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Turning the patio inside out

High-tech weatherproofing moves period pieces and modern decor into the elements.

June 16, 2005|David A. Keeps | Special to The Times

Back in the 20th century, furnishing the backyard was simple. Lightweight dinette sets and loungers made from fiberglass, resin or tubular aluminum were easy on the back and the wallet.

"That was when it was called patio furniture," recalls Ron Safran, owner of two Victory Furniture showrooms in the L.A. area. These days, it is outdoor decor. "With real estate where it is, everyone is trying to make the most out of every square foot, so people want to create outdoor living and dining rooms. Furniture that had to be functional is now being driven by design."

Call it better outdoor living through chemistry. With a growing palette of weatherproof materials and finishes, designers can make pieces that are as 21st century minimal as the latest Italian creations or as tailored as a Baroque chair.

How else could one possibly explain the Louis Soleil? Created by John Hutton for Sutherland as an antidote to "overly serious minimal" outdoor designs, the generously proportioned 17th century French lounge is an indoor chair built for le jardin. On its intricately carved teak frame, Hutton used stainless steel nailhead trim to attach weatherproof upholstery, instead of the usual loose cushions. The result is a graceful interpretation of a classic period piece that can stand up to Santa Ana winds and Santa Monica sun.

At the other end of the stylistic spectrum, designers are looking forward for inspiration, creating furniture that wouldn't look out of place on the sundeck of the Jetsons' sky pod. Mamma, created by Patrick Messier of Editorial, a Montreal firm, is a sinuous rocking chair designed, he explains, "to look like a ribbon unfurling through the air."

"My wife just had a baby and wanted to buy a rocker, but all of them were ugly so I designed one for her," Messier says.

High-tech polymers, corrosion-free metals and synthetic fibers and cushions have created a stylistic free-for-all in outdoor furniture, says Andy Hackman of the L.A. store California Living. "Manufacturers can now create any design, new or historical, that will be fully suitable for indoors or out."

California Living specializes in the sleek midcentury modern designs that, after World War II, put the city on the map as a manufacturing center for poolside furniture. Other L.A. retailers contribute to that tradition.

At Warisan, recycled teak is fashioned into chic rustic patio pieces. Arden House recasts wooden Chippendale seats and early 20th century bamboo stick furniture as sturdy powder-coated steel club chairs; designer Andrea Newcomer sets cushions with a Bel-Air country club flair atop an upholstered seat, a common feature in indoor furniture.

Outdoor decor also has become a global phenomenon. New Zealand designer David Trubridge bends tatajuba wood into slatted loungers called Sling and Glide (shown on F1) that look like a skeleton of a canoe. In the Philippines, Kenneth Cobonpue, known for his extraordinary work in rattan, is experimenting with woven steel canopy chairs covered in weatherproof rope. The Milan-based designer Patricia Urquiola covers her low-slung "Lazy" lounge chair in an oversized stretch mesh.

High-end manufacturers in the U.S. are launching outdoor furniture lines in traditional styles using modern products to re-create an antique look.

"Whether they are decorating vacation homes or an apartment balcony, everyone wants the feeling of a resort," says Eleanor McKay, chief executive officer of Niermann Weeks, which has a showroom at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood. "We're way beyond the $5 plastic chairs you buy at the drugstore."

Niermann Weeks' 30-piece outdoor collection includes 19th century English Regency and Chinese Chippendale styles. The Loggia group consists of chairs and a Knole sofa with carved seashells and neoclassical crossed arrows adorning the back. The sofa also features hinged drop-down sides held in place with a decorative chain, plus a finish and weatherproof cushions. "You can pour water right through, and they'll be dry in 10 minutes," McKay says.

Such upscale designs have already had a trickle-down effect on an increasingly sophisticated mass market. Although it is still possible to spend five figures on a carved bench designed by Oscar De La Renta, it is also easy to replicate the look by going to the website Grandin Road ( and choosing the $699 Delano, which neatly complements Los Angeles' Mediterranean architecture. For English gardens and Normandy terraces, Ballard Designs offers woven plastic fiber Queen Anne-style chairs for $199 (, and Smith & Hawken has a full range of French Provincial styles.

Major manufacturers also have begun to dip their toes into the pool of creative outdoor furniture design. At Victory Furniture, Brown Jordan's South Seas group mixes British Colonial lathed legs and Pacific Island floral carving in teak furniture with cane seats and tabletops woven in a synthetic material that echoes sea grass. The collection, with six pieces ranging from $649 for a side table to $3,099 for a settee, arrived last month. Victory has filled half a dozen orders.

"It's not exactly inexpensive," says Victory owner Safran. "But it is sophisticated, and that's what people are looking for."

Additional reporting by Adamo DiGregorio.

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