Lapping up luxury in the great outdoors

Outdoor furniture has come a long way in recent years. (Photograph: MBM Exclusive Outdoor Furniture.)

ONCE upon a time, patio furniture, as it was known back then, comprised almost entirely of immortally garish, white plastic chairs and tables that inevitably landed – legs up – in the pool after a windy night or a particularly boisterous party. What’s more, the inadequate synthetic struts of the chairs frequently folded and gave way beneath inhabitants who were too weighty, inclined to rock while seated – or both. I vividly recall, at a family gathering decades ago, portly uncle Pete tumbling backwards in an ungainly knot of rugby shorts, veldskoens and hairy limbs. He stilled at last, impaled upon one of my mother’s prized streletzias – remarkably, without spilling a single drop from the beer can firmly clenched in his fist.

But outdoor décor, as it is known in its more stylish rendition these days, has come a long way since oom fell off the stoep.

Recent reports from Spoga – which is Europe’s largest outdoor furniture and garden trade show that takes place annually in Cologne, Germany – indicate that advancements in materials and design have drastically reduced the distinction between indoor furniture and outdoor furniture.

What’s more, homeowners – many of whom are ever more determined to cocoon against turbulent times in their own private spaces – are eagerly buying into the trend as they seek out weather-resistant variants of stylish indoor furniture to transform gardens, balconies and terraces into deluxe mini-resorts.

There is plenty on offer to feed their desire. The significantly improved “weatherisation” and flexibility of materials for outdoor furniture gives designers greater scope for creativity. This, and increased attention from architects to outdoor living spaces and the flow from inside to outside, means furniture has become multifunctional. Outdoor décor is mirroring what is happening indoors, and visa versa.

“More sophistication and creativity by designers and manufacturers encourages people to view the outdoors as an extension of their homes,” says Kaareen Jones of Cane Time, the South African importer of the Dedon, EGO Paris, Gloster and SIFAS ranges of outdoor furniture. “They treat the spaces surrounding their homes like any other living area, and see outdoor locales as expressions of their individual style and every bit as important as any other room in the house.”

International outdoor living design experts predict that the “staycation” phenomenon – which was driven by economic forces in 2009 that compelled people to holiday at home – will continue into 2010.

Designers have responded by creating outdoor furniture that exudes a sense of calm and relaxed security. Certain pieces offer “cosiness” that is modern and fashionable, and yet has natural appeal. Lounges, for example, look like shells or nests, and a recliner is reminiscent of a wave.

And homeowners are not stinting when it comes to investing in the finest furniture available: “Our clients acknowledge that the distinction between indoor and outdoor furniture is vanishing and that superior outdoor furnishings require the same manufacturing expertise and quality materials as indoor furniture, if not more. They are prepared to pay for quality and style,” says Jones.

Tailored and distinctly individual pieces are what designers are counting on in the new year. Consumers are not looking for “off the shelf” furniture but for items that reflect their own personality.

On the other hand, the “greening” of outdoor furniture is also a big focus for 2010. In some cases, teak – traditionally the most popular material for outdoor furniture – is being replaced with non-wood materials.

After ten years of development, German outdoor furniture manufacturer, MBM (Münchener Boulevard Möbel) last year released a hybrid material to replace tropical hard wood. Called Resysta, it looks like a tropical hard wood, feels like teak, is the same weight as an A-grade hard wood, and is treated and crafted as if it were wood. It is however, a 100% non-wood combination of rice husks, salt and mineral oils.

“Resysta was developed to help stem the destruction of the world’s forests by providing a range of furniture with the feel of tropical wood and integral nature of wood, but which does not involve the felling of a single tree,” says managing director of MBM South Africa, Barry Garner. “The potential of the material is far reaching: wherever wood is currently used, Resysta can now replace it.”

Materials notwithstanding, the green trend also shows up in the colours used for outdoor furniture in 2010. Earth tones and natural hues are popular with chocolate browns, beiges and greens paired with wood and metals.

But things do not have to be boring, say designers. Louder prints are making a comeback in both clothing and decor this year, and they compliment neutral naturals. To create a summery vibe, wide stripes, geometric designs and overall floral patterns in purple, red, green and fiery orange tones are recommended.

In a nutshell, concludes Jones, outdoor furniture design trends for 2010 are characterised by simple, understated, “minus is more” styling with clean lines, and cool, neutral finishes and fabrics.

The trends though, do not end with chairs, tables, sofas and recliners. As more and more people gravitate towards enjoying the great outdoors in the privacy and luxury of their own homes, outdoor furniture ranges are increasing including things like all-weather beds, outdoor flat screen plasma televisions, grilling kitchens and showers.

Fire pits too, are becoming a have-to-have for outdoor living – in which case, it is a good thing that uncle Pete is not around to take another tumble off the patio.

(This article was originally published in the Sunday Life section of The Sunday Independent in January 2010.)

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Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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