When the sun is shining and you have outdoor space, few things are better than spending long, lazy days outside, soaking up the heat and dining in the open air.
If you have the right garden furniture, that is. Because lounging outside can be as inviting as kicking back in a well-appointed living room — or just as uncomfortable as trying to get comfortable on a worn-out sofa bed.
“An outdoor space is really an extension of your indoor space,” says Martyn Lawrence Bullard, a Los Angeles interior decorator who has created furniture for Harbor Outdoor. “So we look at it as a room. I really want it to feel very inviting and well thought out.”
This means that collecting the furniture is more than randomly selecting pieces in a store or on a website. First, you need a plan – which involves figuring out how you will use the space and how you will maintain it over time.
For advice, we spoke to interior designers, landscape designers and representatives of the furniture industry about what exactly to consider before decorating your outdoor space.
Make a plan
Before you buy, it’s important to think about your bigger vision of an outdoor space.
“I really think outdoor furniture has three different uses,” says Celerie Kemble, an interior designer based in New York and Palm Beach, Florida, who has designed outdoor furniture for Lane Venture. “There is outdoor dining; use your outdoor space as a living room; and lounging and pool. And each has a different set of rules.”
If you have a large outdoor space, it may be possible to accommodate all three functions: a dining area with a table and chairs; a hangout area with sofas, lounge chairs and a coffee table; and a sunbathing area equipped with chaise lounges.
If you don’t have that much space, say on an urban patio, decide which activity you appreciate the most. If you enjoy cooking and entertaining, focus on making your outdoor space a destination for meals, with a dining table and chairs. If you prefer to relax with family and friends, forget the dining table and create an outdoor living room with sofas.
When space is tight, Brook Klausing, the founding partner of Brooklyn-based company Brook Landscape, often recommends forgoing chaise lounges. People tend to romanticize them, he said, but they take up a lot of space and can be used less than other furniture.
“People say they want them, but then they get crammed in,” he said. “If you don’t have the space, don’t bother.”
If you absolutely must have one for sunbathing, do what Mr. Klausing has done in some of his projects: add hooks to a wall or fence that can keep the chaise lounge out of the way when not in use.
Know your materials
Outdoor furniture manufacturers use a wide variety of durable materials, most of which fall into two groups: materials that are impervious to the elements and retain their original appearance for years, and materials that weather or develop a patina over time. .
If you want your outdoor furniture to look like new for years to come, good material choices include powder-coated steel or aluminum, stainless steel, and plastics that are resistant to ultraviolet light. But even those materials can change in the long run when exposed to the elements; some fading, staining or corrosion is not uncommon.
“You can get a high-quality, UV-resistant plastic, and it can hold up well and look the same for several years,” said Noah Schwarz, the creative director of Design Within Reach and the design director of the Herman Miller Collection. . “For powder-coated metals, work with a supplier or buy from a brand that uses a high-quality powder coating, as they vary quite a bit in quality and longevity.”
Another approach is to buy pieces made from woods such as teak, ipe, eucalyptus and mahogany, which are durable but will take on a weathered look over time. Or choose a metal such as brass, which gradually develops a patina.
“Teak has been called the king of the forest because it contains just enough silicates and oil to be very, very durable outdoors,” said David Sutherland, the founder of the outdoor furniture and fabric company Perennials and Sutherland.
While it is possible to oil or seal teak periodically to keep it looking relatively new, Mr. Sutherland won’t take it. “The problem with sealing or finishing is that you always have to do that,” he said, because the finish wears out all the time and you become a servant of maintenance.
Instead, embrace the weathered look of the wood. “Personally, I like it when it gets that silver color,” Mr Sutherland said. “To keep teak looking fresh and weathering nicely, you should water the furniture once a week. It’s a bit like watering your plants.”
If your teak develops a film of grime, he noted, it’s fine to use detergent or wash it.
One of the most important decisions to make when buying outdoor furniture is whether or not you want cushions, which provide extra comfort but come with maintenance issues as they tend to get dirty and wet.
One option: avoid pillows altogether. “When we design urban spaces, we really don’t recommend a lot of pillows because of all the soot in the air,” which tends to collect on the pillows, said Mr Klausing. “We try to select furniture that is comfortable without cushions, or with mesh or something like that.”
This approach works well on raised patios, said Amber Freda, a New York-based landscape designer: “On a roof or patio, many people don’t want to worry about the cushions blowing around.” (Neckties can help with that, of course.)
But not all designers want to do without. “I love that my outdoor furniture is super comfortable – that’s really the number 1 ingredient,” said Mr Bullard. “I tend to use a lot of upholstery. We have so many incredible options these days, with all these great indoor and outdoor fabrics that are very soft and pliable and come in a million colors and patterns, so you can really add character to a space like never before.”
To avoid fading, look for fabrics made from solution-dyed acrylic, such as those from Sunbrella and Perennials, where the colors are an integral part of the yarn rather than being dyed or printed later in the process. “It doesn’t degrade in the sun like polyesters and nylons do,” said Ann Sutherland, the director of Perennials and Sutherland.
For pillows that won’t be soggy for days after a rain shower, look for inserts with quick-drying foam. “It’s usually called reticulated or open-cell foam,” and allows water to pass through quickly, Mr. Schwarz said.
If you can’t decide whether pillows are for you, he recommended a middle ground: Choose furniture that is comfortable without pillows, but with thin pillows that can be added for extended lounging.
What about storage?
A lot of outdoor furniture can be left outside all year round, especially if it’s heavy enough not to blow around in a storm. But pillows are another story.
To preserve cushions for as long as possible — and to make sure they’re dry when you want to use them — some designers recommend removing and storing them when not in use. Others recommend protecting outdoor furniture with covers.
However, both strategies are labor-intensive and can discourage you from using your outdoor space on days when you don’t feel like putting the cushions outside or exposing the furniture.
Ms Sutherland recommended a more relaxed approach: leave the furniture and cushions outside and uncovered for most of the year, but cover or store them if you are not going to use them for an extended period of time, for example in winter, or when you are out of town.
Even that is too much trouble for Mrs. Kemble, who prefers to leave her pillows outside all the time, regardless of her schedule or the weather. “I’m a lazy person by nature, so I’m not going to spend my whole life chasing my pillows in and out based on the weather,” she said.
When her pillows get dirty, Mrs. Kemble cleans them, sometimes with washing-up liquid. And while they wear out faster than pillows that get put away when not in use, she said, “I’m willing to accept that in the next 10 years I’ll have to repair my pillows.”
If her seats are occasionally damp, so be it. “I’m willing to get some wet bum,” she said, “rather than having bulky storage boxes and taking on the challenge of staying two steps ahead of it again.”
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