Winter 2008
The Changing Face of Country By Heather Johnson Durocher

The Appeal

There’s no denying the appeal of country decor. It’s one that revolves primarily around warmth, nostalgia and comfort.

It’s these factors that attracted retailer Susie Gordon to the business. “I think that country evokes a very warm, comforting, something baking in the oven-type of atmosphere,” says Gordon, the owner of Susie’s Bittersweet Treasures, in Rochester, NH.

Country’s charms

Cindy Lowry, president of Blossom Bucket Inc., a wholesaler in North Lawrence, OH, agrees. She believes that country gift-loving customers seek this kind of decor for its “warmth.” “It adds so much character to your home. It turns a house into a home,” says Lowry, whose company started with “smaller, decorative items” like Christmas ornaments before expanding into other lines of country gift products.

There are many styles of country decorating, says editor Gloria Daniels, who blogs about country decorating. “For most of us, country-style decorating isn’t just a way of selecting and arranging furniture or accessories,” she says. “More than any other decorating style, country decorating is about creating a feeling and an ambiance that evokes our past.”

Daniels says that as country decor evolves, one trait remains the same: its ability to remind people of what’s great about the United States. “Country-style decorating embodies all that is honest and charming in America,” Daniels writes. “It evokes our history, our industriousness, our stability and our desire to remember and emulate all that was the best for our ancestors and our past.”

Country’s varied offerings

Country decor runs the gamut from pillows, stars, furniture, candles, even table settings—just like any other style of decor. Wholesalers such as Ohio Wholesale in Seville, OH, and Hearthside Collection in Everett, WA, offer a wide range of country products from garden accessories to pillows to signs. More general giftware companies, like Giftcraft and Midwest, also offer country decor among their various lines.

Signs are especially popular in the country genre. According to Rhonda Savoy, they are popular because of their simplicity and because they elicit positive feelings, which consumers have always sought when purchasing country-themed items. Savoy is owner of Saltbox Primitive Signs, based in Wichita, KS. The company wholesales signs with more than 3,000 sayings. Roosters are country-decorating staples. Artist Devon Cameron of Gourdaments, in Circleville, NY, converts gourds into decorative roosters and other animals with a country look.

Primitives: Country’s Cousins?

One often hears the terms “country” and “primitives” bandied about together. Are they one and the same? The consensus in the industry is that primitive decor is older, or at least looks older. “Distressed” is a term that’s often used in home decor, and it means worn-out, or old looking. The term is especially relevant when applied to primitive decor.

“With primitive country home decor, the more distressed something is, the more it feels like it belonged to your Nana—and Nana brings us back to those wonderful childhood memories that we all love,” says Gordon, of Susie’s Bittersweet Treasures.

Decorative pieces can be made to look distressed and primitive by forcibly aging them using specialized painting and sanding techniques.

Primitive decor is also darker than traditional country decor. Mark Warren, manager at The Hearthside Collection, is especially familiar with the primitive style. “We typically stick to more toned-down country decor—darker colors, more subdued colors—and in that respect we have a more primitive look to our product,” Warren says.

Savoy, of Saltbox Primitive Signs, labels primitive decor as folk art, which is characterized by the use of rural themes. She points out that the style has a darker, more minimalistic feel to it.

Country-Politan?

Ask those specializing in country gifts and you’ll likely hear a consensus: Country has changed—away from clutter and too much “cutesiness” to pieces that are sleeker, with clean lines. In fact, vendor Melrose International based in Quincy, IL, calls the new look country-politan.

Jodi Sleeper, owner and designer of American Cottage, an Andover, NH-based company specializing in hooked rugs and pillows, says she still sees pockets of “kitschy-ness and cutesiness,” but the overall look is bolder and more modern.

Barbara Lloyd, owner of Gracie’s Place in Bismarck, ND, has certainly seen the changes. She says her customers want accent pieces that are bolder while simultaneously being warm and inviting. The gift shop offers Lloyd’s own designs on decorative plates, trays and frames, among other items. Some have snowmen on them, while others feature sayings such as “Cherish, Dream, Live,” and “Blessings, Family, Friends.”

These aren’t your traditional country-themed gifts, thanks to their sleeker, more refined look. It’s just these sorts of designs that are helping change the way country gifts are defined.

“It’s definitely more upscale,” Lloyd says. “People want to have a more sophisticated look.”

Savoy says people are looking for less clutter with the things they purchase. “We’re more particular with what we put into our homes. We’re looking for cleaner lines and looks,” she says. Sleeper, a longtime designer, says her newest original creations also demonstrate a shift in color, toward earth tones. “There are so many new colors I used to ignore myself that look so beautiful with florals and geometrics, like classic periwinkle and sea-foam white and maybe a little bit of avocado,” Sleeper says. “I used to be an absolutely huge burgundy color fan, but it seems like every machine-made rug has burgundy in it. Now I am into colors like ginger and tan.”

Catching them young

For some consumers, the mere mention of “country gifts” triggers in their minds the image of a grandmother buying items for her home. But while country products are especially popular among older generations, greater numbers of young people are showing interest in the sleeker styles, industry experts say.

Patti Kowalczyk says she’s seen plenty of customers in their 20s buy products in Patti’s Country Cottage, her Billings, MT, store. “Maybe they do think it’s from grandma, but they like it because it’s a reminder of times gone by. We do sell a lot of product to that younger group,” says Kowalczyk, whose shop features items like quilts, lace, Boyd’s Bears, and specialty coffees and teas.

Young customers driving move to modern?

It’s the classic chicken-and-egg problem. It is difficult to tell if younger customers are now attracted to country decor because of its more contemporary look, or if vendors first updated country’s look to capture this younger market segment.

Cindy Lowry of Blossom Bucket says younger shoppers are helping shape the new look of country. “They are starting to set the trend,” she says, citing this age group’s interest in an upscale country look. “We have added a lighter, more sparkle look to our line that we feel will appeal to the ‘urban look.’ We are using pale blues, greens and browns, which should fit well into the younger groups’ home decor,” Lowry says.

Savoy is reaching the younger generations by creating college-specific signs. The emphasis is on handcrafted, upscale collegiate signs that could hang on an office wall, or in the home. In addition, Saltbox Primitive Signs creates custom monogrammed signs that can be hung on children’s bedroom walls, as well as “beach” signs popular among those with waterfront residences.

Vendors are walking a delicate line between expanding customer bases to younger generations while keeping existing (older) customers happy. Warren of Hearthside Collection says that designs manufactured specially to attract younger customers have not done very well or at least not attracted any new customers. He says the company is very committed to not losing its niche and works hard to create products that will keep the current customer base happy.

How to ensure that customers of all ages find something in your store? “You try to market to both ends of the market—younger and older—and you do this by appealing to their senses,” Lowry says. “You offer some contemporary but still with that country flair.”

Good news for retailers

Country’s move to more modern and sleek looks means the products can more easily be sold and integrated into your store. Savoy says colors like black, mustard and parchment (a very pale beige) have helped country make the crossover into all kinds of gift stores.

Country product experts say you might want to consider experimenting with country gifts even if you haven’t yet delved into this product category. Customers are willing to mix and match styles, so retailers can offer products that help them do just that, says Junior Gupta, president of Homespice Decor, based in Tucker, GA, which designs and manufactures braided rugs and accessories.

“Country is definitely evolving,” Gupta says. “We see evolution of color palettes, and the decor choices in their homes. For example, many people have a traditional sofa but add a contemporary cocktail table with a braided rug.”

Country’s timeless charms

Whether through signs, collectibles, paintings, floor coverings, candles, wall hangings or other home items, country decor isn’t going anywhere—it’s only evolving.

“Country is still going strong—people like it and the warmth of it, the coziness—but now they want the more sophisticated look,” Lloyd says.

Daniels writes this on her blog: “One of the reasons for the popularity of country decorating is the fact that it fits anywhere. Whether you live in New York City, small town America, or the rural country, the country look always looks right. It has a timelessness that fits in any architecture or any locale.”

Heather Johnson Durocher

Durocher is a northern Michigan-based journalist who writes frequently about business for newspapers and magazines. She has contributed to USA Weekend, Woman's Day, Parents and American Baby. Visit her website at HeatherDurocher.com




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