Travellers' sales

Shop abroad for the exotic look, says Alexandra Campbell

What seems perfect on holiday, virtually tasting of sun and brilliant colours, yet back in Britain brings on nausea and regret? Its not the ouzo but that other tourist pitfall, the holiday souvenir.

Foreign travel, however, is the biggest influence on Nineties house style. And when the home is seen as a setting for glorious objets trouves from abroad, surely holidays are ideal furnishing opportunities?

Buyers of trendsetting stores such as Liberty, the General Trading Company and the Conran Shop travel constantly, hunting out individual treasures and working with foreign factories to develop and mass produce adaptations of local artefacts.

Following the craze for the bold patterns and simple shapes of Provence, these professionals are now moving on to Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. "The cultural influences in Egypt are extraordinary - from the Pharoahs to European Art Deco," says Michael Macrae of the General Trading Company. "The Egyptian look is essentially overblown and decadent, mixing Persian carpets and coloured Tunisian glassware with weathered gold, Islamic metalwork, European candelabra - with wonderful colours such as opaline and turquoise."

The elements of the look - coloured Tunisian glassware, for example - can be found in markets around the Mediterranean. Do what professional buyers do, and train your eye to "edit". Before you go, visit shops in Britain, and consult books such as Thames & Hudson's Living In series. Habitat buyers travel with just a few images and a palette of five or six colours, to focus them on what to look for.

"The Moroccan influence will be big," predicts Nick Springett, buyer for Liberty, which is planning a Moroccan exhibition from September. This means Moorish shapes in furniture, with rich shades of saffron, aubergine, turquoise and maroon on fabrics and tableware. "Don't go for the bazaar look," he advises, "but for the more sophisticated mosaic tables and mirrors, or antique moucharabieh" (lacy-looking wooden furniture and other items). But this type of merchandise is not easy to find - unless you know a man who knows a man - and the tourist is likely to be overcharged. "Every purchase I make involves about 18 conversations and a large row, flouncing out and then coming back," says Nick Springett. But the result is that a carved wooden sofa and two chairs from Morocco will retail in Liberty from September at around pounds 3,000, while similar sets are available to tourists in Moroccan bazaars at around pounds 16,500. Upmarket hotels, such as La Mamounia in Marrakesh, will take guests to their local contacts (and anyone planning serious shopping in Marrakesh is strongly advised to use a guide accredited by a government tourist centre).

When buying in Europe, concentrate on high quality merchandise. Simple French hand-painted tableware is readily available at Sainsbury's, for example, but the Henriot Quimper factory shop in Quimper, Brittany, sells the famous plates at half the price you would pay in the UK. Generally, store buyers are now upgrading the French country look from peasant to manor-house style, with more sophisticated ware in single, subtle colours rather than bright patterns. "It's a monochromatic look," says Kerry Daley, a buyer at Liberty. She suggests designs such as French Country Pottery, a fluted ovenware, to mix with what you've already got to create the currently fashionable "layered" effect. For example, use a big, plain plate in place of a table mat, with a smaller, brighter plate or bowl on top. And plain and patterned china can be alternated to increase the size of a dinner service.

The craftsman potter look, with its rough glazes and natural colours, is making a return, according to Graham Meeson of Habitat, but it, too, is less countrified now. "Eating out abroad has changed the way the British set their tables," he says. "Ten years ago they wanted matching sets of china; now they'll mix Cornish pottery with Italian earthenware."

This mix starts before it reaches your table. Buyers used simply to import from abroad from a manufacturer's existing range; now stores such as Habitat work with factories from the design stage. Graham Meeson's role is to marry traditional inspirations with modern influences, pulling together expertise from sources as diverse as Stoke-on-Trent and Indonesia. That explains why, just as Greek food often tastes better in Britain than it does in Greece, you may find more stylish Greek plates in your own high street than in its country of origin. (The supreme irony is that Egyptians may have to go to Habitat to find the best Egyptian cotton sheets.)

But there are still local bargains to find. "Greece is the place for aluminium ware," says Susie Benedict. Craig Allen, of the Conran Shop, says, "Spanish food is the great undiscovered cuisine of Europe, and Spanish cast iron is good value, especially oven-to-table dishes such as paella pans. But you'll need strong muscles to carry them home."

The United States has long been a Mecca for dedicated shoppers, with chains such as Bed, Bath and Beyond offering a vast choice (27 shades of plain bedlinen, 24 kinds of bristle brush) at out-of-town prices. This concept has now been brought to the UK by The Source, which has stores in Lakeside Thurrock and Southampton, and more opening later this year. Polly Dickens, general manager, tips the next US influence as "the stone- washed, nicely worn look, from shops such as Guess and Anthropologie. A soft, stonewashed denim throw is a perfect buy for now."

In general, professional advice is to avoid anything too bright. "Something that looks fab under a hot sun often screams when you get it home," says Nick Springett. But Polly Dickens feels that an item you really fall in love with may prove more than just a holiday romance. "My best buy is some incredibly fine, white cotton- tinged towels from Egypt - the ones pilgrims wear to Mecca. I'm never going to use any other towel again"

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