The warming weather, refreshed shop windows, summer catalogs, outdoor markets. Every year at this time, it all conspires to plant widespread thoughts of buying new patio furniture. If only their sticker prices didn't threaten to keep the thoughts from becoming reality. As evidenced by the gorgeous patio pieces featured in this story, most outdoor furniture has been retailing higher and higher over the past several years. Unless you're buying it from mass-market giants such as Target, Kmart or Home Depot, you can expect to pay several hundred dollars for an ottoman to several thousand dollars for an outdoor sofa. These are prices that, in many cases, outrank interior furnishings. It's a hard economy to grasp, especially when it's a product that lives outside, isn't always the most comfortable and, in regions like the Midwest, gets only seasonal use. What accounts for all those zeros, exactly?
It must be something in the DNA.
Step outside of the big box, and furniture design gets more sophisticated. Step outside of the house, and it gets even more sophisticated. For practical reasons, outdoor furnishings forgo the fabrics, embellishments and textures that adorn interior furniture. What's left behind is form, which means lines, shapes and silhouettes must be impeccable. European furniture companies known for their exquisite design, such as B&B Italia, have recently jumped on the outdoor bandwagon, raising the level of competition -- and the prices.
Though patio furniture isn't typically the most comfortable seat in the house, some brands are attempting to buck that standard. This, too, costs money, as manufacturers invent ways to pump up the cush factor without the benefit of interior materials such as foams and padding.
In one of the most innovative, practical design applications of recent years, Canadian manufacturer Nuevo created two five-piece patio sets that can be stacked into a single, compact arrangement. In the case of their Hourglass collection, the arrangement is a single column. In the case of the Capsule, it's an egg (or capsule) shape. When pool-party season is over, simply place the pieces together, like a 3-D puzzle, and stow in a corner of the garage.
Pair a famous face with any product, and the appeal increases. Celebrities come with instant fan bases as they hop from books to TV to products. Sometimes, as in the case of fashion designer Cynthia Rowley's Whim, a new line of outdoor furniture and accessories for Target, the appeal translates to more customers. On the higher end, the appeal translates to higher prices. This season sees a multitude of sophisticated designers lending their names and expertise to outdoor furniture collections. French interior designer Jacques Garcia teamed with furniture manufacturer McGuire to launch his first-ever outdoor collection. Garcia saw the collaboration as a natural chance to borrow from the primitive shapes and textures of nature. The collection's 17 pieces are characterized by metal rivets, stone slabs and woven resin. "These materials were new to me," Garcia says. "They forced me to go to the root of the shape itself, as it was envisioned at the origin."
Other familiar names stepping outside this season: rebel furniture designer Daniel Michalik, who handcrafted a collection of stools completely from reclaimed cork bottle stoppers, Joe Ruggiero's "Domino" wicker collection, and Belgian designer Bram Bollen, whose Vintage collection for Henry Hall Designs is molded plastic made for outdoor use. Bollen's Vintage Chaise Lounge and Stacking Chairs are visual replicas of the curved plywood chairs so chic in the 1950s.
Airloom * quality
* Airloom (noun): a piece made to withstand the elements (air) as well as the passing years (heir).
Outdoor furnishings must be manufactured to withstand not only the wear and tear associated with regular use, but also the wear and tear of Mother Nature. Finishes must be chip- and rust-resistant, weaves must stand up to water from the sky and wet bathing suits. Fabrics must be tough enough to withstand dormant months in moldy basements and dirty garages. Special -- and more costly -- raw materials are the only answer to such requirements.
Outdoor icon Sunbrella has spent 45 years perfecting its furniture fabrics, constantly tweaking patented technologies to keep cushions long-lasting, fade-resistant and water-repellent. Barlow Tyrie, a British-based manufacturer of outdoor furnishings, uses marine-grade steel instead of regular steel (for its resistance to oxidation), powder-coated aluminum instead of regular aluminum (also for anti-oxidation), and Textilene instead of regular upholstery fabric (for its flame-retardance, mildew-resistance and low-maintenance).
This spring, Alabama-based outdoor furniture-maker Summer Classics rolled out N-Dura Resin, a recyclable, UV-resistant wicker weave meant to be longer-lasting and gentler on the environment. "Certainly expensive new technologies add integrity and value to our products and are worth the greater investment," says Rob Robinson of Summer Classics.
Aside from being armored against the wind and rain, a good chaise also will withstand the test of time. The potential for being able to refer to a piece of furniture as "my Mother's" undoubtedly holds a certain monetary value. Many companies, including Summer Classics, recognize this appeal by using the word "heirloom" in their marketing materials.
The significance may be more symbolic than literal (Summer Classics warranties most of their its products for five years and reports that most last "well over 15 years," according to Robinson), but the basic interpretation is that of higher quality, less money spent on replacements, and greater potential for handing down furniture to a family member or other homeowner.
Heirloom also can signify history -- that a piece has a story to tell. Retailer New York First is encountering much success with its new Bryant Park Table and Chairs. The hunter-green table and chairs are reproductions of those that dot New York City's Bryant Park. The furniture was selected by urban planner William Hollingsworth Whyte during his revitalization of the park in the early 1980s. While similar bistro-style patio furniture can be found for around $100, the Bryant Park set already has sold out at a retail price of more than $300 (company says stock will be replenished mid-June).
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Where to buy
Here is information on prices and sources for the outdoor furniture featured here and on our cover:
Bryant Park Table and Chairs, $149 for two chairs, $189 for table; available mid-June. For information, contact New York First, 800-581-7599, newyorkfirst.com
Sway Stools, $545. One Stop Modern, 866-791-2239; one stopmodern.com
Chi Chi "C" Table, Jacques Garcia Outdoor Collection from McGuire, $2,250. Order now; in stores by early July. Baker Chicago, 825 W. Chicago Ave., 312-733-0353; Baker Deerfield, 775 N. Waukegan Rd., Deerfield, 847-317-0752.
Detron Collection, $749 to $3,246. Available through the trade. Summer Classics Showroom, The Merchandise Mart, Suite 1556, Kinzie and Wells Streets, 312-822-0250
Capsule and Hourglass Collections by Nuevo Living (five pieces in each collection), $2,500 for Hourglass, $2,250 for Capsule. Patio Furniture USA, patiofurnitureusa.com
Luma Adjustable Chaise by Modern Outdoor, approximately $3,699, depending on fabric. Available through Sprout Home, 745 N. Damen Ave., 312-226-5950, sprouthome.stores.yahoo.net.
See also "Rescue-and-refresh methods to primp a patio," Home & Garden section, Page 6