If your soul is bursting with joie de vivre, as it should be at this time of year, your head ought to start nodding vigorously at the assertion that the Pernod umbrella is without peer as a piece of outdoor furniture.
As you read this, hundreds of fortunate people are either sitting beneath spreading Pernod umbrellas or they are asleep dreaming about it. They are doing this in Paris, the undisputed world capital of the finest in outdoor furniture.
And--you must trust me on this--there is no way to assemble a more harmonious pile of outdoor furniture than the stuff you can see at any Paris cafe. The combination of the surprisingly comfortable little wicker chair and the matching table with a Pernod umbrella growing out of the center of it is matchless in all the world.
People from, say, Wisconsin who go to Paris in the balmy days of summer and sit under the Pernod umbrellas and eat perfect leafy green salads and sip glasses of Sancerre (and maybe even Pernod if they feel daring) and start feeling more unbuttoned and carefree and glowingly Continental by the minute will return home and buy every piece of outdoor furniture they can lay their hands on. And by the time spring arrives again, the Wisconsin winter will have turned the furniture to rotting pulp.
Southern Californians also enjoy whiling away the day in Paris cafes, but we are less dazzled by it all. After all, we routinely think of the patio as another room of the house and outdoor furniture as our birthright. But weather is weather. And where Wisconsin has snow, sleet, hail, freezing rain and roasting humidity, we in Orange County have smog, bright sunlight and salt air.
All will eventually wear your outdoor furniture down. But, said designer John Garcia, today's furniture is made with the ravages of nature in mind. And while nature eventually will win (she always does), it's likely that you'll be lounging on your chaise longer than you used to if you buy the good stuff and have an eye to simple maintenance.
Garcia is the owner of Planit Design Studios in Corona del Mar and specializes in the use of outdoor furniture particularly in homes near the ocean, where the salt air can, and does, corrode absolutely everything. It is for such environments, he said, that today's outdoor furniture manufacturers roll up their sleeves.
The construction of the furniture, he said, "is sort of an extension of the whole problem of building a house on the ocean. You have to think about metal fatigue, glare from the intense sun--things like that."
Much outdoor furniture, Garcia said, is made of lightweight aluminum, which is popular because of its portability. And though aluminum is mostly non-corrosive, Garcia said that it can be made all but impervious to weather by having a coat of paint electrically bonded to the surface "like oven-baked enamel." The well joints of the piece, he said, are treated particularly well in the paint bonding process, being the weakest part of the construction.
Aluminum treated this way will last for many years, said Garcia, but their anti-weather properties can be undermined if the paint is even slightly chipped. It's wise, he said, to find out if the manufacturer offers touch-up paint.
Fabric, which in the pre-synthetic days could turn to stringy pulp after a couple of first-stage smog alerts, still is the most easily weathered part of much outdoor furniture, but the battle has at least been joined. There are a wide variety of man-made fabrics on the market, said Garcia, "that won't stain or rot or support bacterial growth, and they've been woven to look like canvas."
Wood furniture is an option--cedar and redwood are the best varieties--but Garcia's voice flattened a bit when he said "wood is not a permanent material." It will last perhaps 20 years at best, he said, if it is kept out of standing water and it will develop "a natural patina." But, he said, it will eventually rot.
Cast-iron furniture may be the top of the line. This stuff appears as the sort of ornate chairs, tables and benches that appear on the covers of romance novels. Here, too, paint chipping is the enemy. However, said Garcia, the most expensive models--offered by Brown Jordon and Tropitone--are dipped in a zinc bath, which makes them all but impervious to the gritty, abrasive, corrosive, discoloring stuff we draw into our lungs each day.
With durability also comes variety. Many outdoor furniture manufacturers offer far more than the requisite lounge chair, table and umbrella. One manufacturer in particular, Brown Jordan, is considered "the style leader in the patio furniture industry," said Garcia.
"You can have anything from ultra-contemporary to New Orleans lattice work to Chinese to Chippendale," said Garcia, even such items as tea carts and ottomans. The Brown Jordan line, he said, can be found at various outdoor furniture stores, but it might take a bit of searching. Also, he said, the line is, predictably, more expensive than most.
There is, however, one element without which even the finest outdoor furniture simply doesn't work: the proper outdoors. And the most proper of all is the outdoors that includes the sidewalk in front of the Cafe de la Paix. It's a great source of design ideas. Go there and check out their furniture. Also the ice cream.
And be sure to sit under a Pernod umbrella.