Retail sales of casual and outdoor furniture reached more than $8 billion in 2008. Restoration Hardware, the upscale chain of home fixtures and furnishings, has an entire catalog devoted to outdoor furniture, and even Target stocks Smith & Hawken patio pieces.
Outdoors is in.
"These days, people spend just as much time purchasing outdoor furniture as indoor," says Armida Fernandez, managing partner at Patio Land USA in Tampa. "People are looking to stay home, to entertain at home. The outdoor living room continues to be a growing trend."
Years ago this was strictly a table-and-chairs business. These days it's a range of seating for outdoor entertaining because, as Fernandez says, "right now our customers don't want to put money into huge vacations, so they're creating that vacation 'resort' environment at home."
Innovations in style, design and materials have expanded the range of furniture selections at nearly every price point. The best news of all is that many of these innovations yield outdoor furniture that is essentially maintenance-free. All-weather wicker replaces the classic wicker that tended to deteriorate over time. The newer products are made of woven resin strands or even fiberglass, yielding a finished piece that won't rot and never needs painting.
Substantial outdoor pieces in imported teak, Chinese oak, redwood, Western red cedar and affordable eucalyptus have broad appeal, requiring an occasional sealant to stand up to the weather. Poured concrete has also gained popularity, making for no-fuss benches and tabletops.
Geo Rodriguez of G & J Artistic Designs in Hollywood, Fla., manufactures concrete faux-stone tabletops as well as tumbled stone and travertine tabletops. She and Fernandez have seen consumers step away from traditional glass tables, with an increased interest in glass mosaic tops in blues, browns and greens that, as Rodriguez notes, "make a table shine and stand out."
In seating, cast aluminum now substitutes widely for more unwieldy wrought iron, an innovation that combines Old World styling with the benefits of aluminum: It's light and easy to move around. And it's rustproof.
Beyond an expanded range of materials, experts agree on another current trend in outdoor furniture: size. For a while everything was oversized, both in terms of individual pieces and in the amount of space devoted to outdoor living. This "more is more" trend — dining for 10, plus a casual seating area of huge outdoor club chairs, and maybe a chaise or two — seems to be waning as the economy has tightened things up.
According to Fernandez, our part of Florida has its own size constraints: With so many homes in golf course communities, smaller lanais are the norm. "We've come up with a collection just for Tampa Bay, with smaller pieces in the all-weather resin wicker. It's got a faux-wood look, but it's aluminum."
Still, even in small spaces, patio furniture has gone beyond the outdoor dining room to encompass seating groups that resemble outdoor dens or even formal living rooms. The looks are further refined with a fresh array of weather-proof lamps, outdoor area rugs and even weatherproof pieces of "garden art," clocks and candles.
In the high-end outdoor furniture brands — Lloyd/Flanders, Brown Jordan, Tropitone, Woodard, Glouster Teak and Cast Classics — seating styles themselves are changing. The ubiquitous woven plastic strapping of former outdoor styles has been replaced with more comfortable "sling" or cushion styles. And cushion fabrics are undergoing a revolution: Sunbrella fade-resistant fabric is offered in an ever-expanding array of patterns and colors; even Ralph Lauren has gotten in on the outdoor fabric business. All of these innovations serve to make outdoor furniture feel more like indoor furniture — but with added durability and ease of cleaning.
Prices range widely: At Target, cushioned all-weather wicker chairs start around $150, loveseats around $250. Lloyd/Flanders' Reflections collection runs $1,000 per piece and up, depending on the fabric selection.
For parsimony's sake, Mark Daniel, owner of Palm Casual in Tampa, says more people are looking to gussy up their existing furniture rather than buying all new. "We find with this economy, they're buying new cushions and slings for their furniture, even refurbishing pieces."
For refurbishing, Daniel recommends George's Patio Shop in Pinellas Park. Since 1980, owner George Van Syckle and staff have saved ailing Tampa Bay patio furniture.
"Most people don't know that you can refurbish," says Van Syckle. "We sandblast and repaint, re-sling and re-strap, even fix old crank-and-tilt patio umbrellas."
But what does it cost, and does it make sense to do this instead of buying new? According to Van Syckle, to re-strap a classic Brown Jordan 5/8-inch diamond-weave chair, you're looking at about $85, definitely cheaper than buying new.
Budget and space constraints certainly dictate outdoor furnishing decisions, but experts agree that an increased array of choices means patio decor can suit your lifestyle and tastes nearly as seamlessly as your indoor decor does.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293.