produced and something that is made one by one. It is unique and has a character of its own," said Rivero Porras, who, with her husband and craftsmen from her native Puebla, creates hand-carved, hand-finished, hand-forged pieces for JOL Galleria.

Character is where the Same-Old lineup _ including the Eddie Bauer Collection from Lane, Drexel Heritage's Solutions II, the Hues Collection from Broyhill and David Chu's Nautica for Lexington _ struck out. These contributions seemed like instant replays of recent offerings.