The gardening boom of the late 1980s has led to an enhanced appreciation of the outdoors. We're sitting out more, in "rooms" such as porches, patios, terraces and decks, and we're increasingly fussy about how visually inviting -- indeed, how livable -- they are.
"People today want outdoor living spaces that feel the same way they do inside," says Robert Currey of Gardener's Source, a manufacturer of casual furniture in Atlanta.
In no area do we see this more than in furnishings. Today's options in casual furniture reflect a range in design looks from rustic log cabin to frilly Victorian ironwork to neoclassic shapes to streamlined contemporary. Materials are equally varied, including teak, oak, willow, lodgepole, wicker, cast aluminum, iron and molded resins.
The increasingly stylish choices are a far cry from the folding aluminum chairs with webbed straps that were ubiquitous in the '60s, or the more recent molded plastic stackables. Now many designs are sophisticated and well-crafted enough to keep company with pieces in the living room.
There has been a resurgence of interest in classic designs, such as English-style benches and chairs -- including the handsome Lutyens design that became the rage during the days of the British Raj because of landscape architect Sir Edward Lutyens -- French park bench and bistro styles, and American Adirondack.
Smith & Hawken offers French imported tables and chairs that are made of steel and coated with a rust-resistant enamel finish. The pieces are quite sturdy despite their delicate scale and are a good choice for apartment balconies, small courtyards or for creating a small area within a larger one.
Some Adirondacks have been dressed up. Crate & Barrel took the traditional Adirondack form and fashioned it into a two-seater settee, shown in its spring catalog in dark green with a crisp green-and-white striped cushion.
Wicker has remained a popular choice, and technology now makes possible some weaves that are impervious to the elements. Among the styles in Lane's "Venture Collection" is a large-scaled armless weather-proof wicker chair in a wood frame. It's upholstered in a wide-scaled green-and-white stripe.
Wicker is still a favorite indoors as well. Iron also has moved in, and even many of the wood pieces available today are designed for dual function -- to be integrated into interior furnishings as well as on patios and terraces. Garden Concepts Collection offers a three-seater with Biedermeier styling in maple, mahogany or teak, finished with oil or polyurethane. The current interest in arts and crafts style has spawned similar looks in outdoor furnishings as well.
Brown Jordan's "Mission Teak" collection reflects the style introduced by Spanish monks into California missions. The Barkwood Collection from Reed Bros. also is crafts-inspired. Designed by Duncan Reed of plantation teak, using the layer of wood just below the bark, the pieces are finished with marine-quality varnish.
Although most casual furnishings still are sold as suites, many consumers are beginning to mix different materials, just as they do inside their homes. A tile-topped iron table may add a little punch to a wood grouping, for example. Or you might create your own table with a stone base and a glass top to team up with iron chairs.
"If people can make their patios look different from everybody else's, all the better," said Jean Norman, editor of Better Homes & Garden's Do It Yourself Ideas.
In the spring Do It Yourself issue, for example, Boston decorative painters Jon Hattaway and Martin Potter showed that even without a green thumb, you can bring a rainbow of colors to an ordinary deck. They painted a vividly patterned "rug" with giant fringe on the deck floor. The "rug" anchors the willow seating, just as the real thing might do in a living room.
The artistry can be as fine as your talents allow. You might try a simple stencil-like border if you're nervous about an all-over pattern. But an easy way to test a design is to outline the shapes with chalk. When you've got what you like, fill in the spaces with polyurethane paint.
Even mural painting and trompe l'oeil have come outdoors. Besides fences and garage doors, which are obvious canvases for scenic or decorative designs, patio walls offer another backdrop for artistry.
The same kind of decorative treatment might be applied to furniture as well. Besides the bursts of color that flats of impatiens or pots of geraniums might introduce, you might echo their cranberry, coral or magenta hues on chairs or tables. Flea-market finds are naturals for decorative painting; so, obviously, is unpainted furniture. One homeowner in the Southwest painted cowboys and Indians on the backs of his vividly colored Adirondacks.