This weekend officially kicks off the outdoor entertaining season. The lounge chairs are coming out of storage, the cushions inspected for rips and stains, the tables polished for company.
If you discover that your patio furniture just won't make it through another long summer and it's time to go shopping, you're in for a pleasant surprise. There are more stylish options than ever at both ends of the price spectrum.
The most striking trend is how much outdoor furniture is starting to look like indoor furniture. The newest outdoor furnishings are being designed to match not only the comfort of indoors, but also the style.
With space at a premium in so many homes and a growing interest among baby boomers in gardening and the outdoors, the patio area has been getting more attention in recent years, and furniture manufacturers are responding with greater choices, many inspired by classic indoor furniture styles.
"People are dressing up their outdoor areas and using it as extra space," says Debbie Browning, furniture buyer at Baumgardner's hearth and patio store in Westminster, adding that this year's harsh winter has also contributed to the enthusiasm for decorating out-of-doors.
As the outdoors becomes an extension of the indoors, terms like "neoclassical," "traditional" or "country" are now being used to distinguish the many looks available in outdoor dining tables, chairs, love seats and easy chairs.
vTC Frames come in choices of wood, wicker, resin or iron, with the careful detailing and ornamentation, such as finials or carved legs, that you would expect only in fine indoor furnishings. And the possibilities in upholstery include not only the basic awning stripes and florals, but also the most sophisticated prints.
"The trend for many years was toward casual outdoor furniture, but now we're interpreting outdoor products in terms of what's found in the home," says Richard Frinier, vice president of design and marketing development at Brown Jordan, a casual outdoor furniture company based in California.
Carl Hein III, general manager of Casual Furniture Gallery in Timonium, Glen Burnie and Annapolis, sees a similar trend locally. "People are using traditional prints and design [in their outdoor furniture] to pick up on the colors and styles from inside. The transition from inside to outside living space is narrowing."
One reason for the increased sophistication of outdoor furniture is the new materials that have been developed recently, says Peter Homestead, design and marketing manager of Tropitone Furniture in Florida. "We've had major improvements in the wearability and durability of fabrics and materials, which has allowed more indoor styling for outdoor furniture."
Some of the newest fabrics, available in a wide array of colors and styles, are made of an acrylic that is durable and fade-resistant. Even the cushion filling has been updated to include mildew-resistant materials. Just wash these cushions occasionally and let them dry in the sun.
Two of the most popular choices in outdoor furniture this season are wrought aluminum -- which has the look of wrought iron as well as the advantage of being lightweight and rust-proof, and teak -- which does not crack or chip and ages gracefully to a warm silver gray color.
Another option gaining popularity is a resin that is hand-woven on aluminum frames to create a strong, textured wicker look called resin weave.
In the more stylish and expensive furniture lines, matte finishes and textures are becoming more common, replacing the high-gloss, smooth finishes found in inexpensive resin furniture. Most widely used on the aluminum, iron and steel frames, these finishes include antiquing or weathering with subtle raised textures. Some of the woods, such as cypress, may be finished with washed stains that hint of colors in hunter green or off-white.
"The finishes contribute to the traditional look," says Mr. Homestead. "It lends a feeling of permanence and history."
Adds Mr. Hein of Casual Furniture Gallery, "The finishes used on wrought aluminum and iron have been perfected to the point where they're very tough and long-lasting."
The favorite colors for frames this season include not just the perennial white or natural wood, but also forest green. Joe Watson, president of Watson's Fireplace and Patio in Lutherville says, "I'm also seeing some interest in blue, so maybe blues are starting to come back."
Many of the fabric choices also incorporate dark greens and white or off-white, especially in muted floral patterns. Although bright solids and stripes remain popular, the wild tropical tones and geometric patterned materials of past years are fading out.
In this area, the most popular furniture pieces appear to be dining sets, with a trend toward larger tables, says Mr. Watson. "As people live outside more and entertain there, they want to be able to seat more than four people at the table."
In addition to dinning sets, gliders, rockers and sofas or love seats are selling well.