Sophisticated casual furniture suits an indoor-outdoor lifestyle

May 02, 1993|By Elaine Markoutsas | Elaine Markoutsas,Contributing Writer Universal Press Syndicate

With its graceful curves and open work, the shell-backed chair commands attention. It boasts the look of hand-carved wood, the fine finish of rubbed-on color, applied in two hues for highlighting the relief work. The elegant design was patterned after gilded rococo chairs found in French chateaux in the time of Louis XIV. But this chair can be left out in the rain: It's crafted of sand-cast aluminum.

The "Shell" chair has been one of the Veneman Collection's best sellers since the company introduced it in 1974. Such meticulous attention to detail is no longer the exception in what is known in the trade as the casual furniture industry.

Casual furniture once was relegated only to the outdoors. But the lines between a home's indoors and outdoors have become fuzzy in recent years. Outdoor spaces have become an extension of our indoor lifestyles, and people are feeling the need for continuity in furnishings. This trend has fueled the need for more stylish, eclectic and, of course, comfortable furnishings.

Besides the blurring of indoor-outdoor usage, there are a number of other reasons for the evolving sophistication of casual furnishings. Consumers are more attuned to good design -- from toothbrushes to tea kettles to televisions to cars, as well as furniture. They have become equally demanding of quality as well as style when they shop for furniture and products for all rooms of the house. They now expect a design continuum that extends to the outdoors.

Magazines also expose consumers to the art of dressing up casual furnishings. A spread last year in House Beautiful featured pieces from Rela and Don Gleason's Summer Hill furniture company photographed in their home in Redwood City, Calif.

The Gleasons like to show their "Brighton" settee in an inviting setting. Teamed with a delicate vintage iron bistro chair and a table topped with floor-length blue oxford cloth and covered with white pique, the bench is fitted with a floral-clad cushion and fringed pillows. The table is set with antique blue-and-white Canton ware for brunch. There's a warmth and civility apparent here, and the settee clearly is a piece that can come inside.

In addition, specialty and department stores are merchandising their products better. Casual furniture is more often being displayed in "outdoor" room settings, complete with appropriate accessories. Manufacturers have noted how romance sells, especially with licensed collections that package coordinating products for the consumer.

Technology also has been a boon to more sophisticated designs. The sand-casting process employed by Veneman involves making sand molds and pouring in molten aluminum alloy to re-create the forms that first were crafted by woodworkers.

Weathered looks

Finishes span a much broader range than ever before, one that more closely parallels fine furniture finishes. The weathered looks of aged iron or bronze, in rusty or verdigris tones, have been popular in recent years. Such "antiquing" may be achieved by spraying one color over a surface, then wiping it. Or colors may be sprayed one over the other, then mottled for effect. Stone facsimiles (such as malachite or marble) and even wood look-alikes to mimic pickled pine or bamboo now are available.

Textures also increase the range of available designs. One of the most innovative textures introduced last September was that on a chair produced by Rattan Specialties. The silhouette offered nothing revolutionary: It was reminiscent of the barrel-shaped wicker chair popularized by Lloyd Loom in the '20s. But its beauty was in its extraordinarily subtle weave, an Indonesian rattan pole covered with woven sea grass that gave the chair an intriguing "tweedy" appearance. Cane was used to accentuate the frame.

All the design improvements wouldn't mean a thing at the expense of comfort, of course. So although the trend to more formal casual designs seems to contradict the '90s craving for comfort in an age of cocooning, it doesn't. Seat cushions are more comfortable than they ever have been. The finest pieces are Dacron wrapped in materials that even simulate down. Some cushions are designed to hold their shape and, when rain-soaked, dry quickly.

The innovations in weatherproof fabric, in the view of some observers, are what drove the style changes in the first place. "When acrylics and woven Jacquards and printed materials came on the scene," said John Miles, president of Homecrest and the former president of the industry's trade association, the Summer and Casual Furniture Manufacturers Association, "it brought sophistication. You could get the same kinds of looks outdoors that you could purchase for indoor use. So the frames and finishes followed."

With all the technological improvements that have allowed a greater versatility in design, the selection of casual furniture has, not surprisingly, broadened. The latest casual furniture models will debut in coming months. You'll see a diversity of frames, with some large-scale seating.

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