One of the grand summer homes built by America's Gilded Age grandees is Naumkeag, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, designed by architect Stanford White. In the 1920s, when owner Mabel Choate hired landscape architect Fletcher Steele to rework the estate's formal gardens, she complained that a prominent, Etruscan-style, cast-stone chair and footstool were uncomfortable. "You're not supposed to sit in them, you are supposed to look at them," Steele replied.
That view was not uncommon in the past, but today's zest for outdoor living demands alfresco furniture that blends beauty and utility. Designers, manufacturers, and dealers have responded with an ever-expanding selection of designs in a wide range of styles and materials. "The outdoor furniture market is growing tremendously," enthuses Joe Delgreco, whose Delgreco & Company showrooms cater to high-end customers in Miami and New York with top lines such as Summit Furniture and McKinnon & Harris. "The best pieces are very durable and low-maintenance, and attractive enough to be used indoors."
It isn't uncommon, say purveyors, for upscale buyers to spend $20,000 to furnish their outdoor spaces, with more elaborate projects commanding budgets of triple that and more. "The trend among affluent homebuilders is to have multiple areas for outdoor dining or lounging," notes Summit's managing director, Jeffrey Whitehead. Outdoor living spaces are where Americans can satisfy two well-documented contemporary desires: an urge to cocoon in comfort at home and a yearning for fresh air and greenery. Our homes are our castles, and it seems that, like the aristocrats of old, we now long to dally in salles vertes and leafy grottoes. "We're selling the idea of an idyllic Sunday afternoon," explains Delgreco. "People are realizing that their outdoor areas deserve the kind of attention and effort they put into their interiors," declares Lyle Ecoff, president of Robb & Stucky Patio, which caters to upscale "chaise lounge" lizards with stores in Florida and Arizona that supply not only furniture but outdoor fireplaces, kitchens, barbecues, rockscapes, sculpture, lighting, and water features.
"Casual furniture," the preferred industry term, is more than a euphemism. Increasingly, the most appealing designs are cropping up in interiors as well as in transitional spaces such as porches, lanais, and loggias. They strike a note of relaxed elegance and are largely impervious to wear and tear from children and pets. "This furniture is built to last twenty-five years or more outdoors—it has to be well made," says Ecoff.
Outdoor furniture provides "a sense of welcome and a promise of comfort," says Barbara Israel in Antique Garden Ornament: Two Centuries of American Taste. She reveals that one of the earliest examples of outdoor seating in England and America was the Windsor chair, which was often placed on a porch and moved into the garden when the weather was fine. "George Washington had thirty Windsor chairs on the east portico of Mount Vernon," she notes. Israel is a respected dealer in vintage garden furniture and ornaments, which are displayed on the grounds of her country house in Katonah, New York. "If you put in a new garden and want it to look as if it's been there for a while, put in an old piece, say, a weathered marble bench," Israel advises. In addition to stone and cast-stone furniture, she sells everything from early-19th-century English metalwork benches in Regency or Sheraton style to modern-looking metal chairs from the twenties and thirties, such as those made by the Wisconsin firm Leinfelder. While prices for vintage garden furniture have been rising, many pieces fall in the $1,000 to $4,000 range. "On the low end," Israel explains, "a Victorian cast-iron bench that has a grapevine motif can run from $750 to $1,500, while one having a rarer lily-of-the-valley design might cost $3,500."
At the two major annual outdoor furniture shows—the Gramercy Garden Antiques Show, in February, and New York Botanical Garden's Antique Garden Furniture Show, in May—many dealers in this small but thriving specialty gather to sell furniture, as well as urns, statues, fountains, sundials, birdbaths, and other ornaments. "The old pieces have a patina and quality of design you can't find in the new, and they're often comparable in price," asserts New York dealer Judith Milne. "Many are unique." She's fond of such finds as a set of four '30s French faux bois armchairs of cast concrete ($2,850) and a matching table with a concrete tree-trunk base (also $2,850). Urs Oeggerli, of the Dallas firm Proler Oeggerli Garden Antiques, specializes in 18th- and 19th-century French and Italian pieces. Many are carved of Vicenza stone, the limestone Palladio used for details and statuary in his famous villas. "They have a wonderful patina, and they work particularly well with Mediterranean-style houses," he states. Oeggerli's objects are not cheap: A nicely worked stone settee can go for $18,000, an ornate backless bench for $8,000.
As with interior furniture, the alternative to antiques is an abundance of newly made traditional-style designs, including reproductions of historic classics. The leader in the field is John Danzer, a financial analyst turned "exterior decorator." Founded in 1991, his company, Munder-Skiles, now offers more than 80 designs through showrooms in New York and other cities. Most are based on vintage pieces Danzer discovered in shops and on tours of historic gardens here and abroad. Some are made under license from historical collections and museums, which receive a royalty on sales. Just as you can buy heirloom plants from stock planted by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, you can order Danzer's reproduction of the attractive bench Jefferson designed for his garden. The lattice-backed Almodington bench replicates the earliest known wooden garden bench in America, dated 1780. The original, from a historic house on Maryland's Eastern Shore, is now in North Carolina's Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. His other licensed designs come from the Hudson River Valley estate Montgomery Place and Edith Wharton's house in France.
Danzer's no slave to tradition, however. His Windsor chair—modeled on an 1803 original in England's Norwich Museum—is rendered in laser-cut steel. He will customize designs (say, changing a chair-back motif to reflect an architectural detail), and his line includes contemporary designs like the award-winning Taconic lounge, a curvaceous, streamlined beauty with discreet wooden wheels. On an exterior design consultation, he'll often recommend combining a bench with a couple of chairs around a table, and he will select furniture from other companies as well as his own. "Everything doesn't have to match," Danzer declares. "I'll tell people, you mix different pieces inside, why not outside?" But he shuns clutter, advising clients instead to use fewer pieces of greater distinction.
Traditionalists have embraced the distinctive designs of Brennan-Edwards as well. Their Baltimore seat, a settee inspired by early-19th-century Federal style, and their languorous Empire-style recamier are crafted from metal and painted to mimic cane and wood, but they also produce wooden pieces such as the generously scaled North Shore group, a graceful take on traditional estate furniture. "I'm a landscape architect, and had trouble finding furniture as wonderful as the gardens," says Gay Crowther, company co-owner (with Pat Belser). "We strive for a sense of slightly quirky indoor style adapted for outdoor use."
Those who love the airy tracery of traditional wirework furniture and ornaments turn to FrenchWyres, whose Gothic garden bench might have sprung from an Edward Gorey drawing. Charleston Gardens offers attractive and well-finished English-made wrought iron, much of it inspired by Regency designs. The line of Richmond-based McKinnon and Harris features winsome interpretations of traditional styles—among them a Chippendale-derived Camelback sofa, a Gothic bench, the much-lauded Empire armchair, and a surprisingly modern Hepplewhite table. Impeccably crafted of high-grade aluminum and steel and given tough-as-nails finishes, the company's pieces are available in colors beyond the usual white and forest green.
For a feeling of antiquity, Michael Taylor Designs offers cast-stone seats and tables and a cast-aluminum version of the Greek klismos chair (in contrast to the contemporary Jennifer group: overscaled outdoor seating Taylor designed for actress Jennifer Jones and her husband, Norton Simon). In a similar heyday-of-Pompeii spirit is the Mosaix line of classically inspired wrought iron, with limestone tabletops featuring patterns sandblasted into their surfaces, beautifully simulating ancient mosaics.
The oldest name in traditional teak furniture is that of Barlow Tyrie, an English firm established in 1920. Their Sissinghurst seat, marked by its sinuous back crest, is a definitive version of the much-copied bench designed by Edwardian architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. The Commodore is a classic steamer chair that has marine-quality brass castings and optional rear wheels. You can keep a case of Champagne on ice in the company's polyurethane-lined Reims refreshments chest, fitted with brass hardware and drainage spigot. Yet another quintessentially English firm is Chatsworth Carpenters (sold through Janus et Cie), which reproduces picturesque pieces in painted wood from the garden at Chatsworth and other historic sources.
The enduring popularity of classic English-inspired teak furniture has given rise to plenty of companies marketing similar lines of tables, seating, planters, and umbrellas. One worthy example is Smith & Hawken, which pioneered the use of plantation teak from sustainable sources, now common among the better makers; it also offers contemporary designs like the undulating Dune chaise longue. Another is Wood Classics, an employee-owned Hudson Valley firm that offers furniture (including rockers and the ever-popular Adirondack chair) in assembled or kit form.
Although English-style teak furniture is reassuringly familiar, many designers consider it overused. ("If I see one more Lutyens bench, I'll scream," growls one.) One alternative (with designs derived from early-20th-century pieces made for an estate on the Maine coast) is Weatherend Estate Furniture. There's a straightforward American quality to Weatherend's line, with its solid construction and slatted backs and table aprons. Combinable curved benches, jaunty Weatherondack chairs and ottomans, and ample Westport Island chairs are highlights of a collection that is available in teak or mahogany, untreated, clear-finished, or colored with a multistep, marine-grade polyurethane coating.
Called "the king of woods," dense, durable teak lends dignity to the fresher traditional and contemporary designs that have won kudos for a small group of to-the-trade companies. The most seasoned is Summit Furniture, which over the last two decades has produced more than 100 designs for clients such as Robert De Niro, Princess Diana, Steven Spielberg, and a long list of posh resorts. Summit helped spark today's renewed appreciation of teak with handsome contemporary pieces by designer Kipp Stewart, whose latest work combines teak and polished stainless steel in stackable seating and an occasional table. "We lead in sales of deck furniture for large yachts," notes Summit's Jeffrey Whitehead. "Yachtsmen like our Sun Deck collection, which was designed by John Munford, one of the world's top superyacht designers. He gave the pieces a low profile for minimal wind resistance and made them easy to stow—they all either stack or fold."
Giati (Indonesian for teak) was founded by designer Mark Singer, who trained with master woodworker Sam Maloof. "We pride ourselves on fine construction and extraordinary craftsmanship," he says. Singer's well-wrought designs nod to tradition, especially his new Palazzio collection, which features deep cushions, French limestone tabletops, and a fine balance of straight and curved lines.
A standout in Sutherland Teak/Perennial's much-admired line is designer John Hutton's award-winning dining recliner with pullout ottoman, equally suitable for dining or lounging. Hutton's designs range from a laid-back tub chair to the crisp Conservatory sofa. Sutherland uses skilled Indonesian carvers for details such as the nude caryatids supporting the arms of the Matisse chair. "That came to me after David Sutherland and I went to the Matisse exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art," Hutton relates. "If I were a poet, I would have composed a poem, but I'm a furniture designer, so I designed a chair."
McGuire's teak collection features John McGuire's classic K'ang group, marked by faux bamboo detailing, as well as the urbane Portico collection, with grid-patterned seat backs, designed by Orlando Diaz-Azcuy. McGuire offers an option of charcoal, sand, or white stain, but most people prefer the natural look. Untreated, teak will weather to a silvery gray. "You can age teak furniture by putting it in your swimming pool for three days," comments David Sutherland. "The gray layer is actually quite thin and can be sanded off to restore the original color. Weathered or not, teak should be cleaned periodically with a soft brush and a mild soap or bleach solution. Let me add just three words: Teak loves water. It soaks water up and is nourished by it."
Woven plant materials like wicker, rattan, and hyacinth provide a classic casual look inside and out, but they will deteriorate in exposed outdoor areas (in more sheltered spots, consider David Easton's line of nicely gentrified rattan for Walters Wicker.) A more impervious option—devised in the early 1900s—is Lloyd-Loom wicker. Woven of twisted-paper strands reinforced by a wire core, it's finished with a weather-resistant coating for outdoor use. The original American maker, Lloyd Flanders, wraps its wicker around aluminum frames that are largely exposed. Displaying a more tailored appearance are vintage designs from European makers, available in Janus et Cie's Loom collection (made from woven paper) and from Loom Italia, which uses mahogany or bent beechwood frames. The most durable wicker is woven of PVC (polyvinyl chloride). Janus et Cie offers it in 13 colors and a natural-looking matte finish in a Spanish line of aluminum-frame chairs. Brown Jordan's Resinweave, an almost indestructible polyethylene-resin weave, is employed in both old-fashioned outdoor furniture and contemporary pieces.
Brown Jordan started in 1945 by making wrought-iron "breakfast sets," but the firm soon began developing the wide array of well-finished, primarily aluminum outdoor furniture for which it is known today. The line offers apt, good-looking choices for virtually any style of house, including clean-lined modernist designs that complement contemporary architecture. Brown Jordan chief designer Richard Frinier's latest is the Streamline group, with seating bound in tinted vinyl tubing that's as translucent as jellyfish; equally sleek (especially with a titanium finish) are his Aero and Meridian groups, both with sheer mesh seats and backs. Another established California company, the Kreiss Collection, makes aluminum outdoor furniture with traditional lines—including the surprising Carmel collection, which looks like wood but is actually powder-coated aluminum.
Boston's Repertoire sells the German-made Dia set, which exemplifies modernist versatility: an eight-position chaise longue, adjustable dining/coffee table, and a chair that tilts on its back to become a low lounge chair, all framed, Bauhaus-style, in chrome tubing. One sign of the ongoing modernist revival is Outside's reinterpretations of worthy '50s designs by Van Keppel Green, John Caldwell, and others (this Los Angeles showroom also sells vintage modern outdoor furniture). Another is McGuire's new Archetype series, a collection of pared-down designs in aluminum with teak or fiber webbing by Michael Vanderbyl. The Hugonet collection sold through Janus et Cie includes personable pieces by Gallic talents such as designer Christian Liaigre, as well as the Victoria collection, blending château-apropos lines with a novel hydraulic-recliner mechanism. Triconfort also makes wood and metal pieces in the French-modern manner, though it's probably best known for high-style resin furniture, such as its inviting canopied chaises longues and love seats.
A splendid example of modernist refinement is Richard Schultz's 1966 collection, which Knoll introduced in that year. These archetypal forms of aluminum and polyester mesh are now manufactured by Schultz's company, along with the 1960 Petal table he designed to go with Harry Bertoia's classic wire-frame chair. (Knoll still makes the Bertoia seating—available with a special coating and vinyl seat pads for outdoor use—as well as other indoor/outdoor pieces, among them Frank Gehry's latest, the stacking FOG chair, Maya Lin's simple faux cement tables and seats, and the Toledo group of metal chairs and tables.) Now in his seventies, Schultz has taken a poetic turn with his Topiary collection, irregularly perforated aluminum tables and seating that echo the dappled effect of sunlight through foliage.
Next to fast-drying, flow-through foam for cushions, the biggest technical advance in recent years has been the improved quality and selection of outdoor fabrics. The day of burlap-coarse weaves and those bright lollipop colors that fade like an over-the-hill racehorse is passing. The best outdoor furniture fabrics are supple, solution-dyed acrylics that incorporate stain- and mildew-resistant formulas and are highly colorfast. Designer favorites include Giati's jacquard weave, Sunbrella's faux linen, and Delgreco's Marimekko patterns as well as Sutherland's Perennials collection, with its muted garden tones.
"The old vat-dyed acrylic was like a radish," explains David Sutherland. "Solution-dyed acrylic is like a carrot—the color is integral. Our fabric lets the water flow right through it, and it's softer and more comfortable—more like cotton."
With exterior decor flourishing as never before, no one should settle for garden-variety furniture. "People used to look at outdoor furniture as an afterthought, but that's changed," says Sutherland. The outdoors is, as Brown Jordan's Richard Frinier likes to say, "the biggest room in your house." Happily, today's plethora of possibilities make it easier than ever to furnish it in style.
First-Rate Repro Producers
Most of these sources sell primarily to the trade. Some keep stock in inventory, others make pieces on order, and most offer custom options. Lead times of eight weeks or more are common: not surprisingly, the best time to order outdoor furniture is off season.
Barlow Tyrie, Inc.
1263 Glen Ave., Suite 230, Moorestown, NJ 08057;
196 Prince George Street, Annapolis, MD 21401;
9860 Gidley Street, El Monte, CA 91731;
61 Queen Street, Charleston, SC 29401;
Delgreco & Company
232 East 59th Street, New York, NY 10022;
Box 131655, Tyler, TX 75713;
Giati Designs, Inc.
614 Santa Barbara Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101;
Barbara Israel Garden Antiques
21 East 79th Street, New York, NY 10021;
296 Mount Holly Road, Katonah, NY 10536;
Janus Et Ciet
8687 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, CA 90069;
Traditional teak furniture.
5587B Guinea Road, Fairfax, VA 22032;
8525 Camino Santa Fe, San Diego, CA 92121;
Box 550, Menominee, MI 49858;
Loom Italia Usa 1
Country Gear Ltd.
2408 Main Street, Bridgehampton, NY 11932;
Mcguire Furniture Company
$ 1201 Bryant Street, San Francisco, CA 94103;
Mckinnon And Harris, Inc.
Box 4885, Richmond, VA 23220;
Judith & James Milne, Inc.
506 East 74th Street, New York, NY 10021;
Mosaix Studio, Inc.
13208 Saticoy Street, North Hollywood, CA 91605;
799 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10021;
442 North La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90036;
Proler Oeggerli Garden Antiques
2611 Worthington Street, Dallas, TX 75204;
114 Boylston Street, Boston, MA 02116;
Robb & Stucky Patio
Stores in Naples, Fort Myers, and Sarasota, FL, and Scottsdale, AZ;
Richard Schultz Design
$ PA 18070; 215-679-2222;
Smith & Hawken
5 Harris Court, Monterey, CA 93940;
Michael Taylor Designs
1500 17th Street, San Francisco, CA 94107;
Box 1558, Huntersville, NC 28070;
979 Third Ave., New York, NY 10022;
212-758-0472 (trade only).
Weatherend Estate Furniture
6 Gordon Drive, Rockland, ME 04841;
$ Box 100DP, Gardiner, NY 12525;
Establishment sells to the trade only. Available through your architect or designer.
Jeff Book often writes about design for Departures. In the last issue he covered reproduction furniture.