Armchair shoppers may be buying a lot of things to cozy up their homes, but armchairs aren't one of them.
Shoji screens, gargoyles, folk-art cabinets, twig tables, hand-hooked rugs and wrought-iron lamps are outselling large chairs and sofas in the home-furnishings catalogue market.
"The growth . . . is in decorative and home-improvement items," says Katherine Moreau, publisher of Catalog Merchandiser, an industry publication.
In response to public demand, mail-order houses are becoming purveyors of pricey specialty items and artisans are enlisting as mail-order entrepreneurs. People want "special things that aren't in a furniture store," says Denise Keane-Gillette, vice president of marketing for the Hammacher Schlemmer and Plummer-McCutcheon catalogues.
Plummer-McCutcheon, whose best sellers are a hand-hooked mermaid rug ($325) and a hand-painted cabinet ($525), is a new entry, a narrowly focused spinoff of the mother book Hammacher Schlemmer. According to Catalog Merchandiser, almost half of the mail-order spinoffs produced last year were in the home-furnishings group: Gump's is the parent of Interior Vignettes; Horchow has triplets named Horchow Home, Horchow Rugs and Horchow Fine Linen.
Who's buying via UPS? The Horchow customer is looking for a "few pieces for their first home or (for) refurnishing a home when their children leave," says Horchow Vice President Emily Parker. "The second home is when they go to a decorator," she says.
Artisans are cashing in on the trend with their own fledgling publications.
"We are a reluctant mail-order company," says David Petersen of Maine Cottage Furniture, makers of whimsical hand-painted furniture.
Before taking orders from mail-order customers, he tries to direct them to one of the retailers carrying his goods. "It's a lot easier to make a sale if they can kick the tires," he says. The line is available locally at Civilization in Los Angeles and Bedfellows in Studio City.
Other artisans, such as Texas artist Asa Henry, who makes iron and steel furniture, attract customers through classified-size ads in the back of home magazines.
Here is a sampling of catalogues that specialize in eclectic home furnishings.
Backwoods Furnishings, (518) 251-3327. Rustic furniture: beds, tables, chairs and desks. Peeled-poplar poster bed, $1,700; table with twig inlay top, $225.
Ballard Designs (404) 351-5099. Large catalogue of very unusual items: leopard-print door mat, $34.50; white cotton three-panel room screen you can decorate yourself, $275; hand-forged iron bird-nest table, $189.50; picket-fence headboard for twin bed, $175; pricey but wonderfully detailed distressed pine buffet with checkerboard top, $1,085.00.
Bombay Company (800) 829-7789. Traditional furniture, modest prices. A recent catalogue featured a Biedermeier-style end table for $129.
Coppa Woodworking (310) 548-4142. San Pedro-based wood shop that specializes in decorative screen doors, $37 to $259.
Gargoyles (215) 629-1700. Gargoyles, yes, but also old leather trunks, tin boxes, model ships, antique advertising signs and wicker trunks. Top-hat boxes in leather, $350 to $450; "large beastie" gargoyle, $75.
Horchow Home (800) 456-7000. Fairly traditional furnishings with a sprinkling of trendy stuff. A Russian huntboard buffet with intricate carving, $1,862; a trompe l'oeil side table that looks like a stack of leather-bound books, $679.
Maine Cottage Furniture (207) 846-1430. Whimsical headboards, chairs, tables and cabinets hand-painted in bright, rich colors. Fun furniture with serious price tags. Queen-size headboard with wave design and carved fish topping the bedposts, $620.
Miya Shoji (212) 243-6774. Custom shoji screens for room dividers, sliding doors and even shower doors. Frames, finishes, papers and sizes vary. A 36-by-72-inch screen with laminated silk fabric is $370.
Plummer-McCutcheon (800) 321-1484. A large selection of unusual furnishings: twig mantel clock, $99.95; willow-branch room screen, $249; tin hammered mirror, $89.95; postcard-like souvenir pillows, $24.95.
Steel Gallery (214) 826-5120. Iron and steel designs by Asa Henry: beds, tables, curtain rods, and accessories. Queen-size steel bed frames with headboard and footboards in fanciful designs, $1,625.
Sundance (800) 422-2770. High-end collectibles: limited-edition Joshua tree table lamp with punched copper shade, $459; reproductions of cowboy dinnerware from the old Wallace China pattern, $105 (for five-piece place setting).