The tried is true for outdoor comfort

April 21, 1996|By SHARON OVERTON | SHARON OVERTON,UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

Across America this summer, the incessant whine of air conditioning units soon may be joined by the gentle creak of an old-fashioned porch swing or the soft, swooshing squeak of a glider.

Porch-sitting is becoming this country's new old pastime from the east coast to the west. Tired of being held prisoner to the television set and climate-controlled interiors, many people are rediscovering the quieter pleasures of an evening spent outdoors, chatting with neighbors or just watching the world go by.

Consequently, porch furniture especially the kind designed to stir up a breeze is becoming more popular than ever.

If you don't have a porch, try hitching a swing to a sturdy tree limb or dragging a glider to a quiet spot in the yard. Some people are even bringing vintage gliders inside to use in garden-themed sunrooms or as part of an eclectic farmhouse look. Just be sure to shut off the AC and open the windows so you can hear the crickets chirping.

Down South, where porch-sitting long has been a way of life, folks value swings and gliders for the relief they offer from the sweltering heat, says Leeda Marting, owner of Charleston Gardens, a shop in Charleston, S.C. But there's much more to it than that. The gentle rocking motion also seems to slow down the day and soothe the soul, Marting says. "It makes us feel good about the world."

The rest of the country apparently is catching on. In New York, one antiques dealer recently reported having a waiting list of customers wanting to buy authentic porch gliders from the '30s, '40s and '50s. In Los Angeles, celebrities such as Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman have bought vintage gliders for their homes. DeVito and Perlman painted the gliders fire-engine red and put them out on the patio.

However, few Hollywood inhabitants use the gliders as they were originally intended, says Peggy Byrnes, owner of Sonrisa, a vintage and contemporary furniture store on Beverly Boulevard.

"We don't have porches," Byrnes explains. "They're a little bit exotic here."

Cultural historians trace the demise of porch-sitting to the rise of suburbia in the late 1940s and '50s. That's when "the double whammy of television and air conditioning sucked people into their living room," says design professor Dennis Wood, author of "Home Rules" (Johns Hopkins University Press). At the same time, the automobile eliminated the need for sidewalks, and houses were being built with no front porches and farther from the street.

In the last decade, however, urban planners have revisited the virtues of pre-World War II neighborhoods. Sparked by the success of Seaside, Fla., and other "neo-traditional" neighborhoods, communities have sprouted up all over the country, emphasizing smaller yards and narrow streets, sidewalks and wide front porches. All designed to encourage people to slow down, sit a spell and get to know their neighbors.

Combine this trend with the current rage for gardening and outdoor living spaces, and it's easy to see why so many people are falling in love again with swings and gliders.

"It's so American. It's so evocative of summer and laziness and relaxing," says Sara Ruffin, home furnishings editor for American Homestyle and Gardening magazine. "It's kind of like, 'Take a breather, read a good book.' ... It's just a nice escape."

Ever since the first child tied a length of knotted rope or an old tire to a tree limb, swings of all descriptions have never really fallen out of fashion. Gliders are a different story. A cross between a sofa and swing, gliders had their heyday in the late '30s through the early '50s when U.S. factories began cranking out mass-produced goods. Made of aluminum, wrought iron or steel, typically with lattice or other designs stamped or punched into the back, they moved on mounted ball bearings and seemed far more modern than the wicker and wood rockers they often replaced.

These days, many people picture old gliders rusting away on country porches propped up with cinder blocks or surrounded by spare car parts. That declasse image, reinforced in movies such as "Fried Green Tomatoes," may be part of the appeal for many young buyers, says Vic Matich, owner of 20th Century Antiques in Atlanta. "They're kind of the antithesis to the rocking chair," he says. "It's reminiscent of their parents but on a lower economic scale."

Matich divides people into two porch camps: The formal, uptown people who fill their porches with white wicker rockers, swings and loveseats. And the funkier, downtown people who go for gliders. Often they'll buy them used, sand them down and repaint them in classic porch green or '50s pastels. One couple in New York even sand-blasted their glider to bare steel to create a high-tech design statement for their living room.

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