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OUTDOOR LIVING : Open-Air Flair : All the Comforts of Home Move Outside

June 04, 1989|DAVID LASKER | David Lasker is a writer and editor specializing in design.

Manufacturers of outdoor furniture used to have it easy: Put white slats on a metal frame and the customers would be happy. But outdoor furniture today is much more sophisticated in style, fabric and color. "Now customers have become interior designers and demand more for their money," says Harry Jaquiss, chairman and chief executive officer of Irvine-based Tropitone, a leader in the outdoor-furniture industry.

As selection has increased, so has price. Many homeowners who don't think twice about buying pricey seating for the living or dining room have balked at the cost of outfitting the patio and deck. Today, the price of outdoor furniture rivals that for indoor use, even though indoor use is year-round. Surprisingly, however, comfort--one of the reasons that outdoor furniture has become more expensive--can be more critical in outdoor furniture than in indoor. Industry studies show that although after-dinner conversations rarely last longer than 20 minutes indoors, outdoor diners often lounge in patio chairs for two hours at a stretch.

Bringing features heretofore found only in indoor furniture to the outdoors, Tropitone, Brown Jordan and other manufacturers have recently developed a full complement of "action" seating, including swivel-tilt chairs, gliders and rockers. A technological challenge was met here: Manufacturers had to devise weatherproof mechanisms.

Technology also has broadened the range of outdoor-furniture fabrics. The California look still reigns supreme: "White and sand are always the volume," Jaquiss says. Those who prefer patterns have more to choose from than was dreamed of a few years back, when printed patterns lacked durability. At the time, fabrics came in solids, stripes, checks and plaids because the loom could only go up and down or across. Then along came the flexible Jacquard loom (actually a centuries-old French invention), unleashing complicated, flame-stitch and bamboo-stalk patterns and florals combining soft acrylic with vinyl-coated polyester, which look more like texture-rich sofa fabrics.

Innovations in corporate and commercial design eventually find their way into residential interiors, and features found in ergonomical executive chairs are showing up on the patio. One cherished office-chair feature is a gas spring on the support column that adjusts seat height with the flick of a lever. Barely four months on the market, the Adelante model, by Kirkland, Wash.-based Dani Leigh USA, brings a similar ease of operation to the patio chaise longue. Its hydraulic control system can be adjusted while the user is seated: No more getting out of the chair to fiddle with armrest mechanisms. Unlike the few reclining positions in conventional chaises that come predetermined by the manufacturer, Adelante's movement is adjustable to infinity. It moves smoothly, more like an aircraft seat than a jerky car seat. The Textilene fabric, a tough nylon with a tight weave, won't leave an imprint of tiny squares on your derriere when you rise.

In finishes, Tropitone offers powder coating, wherein electrically charged particles of dry paint pigment--no water or oil--is sprayed onto a metal chair frame that has been prefinished (to terminate oxidation) and given an opposite charge. Twenty years ago, Tropitone introduced the process because it performed better than conventional paint. El Monte-based Brown Jordan chemically treats aluminum frames to prevent scaling and blistering (untreated aluminum oxidizes by forming a white scale).

Brown Jordan offers a lifetime guarantee; Tropitone guarantees 15 years. Richard Frinier, Brown Jordan's vice president of design and product development, recalls that "a few years ago, we were all caught in a game of one-upmanship. First it was a five-year warranty, then 10, then 15. So now we offer a lifetime warranty, provided that the product hasn't been abused. If a weld has broken on one of the stretchers, say, we'll replace it, even though there's no danger of a catastrophic failure of the leg."

Still, even the toughest finish won't last forever in Los Angeles' smog-laden atmosphere. As more than one punster surely must have said, those living near LAX mustn't be lax, because jet-fuel combustion products are particularly corrosive. Jaquiss concludes: "Ideally, you should hose down furniture weekly and give it a coat of wax now and then. The reality of outdoor furniture, though, is that no one takes care of it until they want to use it."

Chair from Berk's, Santa Monica; flowers by Clifford Miller / The Flower Shop; candles from Pier 1; background paintings by Katherine Brehm.

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