There are no wallflowers among the most fashion-forward furnishings for outdoor rooms. In fact, the hottest look in al fresco seating is contemporary, and these pieces - often with sculptural profiles - are practically upstaging lush landscaping and fancy barbecues.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, consumers annually spend more than $40 billion upgrading outdoor living accessories and garden amenities.
Following an indoors trend toward less fussy, more streamlined looks, modern style is blossoming outdoors. Like good landscaping, designs are stripped to essential elements: form, scale, proportion, texture and color.
In the modern seating category, that translates to sleek, sexy lines, sweeping curves and sculptural shapes. Deep seats are often plumped with thick cushions. Whatever the ergonomics, the well-designed pieces cuddle and cradle the body.
Design styles are taking their inspiration from mid-century modern, with nods to the 1940s, '50s and '60s as well as Italian Riviera, Japanese and Hawaiian influences.
Materials represent the best that technology has to offer. Even slings have been updated, including the seamless mesh that stretches over Brown Jordan's new Vista chaises, framed in cast and tubular aluminum.
Weatherproof wicker has taken off in the past few years and is especially fresh in espresso and honey or taupe shades. Now designers are pushing the envelope with different weaves, from tightly wound to open patterns that appear transparent, taking their cue from a see-through trend popular in interiors.
Boxy, generously scaled chairs called Yin and Yang, designed for JANUS et Cie, a trendsetting high-end company based in Los Angeles, are intriguing. A gridded weave peeks through to cushions, and although the synthetic material may appear as fragile as a handmade basket, it's woven over a steel frame, a durable foundation. The chairs seem to float, but look closely and you'll see skinny steel feet. It's an unlikely marriage: high tech meets macrame.
"We refer to our collection as artful transition," says Janice Feldman, president and chief executive officer of JANUS et Cie. "The forms are sculptural, eclectic in nature, both by their mix of materials and their woven qualities. They bridge both industrial technology and craft."
Hularo, an all-weather resin weave that is a registered trademark of the German manufacturer Dedon, is the choice for designer Richard Frinier's Marrakesh collection. While some pieces in the collection have more traditional looks, the lounge chairs sound a contemporary note with their slim backrests. Refreshingly simple, their arched bases recall Moorish architecture, and the platform is punctuated with feet topped by a bronze-finished metal.
Frinier always has been an innovator in casual furniture. Kyoto, his latest collection for Century Leisure, translates traditional elements from teahouses and shoji screens to graphic lines of the back and side panels of the aluminum frames, finished to resemble Raku pottery, a crackle-glazed ceramic that originated in Asia in the 16th century.
Some outdoor pieces rely on familiar form but take a modern turn because of finishes and fabrics. The duVal Alexander daybed from McKinnon and Harris, for example, is a classic profile crafted in solid aluminum. With splayed legs, canted sides and latticed panels, the piece looks as if it were plucked from a timeless English garden.
Just as familiar is the grid that backs teak chairs in the Mandalay collection from Terra Furniture. But proportions make them contemporary. They nearly hug the ground, a beefy platform rising just inches above simple feet. The backs tilt a bit for more comfort, and the arms curve gracefully to connect to front legs. Cushions fashionably pair lime with chocolate.
Sometimes the most recognizable forms assume dynamic new personalities. Designer Terry Hunziker reinterprets a rustic icon, the Adirondack chair, in a powder-coated aluminum frame with teak, part of the Camano collection for Sutherland Teak. The chunkier ground-hugging frame has a nifty fold-up mechanism that goes a long way to stylize a classic chair. It lends broader appeal.
Manufacturers also are acutely aware of consumer desire for comfort.
"Cuddle chairs are very popular because of the demographics," says Cinde W. Ingram, managing editor of Casual Living, a trade publication. "Boomers are aging, and we like to have soft cushions." She notes that Gen-Xers prefer more minimal lounging such as sleek mesh slings rather than seven-inch "tush cushes."
Then, too, there's a romantic aspect to outdoor furnishings that taps into fantasy destinations and popular resorts. The stylish, spare designs photographed at luxury resorts in glossy travel and home design magazines have spurred interest in creating modern getaways.
"My clients travel the world," Frinier says. "They recognize Andalusia [a region of southern Spain, the name of his collection for Century Leisure] or Bali - whatever is the magical place that helps create an experiential home resort and transport the spirit.
"Whether it's taking 15 minutes in the morning with a cup of coffee, sitting on a chaise lounge before you have to jump on a freeway, or coming home at night and having a cocktail - it's an oasis."