In today's furniture market, it's not enough to tell customers that a piece is in the style of Chippendale or William and Mary or Louis XVI. These days, even the classics need a brand name.
In an attempt to freshen looks that have been around for centuries, furniture manufacturers are attaching celebrity names to their new lines of antique-inspired furniture — a pattern that started in recent years with Martha Stewart and fashion designer Bob Mackie and which continues to expand.
At the International Home Furnishings Show in High Point, N.C., this spring, Pennsylvania House brought in Hollywood music producer and jazz singer Steve Tyrell to promote a line called "The New Standards," a play on the musical "standards" of the early 20th century, which Tyrell reinterpreted for jazz.
Mackie was there, too, promoting "Mackie Classics," his second line for American Drew since he debuted his first collection in 1998.
Actress Jaclyn Smith of "Charlie's Angels" TV fame also presented her second collection for Largo Furniture, called "Timeless Traditions," which draws mainly on the federal period of American antiques.
And Pulaski Furniture announced a licensing agreement with the public television program "Antiques Road Show," in which Pulaski designed a collection patterned after antiques featured on the show.
The stream of brand names also include collections inspired by the antiques in historic homes. Furniture makers Hickory Chair and Kindel are licensed to reproduce pieces from Winterthur, the Delaware estate of Henry Francis du Pont. Craftique makes furniture with the Biltmore Estate For Your Home brand, named after George Vanderbilt's North Carolina retreat. Thomas Jefferson's Monticello also offers its own furniture line through Madison Square Furniture.
The name-brand collections all personify the comments made by top furniture executives at the opening of the show — that furniture needs a strong identity if it's going to sell.
In tough economic times, "solid brands are going to be a defining element," said Lynn Chipperfield, senior vice president and CEO of Furniture Brands International, which owns names such as Broyhill, Thomasville and Drexel Heritage.
"As the shakeout continues in the industry, companies with the strong brand names are going to prevail," Chipperfield told reporters.
Pennsylvania House president Tom Tilley summed up that feeling as he described the New Standards line: "How can we re-energize the brand and re-address the traditional 18th-century (furniture) customer? What (Tyrell) is doing with music is exactly what we should be doing with furniture, is taking the classics and re-interpreting them."
The manufacturers aren't simply slapping a new name on the old styles; they're trying to take those styles and rework them to fit today's more casual, comfortable living.
For instance, Pennsylvania House designed a "four-poster" bed in the New Standards line that has only knobs where the posts should be on the footboard. That's so people won't have an obstructed view of the television, Tilley said.
When Pulaski was adapting antique dining chair designs for its Antiques Road Show collection, it brought the height and width measurements to the modern standard and included lots of comfy padding on the seat. "Those (antique) seats are as hard as a rock," said Jim Kelly, Pulaski's executive vice president.
The Bob Mackie collection gives a bleached stain to its mahogany tables and chairs, giving it a fresher, brighter twist on the dark classic. "(The color) becomes much more transitional and softer," said John Gerber, vice president for sales at American Drew.
Also popular: taking a classic design for tables, chairs and sideboards and giving it a painted finish to make it more casual. Jaclyn Smith's collection focuses on adding painted finishes to make its federal-style furniture more "eclectic."
Whatever the approach, giving identity to furniture is just what the industry needs, Chipperfield said. "We need to instill in the mind of the consumer a statement about what furniture means to them," he said. "The value question is getting more acute every day."