Richard Frinier sips iced tea in his Long Beach garden, scanning an article about fashion designer Ralph Lauren's 35 years at the top. "Can you believe it? He was the first to cross over into home furnishings, and he's still at it," Frinier marvels. "What an amazing success!"
It takes one to know one.
For the last two decades, Frinier has been the driving force behind Brown Jordan, the El Monte-based outdoor-furniture manufacturer whose innovative, elegant, well-constructed chairs, tables, chaises, benches and umbrellas have made it the best-known name in the luxury market.
From the minimalist profile of his Quantum chair to the more ornate scrollwork of his Florentine chaise, Frinier has proved himself a master of both contemporary and traditional styles. And whether they are fabricated in aluminum, teak or woven resin cord, his designs have timeless appeal, many of them as suitable indoors as out.
Earlier this month, after producing 60 furniture collections for Brown Jordan, the 56-year-old designer retired as chief creative officer. Frinier intends to keep his hand in the home-furnishings business but doesn't yet know what he'll do next. Whatever his second act, he has altered the outdoor field forever.
"Outdoor furniture was pretty dowdy until Richard goosed it and brought in sex appeal and excitement," says Marian McEvoy, editor in chief of House Beautiful. "He did it by not copying the same old things ... he came up with original forms and took the latest materials to a level that was really chic."
A little more than a half-century ago, outdoor furniture as we know it didn't exist. Sure, there were cast-iron garden seats, wicker settees and Adirondack chairs, but they rusted, faded, cracked and otherwise fell to pieces in the rain and sun. Only after World War II, when new materials such as aluminum and vinyl became readily available, did things begin to change.
In 1945, Robert Brown and Hubert Jordan teamed up in Pasadena to manufacture wrought-iron breakfast sets. Three years later, at the request of a Honolulu hotel, Brown Jordan started making tubular-aluminum chairs with vinyl-lace seats that could be left exposed to the elements. The Leisure collection was an instant hit--and Brown Jordan and the patio industry never looked back.
Over the years, the company helped pioneer emerging technologies, most notably, powder coating, in which electrostatically charged particles of pigment are sprayed on and then fused to metal. The firm also led the way with the latest in fabrics (solution-dyed acrylics and vinyl-coated polyester instead of rawhide and cotton), finishes (antiqued and textured effects instead of smooth surfaces) and colors (pastels, metallics and tints instead of plain white, blue or dark green).
Today, thanks to the popularity of "outdoor rooms" that extend a house's usable space and multiply the opportunities for entertaining, patio-furniture sales account for 10% of the $23-billion residential-furniture business. And thanks to Frinier, Brown Jordan has captured the imagination of the high-end consumer.
Retail prices for Brown Jordan furniture range from $400 for an armchair to about $3,000 for chaises and sofas. Costs vary, depending on materials and labor, with machine-extruded aluminum being the least expensive, stainless steel being the most expensive and hand-woven resin-cord and teak falling in between.
"We're all stuck with the same materials and technologies, but those who can come up with something fresh have the edge," says Richard Schultz, the former Knoll designer who created the now-iconic 1966 collection, a streamlined study in white mesh stretched across white aluminum. "I'm very encouraged when I look around and see something I'd be envious of. Richard's stuff falls into that category."
Ironically, Frinier, a mild-mannered native Angeleno, didn't set out to design furniture at all. "I grew up surfing and loved the water," says the onetime lifeguard who was born in South-Central L.A. and raised in Downey. In college, he studied fine arts at Cal State Long Beach, earning a master's degree in crafts in 1976. "My thesis was about lighting," he recalls. "I was fascinated by light as a material and, gradually, I started translating sculptural forms into functional lamps."
Then Frinier landed a part-time job teaching wood-furniture design at Cerritos College, and, later, a friend who happened to own a local furniture factory invited him to design bedroom pieces. Along the way, he bought a tiny 1922 flat-roofed stucco house in Long Beach that he has since remodeled and furnished with Gustav Stickley reproductions and his own Mesa collection. He continues to live there with his wife, Catherine, a writer in public/media relations.