Outdoor furniture has come a long way

Quality pieces are now more affordable and more stylish

  • The Rockport Club collection of Trex outdoor furniture.
The Rockport Club collection of Trex outdoor furniture. (Trex, Baltimore Sun )
May 27, 2011|By Dennis Hockman, Chesapeake Living + Home

Thinking about inviting some friends over for Memorial Day and just now decided to dust off that old outdoor dining set on your deck only to find the paint is peeling, the chairs are wobbly, and the table looks shabby not chic? I've been there.

The good news is there are more options for outdoor furniture than ever before.

When I was a kid, outdoor furniture was wood, iron, or something collapsible you could also take to the beach. Maintenance was always a factor, and I don't ever remember it being particularly comfortable. Metal furniture was prone to rust, and wood could dry rot or swell with absorbed moisture if not treated or painted every season.

I am sure there has always been high-quality, comfortable, and stylish outdoor furniture for the wealthy. I see really great vintage pieces today being offered for resale online, but even second-hand the prices are more than most can afford.

More recently, the price points for quality new pieces have been coming down as technology and production processes improve. For the past couple decades, at least, outdoor furniture manufacturers like Lloyd Flanders and Lane Venture, available through garden centers and specialty stores, have been making low-maintenance pieces manufactured from such materials as aluminum, teak, and other composites.

Such catalog retailers as Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, and Restoration Hardware, however, undeniably rewrote the rules of the game, looking to high-end designer outdoor furniture as a model for form and function and then figuring out how to mass-produce, market, and sell the goods at prices more compatible with what you'll find at a local retailer.

What's great for you and me is that the profusion of outdoor furniture today is creating higher standards for quality and design. Good-looking, durable, low-maintenance, reasonably priced products are now available in a wider variety of styles than ever before.

If you are working with an interior designer, pieces from such lines as Brown Jordan, Giati, Henry Hall, Sutherland, and Weatherend by Donghia will ensure your side porch or pool deck looks nothing like your neighbor's.

As with most other consumer goods, designer brands are also becoming de rigueur, with household names like Cindy Crawford, Martha Stewart, Tommy Bahama, and even Harley Davidson lending their brands to lines of outdoor furniture.

Brand names aside, the primary factor guiding buying decisions is maintenance. According to Maureen Rosetta, Manager of the Patio Shop at River Hill Garden Center, low maintenance is key.

"People don't want maintenance. For that reason, we don't sell teak or wood," says Rosetta. "People are looking to bring comfort to their homes — they want to come home and relax."

Eager to satisfy the demand for durable, low-maintenance furniture, manufacturers are looking to some of the better materials being used to build outdoor structures, decking, and boat docks. Trex, a brand synonymous with low-maintenance composite decking has a new line of outdoor furniture in four stylish collections in a range of colors including white, black, green, and sand. Ecoplex, a trademarked composite wood substitute made from recycled plastics, adds a sustainable option to Sutherland's collection of designer outdoor furnishings, and Telescope Casual Furniture's recycled Marine Grade Polymer collection was developed to withstand the worst Mother Nature can muster.

Still, when it comes to low maintenance, cast aluminum remains king.

"It doesn't rust," says Offenbacher's vice president, Alpana Offenbacher, "but it still has that classic traditional cast-iron look that people in this area want."

"This area is very traditional, and our customers are still looking for traditional styles," continues Offenbacher. "Solid, floral, and striped fabrics are popular for the cushions — nothing geometric," she says. "Solids go well with cast aluminum, florals with iron, and stripes with wicker."

"For furniture frames," says Rosetta, "we sell mostly browns and black — browns used to be the most popular, but now people are liking black."

"The big new trend is sectionals," says Offenbacher.

For years, the line between indoor and outdoor living spaces has continued to blur, and more recently large comfortable woven, wood, and metal frame sectionals with overstuffed cushions are extremely popular outdoors. "Sectionals and oversized umbrellas for shade are the two big trends this year," says Offenbacher.

Even if you aren't in a rush to purchase new furniture for this weekend's big cookout, you may be considering some improvements to your outdoor living space.

"With the economy the way it is, people aren't spending as much on vacations, but are trying to create resort-like atmospheres in their back yards," says Offenbacher.

For homeowners who may be putting in a pool instead of taking a vacation, Offenbacher suggests the Telescope line. With white Ecoplex frames accented by bright chartreuse green, tomato red, lemon yellow, and sky blue options for the cushions, it makes a fun, bold statement.

More cutting edge looks are gaining popularity, mostly in locations removed from the more traditional interior spaces. "Classic and traditional cast aluminum styles remain popular closer to the house," says Rosetta.

An investment in quality outdoor furniture is one that will pay dividends for years to come.

"It should last 10, 12 years if not more," say Offenbacher. "I always say that outdoor furniture is like a car. It stays outside, it gets dirty, but if you clean it and maintain it, it will last a very long time."

Dennis Hockman is editor of Chesapeake Home + Living. He can be reached at dhockman@tribune.com.

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