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Make room for the outdoors

Bold layouts sell products and lifestyle, but what's with the Airstream trailer?

April 06, 2006|Robin Rauzi | Times Staff Writer

CLOTHING catalogs bore me this time of year -- all Easter egg colors and pedal pushers. They go directly into my un-pastel blue recycling bin. In the springtime, my fancy turns to the garden, or what is now widely known as "outdoor living."

The outdoors became the new indoors a few years back, so now we are supposed to have not just a grill, but a full kitchen; not just a chaise but a sofa.

Most homeowners apparently have had outdoor rooms all along, only we were misguided in thinking they were patios and lawns. Now these spaces need teak sectionals, coffee tables and ottomans. Backyard retailers have pretty much left the flower pots and garden sculptures behind. In their place are outdoor rugs and copper fire pits. Call it "exterior decorating," coming soon to an extension class near you.

The premiere edition of Restoration Hardware Outdoor introduces six fresh lines of alfresco furnishings. Each is given a borderless spread that pops like a centerfold -- the notion of decorator porn finally fully realized.

The centerfolds are followed by six pages of furniture combinations photographed from the most flattering angles: the slinky back of the Antibes chaise, the curves of the All-Weather Wicker Roll-back, the glowing, oiled surface of Providence teak. These take up nearly the entire catalog -- 72 of the 88 pages.

It's difficult to explain the radical departure this represents. There is no squinting at a 4-inch image of an 8-foot sofa. Some images are 17 inches wide, dramatically horizontal. Each collection gets a short introduction, but most pages have no text descriptions at all, just dimensions and prices. It is the first outdoor living catalog that actually captures the feeling of being outdoors. And yet, I'm not drawn back to it because there's so little to revisit.

Part of the problem may be because human beings are rarely seen enjoying these spaces. Unpopulated outdoor scenes have a creepy interrupted quality, as if an emergency caused everyone to leap up and leave their iced tea.

But when they do appear, something seems amiss. Smith & Hawken's Avignon set is shown from bird's-eye view on what appears to be a rooftop garden with an artificial turf floor. A woman is relaxing on her teak sofa ($1,625, plus extra for the cushions). She's kicked off her sandals to feel the fake grass between her toes. She's so relaxed that she has her cellphone and laptop computer, as well as a pen -- though no paper. Only in this kind of artificial environment could an outdoor living room be so pristine -- no weeds or cat hair to distract from the decor.

In Smith & Hawken's Adirondack spread, the chair cuts a bold diagonal across the frame, completely upstaging the human. In the upper left sits a rugged guy and his golden retriever; an Airstream trailer is parked further back in the desert landscape. All of which adds up to: did he pack that Adirondack chair in the trailer? And if it's such a great chair, why is the guy sitting on a rock?

Compared with either of those two catalogs, Plow & Hearth seems not to have taken the outdoor room idea fully on board. Solar path lights. Colored glass globes. Little footbridges. These are the objects of taming wilderness, not nesting in the open air.

But the ultimate wilderness taming is in the pages of Garden Tools by Lee Valley. This is not just trowels and hoes, but motion-activated sprinklers, branch-grafting tools and bug-proof suits. It's like the Sharper Image for the backyard.

I think of Lee Valley as a rural area full of extremely active gardeners. On each page they are pruning, planting, propagating. The only place to sit down in all 172 pages is a folding stool intended for hiking trips.

And yet, it was the Garden Tools catalog that got me up off the couch and out into the yard. That's really what I need in the spring -- less relaxation, more motivation.

Robin Rauzi can be reached at

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