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PATIO PANACHE Designers give outdoor furniture indoor style


If your idea of outdoor furniture is a redwood picnic table, you haven't seen this season's newest looks -- a high-style distressed-finish chair, perhaps, with cushions that look and feel like cotton in a deep hunter green.

Sounds more like living room furniture than a patio chair, doesn'it? And that's the whole point. The line between indoor and outdoor living has blurred in recent years, as interest in the environment and natural materials has become reflected in interior design. You can hardly call it interior design anymore: interior/exterior design would be more accurate. People consider their outdoor "garden room" part of the house -- and decorate it as such.

"People are spending more time at home and therefore out in their yards as part of 'cocooning,' " says Carl Hein of Casual Furniture Gallery. "They're buying the same furniture for indoors and out."

That means wicker, rattan and wrought iron is making its way into the living room, and furniture made to be used outdoors is becoming high style. LLoyd/Flanders' wicker is more weather-proof than wrought iron for outdoor use. But David Lemerond, market services manager of the high-end casual furniture company, says that most of what Lloyd/Flanders sells -- because it's expensive -- goes indoors.

Of course, there's outdoor furniture in all price ranges; even thcheapest can be good-looking and stylish. A stackable molded-resin chair, for instance, costs as little as $16. People who don't need outdoor furniture buy such chairs for extra seating, points out Wina Burns of Stebbins-Anderson. You can buy a PVC (more about it later) table and four chairs from K mart for under $200. Or you can invest a much more substantial amount of money. If you're going to do the latter, you should

know about the summer's hottest trends:

* Traditional looks, updated in color and styling. "The mode othe day is traditional styling," says Richard Frinier of Brown Jordan, a top-of-the-line company. "Even in casual furniture. We call it 'transitional' -- traditional looks translated into current comfort."

* Wrought aluminum. It can be bent, styled and finished likwrought iron so you have the best of both worlds: a traditional look and low maintenance.

* Custom-made and handmade pieces, so that your bench otable is a work of art. Locally, you can get made-to-order wrought iron from Whitin & Oster in Wyndhurst Station, among other places. Owners Jeannie Whitin and Eleanor Oster also sell weathered-wood tables and benches of mahogany and pine made for them exclusively, and twig furniture from the Philippines.

* Wood. Weathered wood blends with its surroundings and all it needs is "benign neglect," says Bobbie Goldstein, president of Country Casual, a company in Germantown, Montgomery County, that specializes in teak and mahogany furniture. Mr. Hein, general manager of Casual Furniture Gallery, also thinks that wood is an important look this season. "A couple of groups we're carrying are made of painted cypress. It's not a redwood kind of look at all. The finish is sophisticated and it's low-maintenance." Stores aren't in complete agreement about this, though. Watson's Garden Center has seen its sales of teak drop off.

* Market umbrellas. The poles are wooden -- oak or pine or teak. The fabric is a bright acrylic in a wonderful print. You buy them for your outdoor table instead of the usual aluminum-poled ones. "It's a different look," says Wina Burns at Stebbins. "A tasteful look."

* The color of the season? Green. "Greens are very important," says Carl Hein, "especially the deep hunter greens." Ms. Burns agrees: "If it's green, it sells." And Jennifer Fischbach, buyer for Watson's, mentions teal specifically.

So now you know what's hot, but what's hot may not be right foyou. When you walk into a casual furniture store, the choices will astound you. Here's a guide to what's available:

Aluminum Designers may talk about the importance of wood and wroughiron this season, but extruded aluminum has cornered the leisure furniture market because it's lightweight and easy to maintain.

Chair frames can be made of extruded aluminum (the hollow tubes that make the patio furniture we all know and love), cast aluminum (solid metal), or wrought (which transforms wrought-iron styles into the more durable, lighter-weight material).

Extruded frames can be made of fitted (bolted) aluminum or all-welded (which is more supportive). Less expensive Telescope furniture, for instance, is fitted, while Brown Jordan, the Rolls-Royce of aluminum furniture, and Winston (with its mid-range lines) are welded. The gauge can vary, giving you more or less weight and durability.

Aluminum's finish lasts well because it's usually a powder-coat system. The paint is attracted onto the frame with a magnetic charge so it covers the frame totally, and then the piece is baked.

Your choice of seating with an aluminum frame is cushions, slinor straps. Cushions are usually made of polyester fill. Water will pour out of it after a soaking, so that it dries in 15 or 20 minutes if you tilt the cushion on its side. The cover will probably be clothlike acrylic or vinyl weave. The one-piece sling is a sleek, contemporary look in a waterproof fabric. "It's overtaken cushions" in popularity, says Ms. Fischbach of Watson's. Straps are the standard patio furniture look. But depending on the design, they can be quite stylish.

Wrought Iron Wrought iron's popularity continues to grow in spite of itheaviness and tendency to rust. It's long-lasting (except for rusting). The problem is that manufacturers can no longer use lead-based paint, which made wrought iron more rust-proof. But companies like Meadowcraft are using a two-coat system of paint to get some of the newest colors, which makes for a fairly durable finish. With wrought iron you get what Carl Hein calls "the Old World garden look. It's romantic." How is it new? "Designers are updating it with colors, and it's not quite as 'scrolly.' There can be fancier treatment of finials."

Plastic You can get a lot for your money with molded resin furniture, andoesn't have to be just a stackable chair. Stebbins sells a four-position chair for "sunning, sitting, reading and dining." Negatives? Resin is a porous material, so it can discolor after some years unless it's lacquered; and because the molds are very expensive, it's difficult for a company to bring in a new line, so you don't get a variety of styles.

As for PVC furniture: You know that plastic piping under your kitchen sink? That's PVC, polyvinyl chloride. Furniture made from it is inexpensive and can be jazzy and fun. A local company, Dunnrite Casual Furniture, makes its own line. The advantage of PVC over molded resin, according to Frank Lancelotta of Dunnrite, is that it can be bent into various shapes.

Wood Outdoor wood furniture can mean redwood picnic tables anAdirondack chairs -- or elegant teak benches with elaborate designs. It's often pressure-treated to be more weather-resistant, to prevent rotting. "Teak is probably our most popular material for outdoor use," says Kathy Lassen-Hahne of McGuire, a casual furniture company with such stylish lines that they are used indoors extensively. Want to see how weathered teak looks before you buy? Visit the Baltimore Museum of Art's sculpture garden. The benches are from Country Casual.

Wicker In 1906 LLoyd/Flanders originated the classic wicker baby buggy. Almost a hundred years later it's making all-weather wicker furniture. Regular wicker can't be left outdoors because moisture will cause it to crack and warp. Lloyd/Flanders was the first company to introduce what market services manager David Lemerond calls "man-made wicker fiber." It's not a synthetic but natural wicker woven on a loom like a fiber, then sealed in latex. A multicoated paint is baked on and the resulting "fiber" is "upholstered" onto an aluminum frame. A couple of other companies like Henry Link and Lane/Venture have developed their own versions of weatherproof wicker.

Maintenance This is a short section, because you shouldn't buy any outdoofurniture that needs much maintenance. All-weather wicker needs a gentle hosing down now and then. If wood is coated with marine paint, you'll have to repaint periodically. Non-lacquered plastic furniture can use a coat of car wax a couple of times a year to keep it looking good. If painted wrought iron is scratched, lightly sand it with fine sandpaper and touch up the paint. And Wina Burns of Stebbins recommends waxing aluminum furniture a couple of times a year with car wax to protect the sheen of its paint from ultraviolet rays.

Just remember, you want your garden room to be like your living room only in how you use it. You certainly don't want to spend the same amount of time maintaining it.

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