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The Real Deal 

by Ann M. Colford

What does the National Geographic name mean to you? Adventurous photography from exotic locales? In-depth stories of anthropologists documenting disappearing cultures? Memories of hidden glimpses at scantily clad women and men right under the nose of the school librarian?

Whatever the cachet associated with the name, next spring you can furnish your house with it. The National Geographic Society announced that its licensed home furnishings collection, produced by Lane Home Furnishings and seven other companies, will debut at the fall furniture market show in High Point, N.C., and will be available in department stores and furniture specialty shops in April 2004.

"We are delighted to introduce this new line of furnishings that bring a taste of foreign culture into the home," says John Dumbacher, senior vice president of licensing for National Geographic. "This collection was inspired by our own explorers' personal residences and their world travels. They shared their homes and the items they have collected from around the world, helping us develop this eclectic collection."

Profits from the collection will benefit a fund that supports explorers and researchers around the world. No images are available yet, but The New York Times reports that designs in the new collection will be based on images and objects from the National Geographic Society's archives, including maps, carvings and textiles. The story behind each item will be told on the sales tag, vouching for its cultural authenticity.

At 2,500 pieces, the National Geographic collection will be one of the more extensive licensed furniture lines, but it is by no means unique. In fact, licensing signature lines is one of the hottest trends in home decor. Branding mavens like Martha Stewart have been attaching their monikers to consumer products for years, although the movement into the furniture market is relatively recent. Newer still is the attempt to capture the essence of a cultural icon in furniture design.

One of the first successful icon-branding ventures was the Ernest Hemingway line of home furnishings created by Thomasville. The line debuted in 1999 and now includes several versions, or periods, of Hemingway style. There's Hemingway Paris, inspired by the author's expatriate life in the French capitol between the wars; Hemingway Key West and Hemingway Havana, with their brilliant hues of the tropics and hints of clandestine adventure; and Hemingway Kenya, designed to evoke "safari excursions on the African continent." Each collection features dozens of individual pieces for every room of the home. Only the Hemingway Ketchum group remains small, with just a couple of pieces bearing the name of the small Idaho town where Papa took his own life. After all, the images of alcoholism, depression and suicide that tainted the writer's final days in Sun Valley may contradict the assertion from Thomasville's catalog: "Bold, self-assured, imaginative and worldly, these furnishings reflect a life fully lived."

Other icons followed Hemingway's lead. Last year's furniture market saw lines named for Elvis Presley (just in time for the 25th anniversary of the King's death), Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, original Charlie's Angel Jaclyn Smith, Stetson (purveyor of hats for cowboys and others), clothing designers Oscar de la Renta and Tommy Bahama, and, of course, Martha Stewart. But Thomasville led the way again, introducing the Bogart collection, a complete line of furnishings inspired by Humphrey Bogart and 1940s Hollywood.

"In creating the Bogart collection, we drew inspiration not only from Art Deco and the styles of Hollywood's glamorous heyday, but from Bogart's individualistic sense of style as well," said Guy Walters of Thomasville Design and Merchandising in a statement last October. "This is a collection for consumers who, like Bogart, distinguish between glamour and glitter, luxury and ostentation, and design and decoration, seeking to create a look and attitude of refined yet relaxed elegance."

So what's behind this licensing bonanza, other than a desire to cash in on part of the approximately $70 billion furniture market? Rather than seeking out our own unique authentic experiences, perhaps it's easier to let the marketers package an image for us. Want to display the romance and danger of Hemingway's life without the actual tedium of unmediated travel? Just buy a sofa!

Trend-watcher Faith Popcorn identifies a current desire that she calls "Fantasy Adventure," the search for vicarious thrills while remaining completely safe. When combined with her famous identification of "Cocooning" -- the trend toward creating a pampered home environment as protection from the vagaries of reality -- exotic and evocative home furnishings make perfect sense.

Popcorn's list of current cultural trends does not note the licensing of personal names for furniture, but it's clearly a trend she's following. Her own line of home office furniture for women -- the Faith Popcorn Home Office Cocoon Collection -- is now available from Hooker Furniture.

Publication date: 08/07/03

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