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Monday, August 20, 2012 - Page updated at 11:30 a.m.
Outdoor furniture getting the glam treatment
By JULIE LASKY
The New York Times
It's not just the summer heat that's driving the bounty of new outdoor designs — it's the popularity.
"Everybody's doing it," said Henry Andrew Hall, founder of the outdoor-furniture company Henry Hall Designs in San Francisco, referring to the many businesses that have recently piled into the outdoor furniture market.
The 46-year-old manufacturer B&B Italia released its first outdoor collection several years ago. It has since built a portfolio of lounges, tables and accessories, with items like a weatherproof version of Patricia Urquiola's inviting Husk chair, which overflows with soft, segmented cushions.
Other companies are digging into their archives to re-purpose classic indoor furniture for the outdoors. Herman Miller has reworked its Eames aluminum group for the open air by replacing the leather with a plastic mesh seat and back.
Cassina has issued pieces by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand with polyurethane foam wrapped in water-repellent fabric.
And this year, Knoll offered one of the few outdoor classics: a lounge chair designed by Richard Schultz in 1966. The chair was dropped from Knoll's catalog when the company was sold in the 1980s, and Schultz picked up the rights and made it himself along with other pieces. In March, Knoll bought his business.
In the $80 billion home-furnishings industry, the market for outdoor furniture is "not huge," said Raymond Allegrezza, editor-in-chief of Furniture Today and editorial director of its sister publication Casual Living.
"The total value is $3.8 billion, but if you're a retailer in a challenged economy, a $3.8 billion slice of pie is nothing to sneeze at," he said. "People are actively going after it."
They are encouraged, industry experts said, by a confluence of factors.
Consumers influenced by shows like "Indoors Out" on the DIY Network and "The Outdoor Room" on HGTV are eager to decorate their backyards and terraces not just for lounging and entertaining, but for activities more commonly performed indoors, like cooking, bathing and office work.
According to a survey published in April by HGTV and Casual Living magazine, 87 percent of the roughly 5,000 Americans interviewed said an outdoor room was "important or very important," and more than half had one. Another 15 percent said they were creating one.
Certainly the recession has played a role. Backyards have been forced into service as makeshift holiday destinations, Allegrezza said, and with the housing slump and credit crunch, homeowners have had to make the most of their properties.
"A lot of times people can't get mortgages, so they feel trapped," he said. "They're going to take steps to make the experience of staying in their own home as pleasant as possible."
Then there is the desire to connect with nature. Nathalie Karg is a landscape designer who founded Cumulus Studios in New York to produce functional outdoor artwork by artists like Jim Drain and Ugo Rondinone.
"There has definitely been a surge in outdoor objects," she said. "Eventually, I hope that people will understand that what you surround yourself with in the garden is more important than plants and the deck."
Even in Minnesota, where Allegrezza said people can "blink and miss summer," the market for outdoor furniture is thriving.
"When they do get their two, three, four weeks of good weather," he said, "they want to appreciate it — and spend big."
The fact that outdoor furniture cannot be used year-round in many places might account for some of the more forward-looking pieces on the market, like the Vana chair. It is one of the latest additions to Karim Rashid's collection for the Italian company Talenti, distributed by Henry Hall Designs.
The Vana is also a 3-D portrait of his wife, Ivana, that Rashid described in an email as his "ode to the Picasso era."
But Vana's real value, Hall said, lies in its flexibility — especially in the winter, when it morphs from "whimsical" seating into statuary.
Vana may be whimsical, but flimsy it is not. Like much of the new outdoor furniture, the chair is engineered to withstand punishing weather. Those skinny lines are steel rods covered in eight layers of ceramic paint.
Even some of the basic-looking pieces often have a back story of technological adventure.
One example is Perennial Wood, a Southern pine modified by the Eastman Chemical to keep out the damp and fend off disintegration. It is used in a collection of restrained outdoor pieces, called Plank, designed by Pfeiffer Lab for the San Francisco company Council.
Another is Jonathan Olivares' deceptively simple stackable chair for Knoll, which Olivares spent almost four years developing.
After dabbling in injection-molded plastics, he rejected them because they had a bland texture, "like pound cake," he said. Moreover, they were might have degraded in harsh sunlight.
Metal chairs, on the other hand, he dismissed as uncomfortable because "they're made of bonelike structures."
Finally, Olivares arrived at a solution: a 3-millimeter-thick, die-cast aluminum shell that conforms to the body and feels comfortably cool on a veranda. Some versions of the chair are coated with two tones of ultraviolet-resistant paint.
It is the kind of story that seems to appeal as much to retailers as it does to consumers.
Allegrezza observed: "Outdoor furniture has a story about performance fabric, new extruded aluminum, blah, blah, blah. You'll pay me more for it."
Consumers who might haggle with the seller of an indoor dining table for a deep discount, he said, are more likely to pay list price for specialized products.
And as Margaret Russell, editor-in-chief of Architectural Digest, pointed out, a lot of the new outdoor pieces look "like furniture you could have in your living room." It might even be better than indoor furniture, with an abundance of fabrics that resist fading and are easy to clean.
"It's also so much more comfortable than in the past," she said.
But for designers like Rashid, the biggest upside is that garden furniture is no longer garden variety.
"One could argue that so much has been done indoors that the opportunities for originality are becoming less and less," he said. "Whereas outdoor is a new territory, a new frontier of exploration."
Copyright © The Seattle Times Company
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