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Laura Hunt

Your First Home

Filling the Spaces

Copyright Deborah Marks 2004

"CleanÔÇŽsleekÔÇŽsimple." These are the terms used to describe the furnishings which fit into the Contemporary Light setting. They are light in look and---in many cases---even in weight! They do not dominate a room but make a statement. Their designs are so exquisite that they even have been considered works of art.

In furnishing the home one can revert to the modern classics of such designers as Le Corbusier, Eileen Gray, Mies van der Rohe, or one of today's collections on the market. A well-known furniture fair introducing the newest designs takes place every year in April in Milan, Italy. Robert Munzer, a design consultant at Limn in San Francisco, attends and reviews the fair. Click on his website in May to see the latest trends. ( under The Design Page)

The recognized leaders in the field of contemporary design  definitely are the Europeans. The Italian designers, in particular,  have a sense of beauty and proportion! There are, though, designers in this country who prefer the sleeker line. At the end of this article is a list of manufacturers and their websites so that you can browse through the many styles available.

Selecting the furnishings for your home can be so much fun! And there are so many choices! But before you start out on your search in the showrooms, let me provide you with an overview of what is on the market today and a few tips for the first room furnishings, which may just influence your choices later!

When you start to purchase furniture, the pieces for the living, family room, and dining room usually have high priority because these rooms will be seen by visitors and will be representative of your style and your home. If financial restrictions are a reality, plan for these items to take up the larger portion of the budget.

Sectionals have become popular in recent years. They do tend to be more suited to the family room because of the lounging possibilities offered while watching TV or listening to music. Be sure you have enough space for a sectional. They are quite wide----starting at about 9'---and once you have decided on the placement of the lounge on the right or left, you cannot change it. The individual elements you can choose from are many and varied. By simply ordering an ottoman to go with the sectional you have added a potential resting port for your legs, extra seating, or a coffee table, whatever is needed at the moment!

Sofas combined with armchairs provide more versatility in placing the furniture in the room. You can have two sofas facing each other or one large sofa with two armchairs. It's best to float the furniture in the room positioned toward a focal point such as a fireplace or painting.

Whatever you do, don't paste them against the walls! If you have hardwood or tile floors, ground them with an area rug.

The seating height of contemporary sofas and sectionals is about 15". The frames are of kiln-dried wood or steel. Coiled springs or webbed suspension provide the support. The seat cushions are usually of polyurethane foam. Back cushions can be of foam or polyester fibers and feathers for a softer feel. They can be loose or zipped on. The arms may be wide or narrow, angular or curved, or entirely absent.

Deciding whether the legs are to be of metal or wood is a matter of taste. Coordinate your choices with the other pieces you will have in the room, i.e. cocktail table, sideboard, wall unit. All metal will lend a more industrial look; wood will add more warmth. Mixing wood and metal creates interest and vibrancy. The furniture industry is always coming up with new and innovative ideas.
The sectionals, for example, are becoming larger and comfortable to accommodate the more relaxed atmosphere in the homes. The number of possible configurations is increasing. Some can be put together like a puzzle (Yin, Ligne Roset) and some have very wide lounges so two can cuddle up on them together.

The backs can fold down; the seating area can move out (Andy, B & B Italia). The covers on sofas and sectionals are often removable for easy cleaning. Headrests can be added or not. Leg heights and arm style can be varied. Take a look and decide what's right for you!

How you upholster the pieces you choose is so important! In the family room where small children will be, it is wise to select leather so spills can be cleaned up easily. Be sure to ask about the quality of the leather: its thickness, whether it's top grain, whether it is vegetable tanned (provides suppleness), chrome tanned (provides structure) or perhaps both. The dyeing process also is important. Is the leather dyed through or only partially? A general rule of thumb: the better the quality of leather, the more it will cost.

Fabrics are softer and can provide a more formal look. Choose the fabrics carefully! Often the ones displayed in showrooms do not hold up well in day-to-day living. Linens are not really suited for seating areas, as they wrinkle too easily. Wools and cashmeres are beautiful but can be irritating to the skin. Cottons with synthetics, on the other hand, wear well. Very interesting and durable fabrics are made from 100% polyester. Be wary of loosely woven fabrics as pointed objects can catch on them and pull out threads.

Microfibers such as Alcantara, NovaSuede or Ultrasuede look as rich as suedes but are classified as fabrics. They wear well, do not wrinkle easily, and are available in numerous colors. Sectionals as well as sofas and armchairs look stunning finished in microfiber.

Solid colors usually work better on the larger pieces. Stripes or patterns can be added on the throw pillows or window treatments. Ask if the fabric has been treated in some way. If not, you may want to have it done in your home when the furniture first arrives.

The case goods: sideboards, wall units, dining and bedrooms sets, etc. are called---can be done in a variety of finishes. You can choose from wood, lacquer, glass, melamine (a synthetic material), and metal. Wood creates more warmth, while lacquer and melamine offer many colors, are easy to care for, and provide wonderful accents in the room.

The woods for contemporary furnishings are primarily veneers. This prevents the problem of warping and also contributes to a more beautiful, even grain on the pieces. For the environmentally conscious, it's a plus. Woods you will see in the showrooms now are wenge (a dark African wood) and oak in natural, bleached, whitened or---the newest---a gray tone. Beech is also a favorite for contemporary furnishings. A whitened oak with pink tones looks very elegant; cherry woods with red and tangerine tones complement each other. Wenge provides a contrast to pastel and neutral tones.

Modular is the word to note when it comes to bookcases, wall units, entertainment centers, and wardrobes. Pieces can be put together, taken apart, moved around, and added. The items can be designed to fit into the room and to your needs.

Wall units and entertainment centers have been undergoing tremendous changes due to the growth in the electronics industry. The emergence of the flat-screen TV has dictated the design of many of these units. The flat screen can be mounted on the wall or set on a very low table surrounded by shelving or closed units, such as drawers and doors. Paneling can be mounted on the wall onto which the shelving and closed units are attached. Lighting the units from behind provides tranquil ambient lighting. The compositions are numerous, and the design is very sleek and elegant.

For dining, cocktail, and end tables glass is a very popular choice. It lends tremendously to the light and airy look. In many cases, the dining tables of glass are extendible with clever design mechanisms to allow this.

The glass comes in the industrial standard, which has a green tint to it, or in clear or frosted varieties. White or frosted glass is a welcome alternative and is very pleasing. In most cases, it is wise to order tempered glass.

Consider round tables instead of rectangular. They're safer with small children and offer when used as dining table more legroom because the pedestal is in the center.

The bedroom furniture for both young and old have much to offer. For the children's rooms, vibrant colors are available in finishes which are easy to care for. Some pieces have been so designed that they can easily be modified and changed as the children grow into their teenage years.

Contemporary beds are typically platform beds. They are low-slung; the mattress with an average of about 21 inches in height, is supported by slats and not a box spring. The beds are finished in woods, lacquers, and melamines; their frames also may be of steel.

Upholstering the bed frames can be an alternative, and at the moment upholstered frames in leather are quite up-to-date. Headboards extending beyond the beds and supporting shelves or drawers emphasize the low horizontal line.

 Lighting can be attached or is sometimes integrated into the headboard. If the bed is without side panels, try placing it at an angle in the room. The eye is drawn to it, making it the focal point.

When buying a bed, be sure to ask whether the sizes are European or American. The size of the mattress will vary depending on this. If the bed comes only in European sizes, there are latex mattresses which can be cut to fit perfectly. Allow at least an inch between mattress and frame.

Once you have looked at several websites, familiarized yourself with the various possibilities for the pieces you need, and have made some preliminary choices, prepare for the visit to the showrooms. If no plans exist for your home, draw the room(s) with any existing furniture in ┬╝" scale. That means ┬╝" is equal to one foot in measurement. You may even want to draw some furniture pieces to scale, cut them out, and try different arrangements.

Decide on your budget before you go. Set your priorities and have an idea of what you would like to spend for each room or for each individual piece. If you want quality pieces but cannot afford the regular prices, wait for the showroom sales or warehouse sales. They will be advertised in local newspapers.

When shopping for modern classics, decide if you can pay for the original design and the firm licensed to produce those items. "Knock-offs" are quite abundant on the market. Ask if it's made by the company licensed to produce the original. If not, ask what the changes are to the design and what materials they are using. Of course, it always is wiser to buy the original, but sometimes finances dictate otherwise.

Visit the showrooms that carry contemporary furniture. Take time to look at the pieces on the floor, and then browse through the catalogs which are available. Many showrooms have design consultants who can help. Ask them questions about the furniture, lead time for delivery, local delivery fees, discounts, and guarantees. Also ask the store consultants about their background in the design world. They may be helping you put together and coordinate the furniture for more rooms, so it's best for you to know their past experience and education in the field.

Have fun selecting those items! Each piece should be chosen carefully to give you years of enjoyment.

Pictures courtesy of Limn and Ligne-Roset, San Francisco; Temple, Palo Alto; and Ikea, East Palo Alto.

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