I AM DRAWN, LIKE MANY PEOPLE, TO ENTERTAINING Alfresco. There is something about being outdoors that invites camaraderie among guests and a relaxed ambience that encourages good times. Formal or informal, successful outdoor entertaining is enhanced by several key elements, including functional and good-looking furniture, pleasing lighting, a reliable grill and attractive accessories.
Unless you just plan to spread a picnic blanket under the shadiest tree in the yard, investing in some furniture has top priority. A redwood picnic table and benches will do, but in the last five years, a major trend has been to "bring the indoors outdoors," says Liz Roberts, merchandise manager for Casual Furniture Gallery.
This opens the door to all kinds of outdoor furniture, of which the dining table is most essential. The usual outdoor variety is a 48-inch round with a tempered glass top. Wrought iron, made by companies like Woodward, Lyon-Shaw and Meadowcraft, is drawing attention for 1991. Black and white are popular, but dark green is the color this year.
Mesh styling scores highest for outdoor use, particularly for poolside dining. The "meat and potatoes" of the Woodward line at Watson's Fireplace and Patio, says buyer Jennifer Cabell, is the Briarwood with its delicate floral design accenting the mesh. A pedestal table and four barrel chairs list for about $1,080. A word of caution -- wrought iron lasts forever, but it rusts. Be prepared to do some touch-up painting.
Aluminum frame tables are staples of the outdoor market because they are lightweight, maintenance-free, durable and cut across a wide price range. Well-known companies include Brown Jordan, Tropitone, Winston and Telescope.
In response to consumer demand for outdoor dining tables that comfortably seat more than four guests, companies have added larger oval and rectangle styles. Prices vary according to size, but generally a 72-inch table seats six and starts around $300, while a 90-inch table seats eight to 10 and starts about $400.
If you want a table that doesn't have a tempered glass top, look at the molded plastic/resin lines, made by companies like Grosfillex and Allibert. Tables can be lacquered or unlacquered, usually in white, and reflect a sleek, European look.
Grosfillex offers two outdoor extension tables, an oval model that goes from 64 inches to 91 inches ($1,140) and a second model that goes from 91 inches to 118 ($1,710), giving homeowners the option of seating additional guests with the insertion of one leaf. New on the market from Grosfillex is a resin-framed table with a tempered glass top that has a leaf for extra space.
Be warned that the quality of resin can differ markedly, even within company lines. Higher quality products resist fading and discoloring, withstand temperature extremes, clean easily with soap and water, remain cool in the sun, and can stay out all year.
Teak tables are beginning to attract attention. Heavy, durable, resistant to rot in even the most extremes of weather, teak loses its dark honey-brown sheen and becomes silvery with age. A staple on the English gardening scene since the 19th century, today's styles range from Edwardian to California Mission.
Barlow Tyrie offers a 5-foot rectangular table for just under $600. Brown Jordan has a dining table to seat eight, designed in the California Mission style, for around $1,200. A 48-inch table with four chairs is available from Kingsley-Bate for about $1,000.
If you have a table, can chairs be far behind? Surely not, since the most widely sold unit in casual furniture is a table with four matching chairs. These sets can range in price from about $350 to $2,000, depending on materials and design.
Traditional or boldly high-tech, chairs have either straps, slings -- a texiline mesh pulled tightly across the frame -- or cushions. Cushions come in a wide array of floral, striped and solid acrylic fabrics that resist fading, rotting and mildew. Cotton is not recommended for outdoor furniture. The color for spring: dark greens like hunter and forest.
Prices for chairs cover a wide range. Chairs come as low as $6 for a mono-block, resin chair that is stackable and perfect for additional party seating, to over $500 for a teak arm chair. Rubbermaid is bringing out a new resin Adirondack chair, priced under $70 at Hechinger stores.
While slings remain strong, the vinyl strip chair is receiving renewed interest, says Wina Reeve, merchandise manager for Stebbins Anderson. Straps are durable and easy to clean. The classic design is Brown Jordan's Tamiami with its crisscross pattern. List price for a 48-inch table and four chairs is around $1,250.