9 Oct 2019
Southern US States Stay Loyal to the Frontier Feel of Yesteryear
- Photo: There’s always a welcome laid out for the rugged and rustic in Atlanta.
- Photo: Not the real thing, but a close approximation.
- Photo: Mixed bags: Style statements or exhibitor sentiments.
- Photo: The 2019 Atlanta International Gift & Home Furnishings Market: Stalls and stalls of southern style.
From seaside to hearthside, nautical and rustic inspired goods proved to be strong sellers at the Atlanta International Gift & Home Furnishings Market, while blue was clearly the colour for buyers from many of the US southern states.
Rural retro charm and bright seashore-inspired items were well represented in the aisles of this year's Atlanta International Gift & Home Furnishings Market. Indeed, it's fair to say that many US consumers, especially those to be found in the more traditional southern and midwestern parts of the nation, seem to favour country farmhouse décor for their homes.
One company clearly ready to pander to such expectations was Georgia-based Mayberry Rug, which had on offer a wide range of countryside and wildlife-themed rugs and doormats on its stand. Maintaining that many US consumers – especially those living in Atlanta – retain a fascination with the nation's one-time frontier spirit, Sales Representative Hogan Hughes said: "We get a lot of small rustic type customers – the mom-and-pop shops that just offer little cabin stuff.
"For our part, we mainly sell in the southeast, but we ship across the country. Although we primarily sell in the mountainous regions and in the rural areas, we still ship the occasional bear rug to New York City."
Despite ostensibly favouring an old-fashioned look, the majority of US consumers still expect their purchases to be thoroughly modern when it comes to production standards and maintenance convenience. Citing one of Mayberry's top-selling items as proof positive of this, Hughes said: "Our Cosy Cabin rugs have been going well at this show, largely because they're rubber-backed and washable. This means people are free to use them in their kitchens, bathrooms or pretty much anywhere they like."
Another company majoring on heritage Americana was Rhyne & Son, a Georgia-based vintage reproduction specialist. Despite the company's stand appearing to be wholly unchanged since the early days of the 20th century, all its home décor items were, in fact, factory-fresh.
Explaining away this seeming incongruity, Sales Representative Evan Bello said: "We're actually showing antique reproductions. We have licensing deals in place with Sunbeam, Coca-Cola, Gulf and Texaco, as well as several others. As we are based in Atlanta, the home of Coca-Cola, all its signage sells extremely well – as do our Sunbeam signs, which have been really big for us this year.
"Although we deal with classic reproductions, that doesn't mean, however, that we are immune to changing preferences. There is fashion even within the old-fashioned and it's always changing. Take painted furniture as an example. Not so long ago, many people hankered after the yellow and the white pie safes. Then that went away and everyone wanted industrial furniture and a more general industrial look. Now that is on the way out and painted furniture is on the way back in."
Another robustly retro sector – slogan signage – was also widely in evidence at the event, with Iowa-based Kendrick Home one of its most prominent purveyors. Singling out religious tracts as heading the company's best-seller list, Sales Manager Cory Sperfslage said: "The more spiritual ones are always a big hit, basically anything with lot of 'faith', 'hope', 'grace' or 'love'. 'Rejoice always' tends to go down well too, which is why we brought a lot of that kind of thing here. Also, coastal stuff – 'life at the beach' – basically anything on the water or by the coast. Rustic and vintage is pretty big too."
The beach theme, however, was not restricted to sloganeering, with a wide range of related items to be found throughout the event. Perhaps counterintuitively, many such exhibitors maintained that it was the buyers representing land-locked states that were often their best customers.
Clearly happy to capitalise on the ubiquity of such items was Mehmet Sen, the Sales Manager of Basic Layers, a Turkish fabric maker. Positively evangelical about his product range, he said: "We're showing Turkish towels. You can use them at home, the beach, in the shower, as a scarf, as a picnic blanket – the possibilities are endless. They're all manufactured in Turkey and everybody likes Turkish towels – they're very thin, they keep the sand off and they dry fast when you take them to the beach."
Another company showcasing beach-focused goods, albeit with a more modern twist than its traditionally Turkish competitor, was New York City-based Espalma. Highlighting the company's more contemporary range, Co-president Rae Ellen Blum said: "Cooling towels – that's the new trend. They keep you cool and you can use them while you're golfing, playing tennis, hiking, biking… The secret is they're made with a micro poly out of China and, in terms of the demand here, it's all blue, blue, blue."
Another to see blue as the safest of bets in the southern states was Beth Cantlin, Director of Décor Fifty Five, an Atlanta-based fabric specialist. Expanding on the whole notion of regional colour preferences, she said: "As we have such a diverse client base, we are only too aware that what sells in the Midwest is not what's going to sell in Manhattan, while what's selling in the Caribbean isn't going to go down particularly well in Colorado.
"Here, blues are definitely hot. In fact, blues have been big in Atlanta for a couple of years and I just don't see that changing any time soon."
Cindy Ciskowski, Founder and Chief Executive of House of Cindy, a Los Angeles-based fabrics firm, also saw Atlanta as favouring a distinctly blue hue, saying: "I think that cleaner, simpler, newer-looking products sell well here and it's the same when it comes to colours. So, the well-received colours tend to be the navy blues, the pinks and the aquamarines. It's the same across all the southern states.
"On the west coast, by contrast, it's all about soft neutrals, warm colours and the environment. In cities, it's brighter colours. In a darker environment, it's the more saturated colours that come to the fore."
Boasting a more remote perspective on regional US preferences was Sharon Belsten, co-owner of Gerbrend Creations, a Florida-based importer of European textiles. Speaking from her own experience, she said: "There are clear geographical differences in tastes across the US, with southern buyers definitely favouring more traditional pieces. In New York, it's all prints when it comes to hankies, while in Atlanta it's more lace and more white-on-whites.
"What we do, though, isn't particularly driven by trends. We have standard classics, which we offer year after year, for the most part. That said, the colours do change in the throws and the blankets."
Perhaps one of the starkest differences between European and US preferences comes in the cowhides sector. While in North America it's a huge and vibrant market, in western Europe demand is pretty much non-existent. Inevitably, though, such items were a common sight (and smell) at the Atlanta event.
Even in this specialist class of US-specific products, however, there are, apparently, changing fashions and varying regional tastes. Happy to explain the dynamics of this singular market was Kenzie Ratterree, E-Commerce Manager for The BS Trading Company, a Texas-based specialist in all things cowhide.
Introducing the ever-changing hierarchy of the sector, she said: "Florida and California buy more of the greys, while the central states buy more of the rustic colours – the browns and blacks. Overall, in terms of colour, it goes in waves. Right now grey is hot. It used to be the cheapest cowhide you could find, but now it's pretty much the most expensive."
With the green credentials of cows remaining debatable – with some singling out their 'emissions' as particularly ozone depleting – it's far from clear where they feature on the sustainability scale, another index that was clearly preoccupying many of the exhibitors at the event. Indeed, few stallholders turned down an opportunity to talk up their commitment to all things environmentally responsible.
Emphasising his own company's long heritage in the recycling sector, Kendrick Home's Sperfslage said: "About 25 years ago, we started out as a custom cabinet company. Several years back, we decided that a good way to use any waste wood was to make signs. Prior to that, we used such off-cuts as a heat source during the winter, but we now make far better use of it."
Outlining her company's innovative approach to local environmental responsibility, House of Cindy's Ciskowski said: "Our 10x10 collection is all designed and manufactured within 10 miles of our Los Angeles design studio, so there's kind of a sustainable component to it. It also lets us work with local suppliers and support local manufacturers."
The 2019 Atlanta International Gift & Home Furnishings Market took place at the AmericasMart. The show featured more than 3,000 exhibitors and attracted visitors from across the US as well as from 66 other countries.
James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, Atlanta