- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 10, 2004

The National Geographic Society long has sought to bring the world home to readers on the pages of its magazine. Now it is doing so with a bed, an armoire and nearly 2,500 other items — all part of the society’s first-ever home furniture and furnishings collection.

The enterprise is not an entirely new venture for the institution; the society already has an online catalog featuring an ethnic mix of accessories and handicrafts. The difference is the approach.

Titled the National Geographic Home Collection, the items are being manufactured by seven companies under licensing agreements. A percentage of everything sold by the companies goes to a new National Geographic nonprofit called the World Cultures Fund, which is connected to the existing Mission Program responsible for grants to expeditions and education programs. A black, white and yellow tag on each item says the aim of the fund is “to support the study and preservation of world cultures.” (For reasons of confidentiality, National Geographic would not disclose the percentage amount dedicated to the fund.)

That’s a tall order, as is the scope of the enterprise, introduced in October at the home furnishings trade show held each year in High Point, N.C. The collection will be in retail stores in April — a profusion of specially created and thematic art pieces; bedding; baskets; table linens; pillows; throws; mirrors; screens; ceramics; glassware; flatware; tableware; chests; tables; beds; and, naturally for an institution associated with maps, chart desks.

Motifs are equally varied, but, according to Paul Hooker, president of textiles seller Sferra Bros., all relate to Africa or Asia. “National Geographic brought [the licensees] together, sat us down and said, ‘Here is the vision, the color palette, the story,’” he says.

National Geographic had final approval of the designs, he says, all intended to be representative of the many diverse historic and ethnic styles covered in National Geographic reports and adventures.

“Six years ago, when we started the division and did a consumer research study, we found people wanted to see more limited-edition prints and photographs from the archives, on top of wanting to know about Geographic expeditions,” says John Dumbacher, senior vice president of the society’s licensing division, explaining the project’s origins, which quickly grew into the idea of doing a fully coordinated collection for the home.

“Our photographers and explorers travel the world, and a lot of people would like that lifestyle. So it is a bit of a step, but the mission of the society is the increase and diffusion of geographical knowledge.”

In addition to combing the 116-year-old society’s extensive archives for photographs and prints of note that would inspire images and lend themselves to reproduction, researchers were dispatched to the homes of some contemporary explorers and photographers connected to National Geographic to scout for inspiration among artifacts in their personal collections.

As a result of a July article in the New York Times on the venture, Washington-based explorer Wade Davis found himself being asked by friends if he suddenly had turned into a designer, recalls Gail Percy, Mr. Davis’ wife, with a laugh. That isn’t the case, but apparently the Davis-Percy living room and office was worth documenting.

A table used by a photographer to display work in his home was studied in detail to see how it was made so it could be reproduced as part of the collection, according to Washington textile designer Chanda Butler.

“The collection definitely created a buzz at High Point,” she reports, saying licensees were held to strict standards when submitting their designs. “With Geographic’s cachet, it could have incredible global impact if they hold the line and are socially responsible as they say they will be about how the items are made, by pledging not to use endangered wood and such. The thematic approach has the potential to create a new form of marketing in home furnishings, giving the consumer another reason to buy.”

The manufacturers, who come from all over the United States, control the production sites, many of which are overseas, and the quality of the products being crafted especially for National Geographic.

In addition to Sferra, the home furnishing licensees are Palecek, Toyo, Wildwood, Zrike and Lane Home Furnishings. Lane, owned by Furniture Brands International, is responsible for the furniture, which is divided into two categories — West Indies and Tropic Winds; IPhotoart Inc. is handling the limited-edition photographic prints.

Some of the more unusual items are a poster bed with a removable canopy frame and a louvered headboard reminiscent of the shuttered windows found in Caribbean houses. A sideboard is modeled after a multibasin water-filter cabinet used to collect rainwater in the West Indies. A double semainier was inspired by 18th-century chests with seven drawers originally meant to hold a week’s supply of clothing. (Semaine is French for week.)

“The whole program was inspired by the archives of rare books, photographs and maps,” Mr. Dumbacher says. “Among the best pieces [in the collection] is an armoire with a woodcarving on it from an article we did back in 1912 about Angkor Wat in Cambodia. It has a cultural feel and illustrates the detail we have gone through to be sure the program has a tie back to the society.”

Janice Kanter of Theodore’s home furnishings store, 2233 Wisconsin Ave. NW, describes the baskets and lamps she ordered for delivery this spring as “upscale tribal — more urban African.”

“They were just good-looking. Not necessarily different,” Carol Matthews says of the vases and lamps she bought for Second Yard in Fairfax. “The animal theme never dies. The color print of a zebra on a lamp could fit both traditional and contemporary homes.”

“Anytime you have a name like National Geographic associated with a product line, it is more than just a product, obviously,” says Steven Johnson of Simms Furnishings and Interiors in Fredericksburg, Va., praising what he says is the collection’s transitional look, good for formal and casual decor. “The Geographic is so highly respected, you assume if they put their name on something, it gives it some credence.”

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