With its graceful curves and open work, the shell-backed chair commands attention. It boasts the look of hand-carved wood, the fine finish of rubbed-on color, applied in two hues for highlighting the relief work. The elegant design was patterned after gilded rococo chairs found in French chateaux in the time of Louis XIV. But this chair can be left out in the rain: It's crafted of sand-cast aluminum.
The "Shell" chair has been one of the Veneman Collection's best sellers since the company introduced it in 1974. Such meticulous attention to detail is no longer the exception in what is known in the trade as the casual furniture industry.
Casual furniture once was relegated only to the outdoors. But the lines between a home's indoors and outdoors have become fuzzy in recent years. Outdoor spaces have become an extension of our indoor lifestyles, and people are feeling the need for continuity in furnishings. This trend has fueled the need for more stylish, eclectic and, of course, comfortable furnishings.
Besides the blurring of indoor-outdoor usage, there are a number of other reasons for the evolving sophistication of casual furnishings. Consumers are more attuned to good design -- from toothbrushes to tea kettles to televisions to cars, as well as furniture. They have become equally demanding of quality as well as style when they shop for furniture and products for all rooms of the house. They now expect a design continuum that extends to the outdoors.
Magazines also expose consumers to the art of dressing up casual furnishings. A spread last year in House Beautiful featured pieces from Rela and Don Gleason's Summer Hill furniture company photographed in their home in Redwood City, Calif.
The Gleasons like to show their "Brighton" settee in an inviting setting. Teamed with a delicate vintage iron bistro chair and a table topped with floor-length blue oxford cloth and covered with white pique, the bench is fitted with a floral-clad cushion and fringed pillows. The table is set with antique blue-and-white Canton ware for brunch. There's a warmth and civility apparent here, and the settee clearly is a piece that can come inside.
In addition, specialty and department stores are merchandising their products better. Casual furniture is more often being displayed in "outdoor" room settings, complete with appropriate accessories. Manufacturers have noted how romance sells, especially with licensed collections that package coordinating products for the consumer.
Technology also has been a boon to more sophisticated designs. The sand-casting process employed by Veneman involves making sand molds and pouring in molten aluminum alloy to re-create the forms that first were crafted by woodworkers.
Finishes span a much broader range than ever before, one that more closely parallels fine furniture finishes. The weathered looks of aged iron or bronze, in rusty or verdigris tones, have been popular in recent years. Such "antiquing" may be achieved by spraying one color over a surface, then wiping it. Or colors may be sprayed one over the other, then mottled for effect. Stone facsimiles (such as malachite or marble) and even wood look-alikes to mimic pickled pine or bamboo now are available.
Textures also increase the range of available designs. One of the most innovative textures introduced last September was that on a chair produced by Rattan Specialties. The silhouette offered nothing revolutionary: It was reminiscent of the barrel-shaped wicker chair popularized by Lloyd Loom in the '20s. But its beauty was in its extraordinarily subtle weave, an Indonesian rattan pole covered with woven sea grass that gave the chair an intriguing "tweedy" appearance. Cane was used to accentuate the frame.
All the design improvements wouldn't mean a thing at the expense of comfort, of course. So although the trend to more formal casual designs seems to contradict the '90s craving for comfort in an age of cocooning, it doesn't. Seat cushions are more comfortable than they ever have been. The finest pieces are Dacron wrapped in materials that even simulate down. Some cushions are designed to hold their shape and, when rain-soaked, dry quickly.
The innovations in weatherproof fabric, in the view of some observers, are what drove the style changes in the first place. "When acrylics and woven Jacquards and printed materials came on the scene," said John Miles, president of Homecrest and the former president of the industry's trade association, the Summer and Casual Furniture Manufacturers Association, "it brought sophistication. You could get the same kinds of looks outdoors that you could purchase for indoor use. So the frames and finishes followed."
With all the technological improvements that have allowed a greater versatility in design, the selection of casual furniture has, not surprisingly, broadened. The latest casual furniture models will debut in coming months. You'll see a diversity of frames, with some large-scale seating.
Pompeii's "Babylon" collection is made of bent hollow aluminum with an old iron look. Its crisscross and knot details are reminiscent of sophisticated high-end ironwork, and its big fat cushions suggest an overstuffed comfort. The brightly patterned fabric has the hand, or feeling, of a fine cotton -- but it will wear as well outdoors as in.
Variety in shapes
There also is more variety in the shapes themselves. At the high end, sofas, hammocks and chairs increasingly are assuming more sophisticated silhouettes. Brown Jordan's "Barcelona" sofa of wrought aluminum, for example, has a three-seat frame with flared sides with details reminiscent of ancient architectural forgings.
The group, which includes chairs and a glass-topped table, features classical half-circle and circle motifs that decorate the open back of a gently flared frame. The design inspiration is the hand-crafted wrought-iron work of Spain's Catalonia region, but its aluminum construction makes it attractively lightweight. Its striped cushions and pillows give it a smart look, a handsomeness that makes it appealing on a brick terrace or in a dressed-up dining room or on an Oriental rug.
Casual furniture designed by the late Charles Pfister for Brown Jordan is contemporary yet apparently rooted in history. Pfister himself liked his designs to exemplify "opulence without waste." A hammock, which won an award at the casual market, is compelling because of its grace and streamlined quality. It was inspired by the deco steamships of the '30s. Its frame, constructed of rectangular grooved aluminum extrusion, is simple, punctuated by circles.
Pfister's "Mesh" collection for Brown Jordan is as fluid, but its sleek lines are clean and undecorated, and its ribbonlike frame appears less delicate. The chaise features back wheels connected to curved arms that flow into straight legs. The companion table has slightly flared legs. The pieces are upholstered in an intricate, geometric Jacquard woven material with the panache of sophisticated menswear.
Dressmaker details such as welting and ties also are embellishing cushions, giving them more design importance. These kinds of details are now possible because the "hand" of the material has softened, and is more pliable, without compromise of its mildew-proof, fade-resistant qualities.
Cover choices now include floral prints that resemble English cotton chintzes, exotic floral prints in bright hues, and geometric patterns and woven Jacquards, which allow subtleties and overlays of color.
Color options are similar to those for indoor furnishings. Hot teals, cool garden greens, iron, bronze and sandstone finishes as well as white seem to be the most popular. These are the hues we'll be seeing as the new casual furniture shows up in specialty and department stores.
Since the frames, upholstery patterns and details and colors of casual furniture have become more homelike, it may just be a matter of time before the manner of merchandising changes. Casual furniture traditionally has been sold in "suites" -- that is, groupings of tables, sofas and chairs that match. But that concept is falling out of favor with other home furnishings groupings, from bedroom to dining room collections. Mixing, but not necessarily matching, is being touted, especially by magazines, as a more inventive way to go. "It's the spirit of eclecticism," said Mr. Miles of Homecrest.
And although eclecticism may be an evolutionary concept in the casual industry, it really isn't likely to be revolutionary. For even the most design-forward, technologically superior products for the '90s epitomize a back-to-basics philosophy. What consumers seem to be looking for in casual furnishings, whether used outdoor or in, is something classic.
"Even at a time when most families require furniture that can accommodate a broad range of activities," said Richard Frinier, vice president of design and marketing development for Brown Jordan, "consumers desire timeless designs to grace their homes."
* Brown Jordan, 9860 Gidley St., El Monte, Calif. 91731; (818) 443-8971.
* Pompeii, 255 N.W. 25th St., Miami, Fla. 33127; (305) 576-3600.
* Rattan Specialties Inc., 8222 Allport Ave., Santa Fe Springs, Calif. 90670; (310) 945-3483.
* Summer Hill Ltd., 2682 H Middlefield Road, Redwood City, Calif. 94063; (415) 363-2600.
* Tropitone Furniture Co. Inc., No. 5 Marconi, Irvine, Calif. 92718; (714) 951-2010.
* The Veneman Collection, 6392 Industry Way, Westminster, Calif. 92683; (714) 894-0202.