Gardens get the look of the great indoors

July 30, 1995|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff Writer

The settee is classical in form, based on early 19th-century Federal design with a pleasing delicacy of line. It has cane seating, and the wood is painted black with gold stenciling on the back and apron.

And it's sitting in an Annapolis backyard.

But, look a little closer. That isn't wood, it's steel. That's not caning, it's metal screening. The finish is industrial urethane.

Called the Baltimore Seat, the piece belongs in your rose garden, not your hall.

With the trend toward eco-decorating, we've gotten used to outdoor furniture moving indoors. Wicker has made its way into living rooms and bedrooms. But two Annapolis women turned that trend in the other direction, translating classic interior designs into functional and beautiful garden furniture.

Gay Crowther, a landscape architect, and Patricia Belser, who manages home-design shows in Washington, introduced their counter-trend at spring's International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York.

Ms. Crowther says she used to complain about "how gruesome most garden furniture is."

"I would design wonderful gardens," she says, "and have nothing to put in them."

The best is when you take indoor furniture outside, she would tell Ms. Belser, her friend of 17 years. They both liked to drag chairs and tables from their houses when they entertained outdoors; the pieces just looked better. They talked about designing their own garden furniture.

Idle chatter, you might think. After all, both of them had day jobs.

The two kicked around the idea for a year or two before they finally realized, "If we were going to do it, we would have to leap right in," as Ms. Crowther puts it.

The result is their new line of Brennan-Edwards Outdoor Furniture. Because neither designer particularly liked the combination of their own names, they used the last name of Ms. Belser's significant other and the first name of Ms. Crowther's husband (with an added "s").

"We wanted to make furniture that didn't look like garden furniture," says Ms. Belser. Pointing out how much outdoor furniture looks the same, she adds, "We wanted to give people some choices."

Ms. Crowther and Ms. Belser searched for natural and timeless designs that would fit into an outdoor setting as if they belonged there. From Hepplewhite and Sheraton came the inspiration for the Annapolis Chair and Settee. Clean-lined, graceful and yet sturdy, the pieces look as if they are fashioned from wood and caning, but are actually lightweight aluminum hand-painted with irregularities. They are comfortable on their own, but are designed to take cushions as well.

Once the two women had their designs, they hunted for local craftsmen to build them -- a metal fabricator, a cabinetmaker, a marine carpenter.

The pieces are handcrafted, custom-made and priced accordingly (from $885 to $5,450). Not all of them are metal, but all are built to last outdoors for many years. The wood furniture, such as the North Shore Group based on American estate furniture, is crafted from teak and mahogany, using marine carpentry techniques and industrial paints and varnishes to withstand the elements.

Brennan-Edwards' designs caused a stir at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair because they are so unusual. House Beautiful chose to photograph them for possible inclusion in a future issue.

"I love the company," says Sarah Shaw, editor of the magazine's Style Beat pages. "The caning particularly caught my eye; it has a trompe l'oeil quality."

Brennan-Edwards furniture is available through interior designers, architects and garden designers. Once ordered, a piece takes from six to eight weeks to make. So far, the reaction from the design community has been very positive.

"I like it that they've drawn on local historical designs," says Annapolis architect Wayne Good. "Outdoor furniture could use an injection of good design."

These are not, however, slavish imitations of traditional furniture, but interpretations -- and not all the pieces are based on indoor designs. The Orto Chair, for instance, is inspired by Parisian park lTC furniture.

The line also includes handsome 22-inch-tall copper planters that are adaptations of antique cooking pots and washtubs. The oversized pots have riveted sides, rolled rims and built-in drainage. They can be kept highly polished or allowed to weather to a characteristic blue-green patina.

What's next for Brennan-Edwards? At the moment, the Chippendale Chair is in the prototype stage. Styled after 18th-century furniture, it's made from mahogany or teak using marine carpentry joinery and glues. Also in the works: the Recamier, a gracefully curving neoclassical couch in lightweight aluminum painted to resemble wood and cane.

Once people get used to seeing an Empire-style couch in their back yard, Gay Crowther and Pat Belser are planning to go one step further. "We're going to be doing a wing chair and a sofa," promises Ms. Belser, "translating them into outdoor furniture."

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