How Much Do I Have to Spend to Sit in My Own Back

PHIL MITCHELL IS A TEAK MAN. SURE, he'll talk about cypress. And he might even set you up with mahogany if it's that tennis-whites, Boca Raton-resort look you're going for. But where it really counts, in his own back yard, he's teak all the way.Mitchell knows teak. It accounts for a healthy 25 percent of the sales at Park Place, the outdoor furniture store on Wisconsin Avenue in Northwest Washington he owns with a partner. And with Washington warming to its annual love-hate relationship with summer, business at the store is hot.This year Mitchell had a goal. In the sometimes costly world of outdoor wood furniture, he wanted to find quality teak tables and chairs to offer his customers for less than $1,000. He just made it. Nine hundred and fifty dollars was the price tag for a 48-inch round table and four chairs by Kingsley-Bate. And supplies didn't last long.Okay, relax. Take a deep breath. Let it out slowly as the sticker shock sinks in. "A thousand dollars," you moan, "just to sit in the back yard?" The fiscal facts show that you can furnish your garden for as little as $9 or as much as $9,000. But if you want to furnish it with high-quality, long-lasting, fashionable pieces, it's going to cost you.If cost is the main criterion, stick with the aluminum, vinyl-strap folding chairs sold at hardware and variety stores. The price is right: cheap. Their hollow frames may not withstand Uncle Cecil's substantial weight; their webbing may stretch, sag or give way altogether; and their light weight makes them susceptible to summer gusts. But they remain, undeniably, among the most comfortable and accessible options on the market. And we buy them -- again and again.But face it: No one is going to confuse a yard furnished by G.C. Murphy with an English country garden, an intimate French courtyard or a Palm Springs patio. For those you pay bigger bucks.While the looks are virtually unlimited, outdoor furniture (and we mean that literally -- furniture that can be left outdoors year-round) comes in four basic materials: plastic, metal, wood and wicker.Though many outdoor furniture manufacturers have been taking their cues from the past, there are makers whose lines have a 20th-century point of view. They've turned to plastics.Today's technologically advanced resin has become the material of choice for sleek, contemporary outdoor furniture designs. Perfect at poolside, plastic resin furniture can have its day in the sun for years. Plastic resin is a formulation of a polyvinyl chloride developed in Europe after World War II and used predominantly by the French for outdoor furniture.Louis Bamel, owner of Bamel's Quality Casual Furniture, a porch and patio furniture store in Rockville, swears by it: "It has a nice, clean European look and it's good transitional furniture" -- transitional because its unobtrusive styling can bridge the gap between formal indoor furniture and relaxed, yet classic, outdoor looks. He mentions the comfort factor. He's right. A quick sit-in confirms the sit-ability of a variety of styles, cushioned and bare.Bamel enumerates the advantages of resin: "It is solid and the same color throughout. Regardless of how high the air temperature might go, it remains relatively cool and comfortable to the touch. It doesn't yellow. And it's easy to keep clean."The stuff is practically unbreakable, although it will scratch. "But not easily," Bamel maintains. It can stay out all year, though he does recommend taking it in or covering it during the winter, and it has a life span of about 20 to 25 years. The tables and chairs are adjustable, with some chairs offering as many as a dozen positions. Tables can be raised and lowered; some are drop-leaf and others expand with leaves (some to 118 inches to provide seating for 10 or 12).A number of manufacturers offer resin furniture. At the high end is Triconfort from the French firm Allibert Inc. It is the ne plus ultra of the industry, high-styled and high-priced with a decidedly European flair. One Bamel's customer plunked down $9,000 for eight pieces.The average price is much lower. Allibert and other makers -- like Grosfillex, Kettler and, at the low end, Rubbermaid -- offer styles that feature good looks, cushioned comfort, durability and practicality (they stack, they fold). Allibert, for example, offers a 48-inch table and four adjustable high-back chairs in white, green, black or straw for about $700. Add cushions for $19 to $45 each, depending on fabric. On the low end, a 42-inch Rubbermaid table and four chairs can be had for $200 or less.An important distinction in resin furniture is between pieces that are lacquered and those that are not. Lacquer-finished pieces have the luminescence of a fresh-off-the-assembly-line Corvette. Their high gloss, the result of as many as 10 coats of lacquer, makes them easy to distinguish from matte-finish, unlacquered pieces. The latter are made of raw resin, which is much more porous and difficult to keep clean. Plus, unlacquered pieces are more apt to gray. Keep in mind that the lower-end pieces often don't contain as much resin as higher-price pieces and, therefore, are not as strong.The look is nostalgic. It speaks of an era when men were mannered and women demure. The Victorians cherished their gardens and filled them with heavy iron furniture fussy with dolphins and ferns, lilies and vines.America's love affair with this romantic past has had consumers combing shops and estate sales for outdoor heirlooms. Today's manufacturers have responded with new products made of steel or aluminum finished with space-age materials that withstand the elements far better than the Victorians' crusty old cast iron.There are those for whom only the originals will do. But Marjory Segal, owner of the Well-Furnished Garden in Bethesda, one of the first antique garden shops on the scene, sees a trend away from the old pieces. "There still is plenty of the old iron around, but it has become so costly and often is in need of such heavy repair that people are turning to the new," she says.Of special interest here are the historic reproductions being offered with the blessing of some of our most respected institutions. Garden Source Furnishings is manufacturing the Victoria wire bench ($500 is the list price), a filigreed lacy-looking settee that has been reproduced line for line out of an intricately woven and twisted small-gauge-steel wire from an original in the collection of the Office of Horticulture at the Smithsonian Institution. Brown Jordan has its cast-aluminum Daylily Collection ($2,000 for a table, $689 for a chair), original examples of which are also in the permanent Smithsonian collection. This year a new 36-inch round Carrara marble-topped garden table ($799) joins Brown Jordan's cast-aluminum reproductions of the cast-iron Fern Leaf garden bench ($1,369) and chair ($739), which can be seen at the Smithsonian's Enid A. Haupt Garden at the entrance to the Sackler and African museums. Smithsonian reproduction pieces are available at Woodward & Lothrop, Park Place, Offenbacher Pool 'n Patio in Rockville, Laurel, Falls Church and Springfield, Schirmer's Casual Gallery in Falls Church and Stover Hearth and Patio in Frederick and Hagerstown.Garden Source Furnishings also makes pieces from the Winterthur Collection in wrought iron and steel, wrought-iron originals of which were chosen by Henry Francis du Pont for the grounds of Winterthur, his Wilmington, Del., estate cum museum. This collection includes benches, chairs, tables, plant stands and footrests richly worked with scrolls, curves, twigs and branches. Prices range from about $250 for a small plant stand to around $1,000 for a 57-inch-long bench. Woodward & Lothrop carries the Winterthur Collection, as do Park Place and the Kellogg Collection, on Wisconsin Avenue NW and in Bethesda."People definitely are buying a look here," says Charlie Betts, Phil Mitchell's partner in Park Place, because -- let's be honest -- though this furniture is beautiful, it isn't always comfortable. Pity the toes stubbed against its unforgiving feet.For longevity there isn't much else that can compare, however. Pieces made of aluminum will not rust -- ever. Pieces from the Wintherthur Collection made of wrought iron and/or steel are finished with an electrodeposition epoxy primer and a heat-cured polyester topcoat that resist chipping and fading. Another advantage is that you don't even have to wait for the pieces to take on the rich patina of age. If you like, they come already washed or verdigrised to mellow perfection. The price? It varies from retailer to retailer, sale to sale, but Park Place, for example, will outfit your garden with a table and four chairs from the Winterthur Collection for about $1,500, depending on the table size and chair style.Price-wise you can get the Victorian look for much less, but be prepared to sacrifice weight and finish. Park Place offers a heart-patterned patio set with a table and four chairs for about $600.No look at outdoor furniture would be complete without mentioning the enduring popularity of wrought-iron patio sets. Available almost anywhere outdoor furniture is sold, these metal standbys worked with vines and curlicues have been back-yard favorites for years, selling for as little as $300 for a table and four chairs.Fast-forward to the present and there's an entirely different look available in metal. Manufacturers like Brown Jordan, Tropitone and Woodard feature smooth contemporary chairs, with taut mesh seats and backs, made of no-rust aluminum finished with a powder coat of vinyl. As Louis Bamel explains it, "The powder is negatively charged and the aluminum frame is positively charged. The powder is dusted on the metal, and the piece is literally baked. In the process, the powder fuses to the metal and the result is a nearly indestructible finish."No doubt about it, these pieces are comfortable. Their mesh sling seats support the body like a hammock. There is one teeny, tiny drawback, however. If you sit in them when you're wearing shorts, the backs of your legs will look like orange peel.Prices for a table and four chairs start at about $630 and go up from there.You can go a long way with wood. From the folksy familiarity of an Adirondack chair to the lyrical beauty of a Lutyens bench, wood lends itself to a variety of styles and budgets. It can be painted or left untreated to silver in the sun.Heading the most-wanted-wood list is teak, the mainstay of the English country garden look. Of recent concern, however, is whether this enchantment with teak might be harming dwindling rain forests. Conscientious suppliers of teak furniture, such as Barlow Tyrie and Kingsley-Bate, maintain that consumers can rest easier in their gardens secure in the knowledge that they obtain their lumber from government-controlled plantations in countries like Indonesia and Thailand.Teak furniture will most likely cost the most because it will last longest. It also requires virtually no maintenance. Teak is a dense wood that is naturally rot- and termite-resistant. It is high in natural oils, which increases its longevity but also makes it unsuitable for painting. Left to the elements, it will weather to a pleasing soft gray. Stains can be easily sanded away and the wood left bare to resilver.Even though teak will last 40, 50, 60 years without anything being done to it, Phil Mitchell, the teak devotee, advises swabbing it down twice a year with a mild detergent and washing it every five years or so with a cleanser such as Fantastik to remove any pollution-induced grunge. Mitchell wouldn't dream of becoming a slave to maintenance, but he advises customers who want their teak to retain its warm, un- weathered hues to use a teak oil to maintain the patina.A brief lesson in teak, courtesy of Mitchell: "Basically, there are two distinct types. The first is Indonesian or Java teak. Most English joineries use Java teak. A few American firms do too. Teak used by the English is air-dried as opposed to kiln-dried."The second type of teak comes from Thailand. Just like the Java teak, it is grown on government-controlled plantations and has the seal of approval from a number of environmental groups. Thai teak is kiln-dried."Mitchell's teak of choice is Thai teak. Raw Thai teak is shipped directly to manufacturers in the United States and therefore costs a bit less than teak that reaches Americans via England. Because Thai teak is kiln-dried, Mitchell says, the joinery of furniture produced from this teak is tighter and better. He acknowledges, however, that the selection of styles from English joineries is larger than from other producers.Teak can be a lifetime investment. It calls out to be touched and stroked. "If you're buying teak," Mitchell says, "it's important to feel the pieces, to touch them. Often, people will buy teak furniture based on photos and then aren't happy when it arrives."As with any material, there are different grades of teak. A low-quality teak piece can be pocked with knots or made with a filler. It will weigh less and probably cost less, and the joinery may be substandard. Furniture that is shipped assembled is stronger than that shipped in pieces for on-the-spot assembly.While teak doesn't lend itself to painting, a variety of other woods do. Mahogany, cypress, cherry and oak all take paint well. Mahogany and cypress are excellent outdoor woods and cost 20 to 30 percent less than teak for comparable pieces.Weatherend Estate Furniture favors Honduran mahogany for its pricey Maine summer-home look. The distinctive curved pieces are finished with the same polyurethane paint used on airplanes, skyscrapers and yachts. A moisture-resistant epoxy is applied to the feet of each piece to prevent absorption of ground moisture. All this costs an estate-type price too -- about $8,000 for a 48-inch table and four curved armchairs.Left unpainted, mahogany will silver like teak. Cypress, on the other hand, will turn dark with black streaks. Cypress is a good domestic wood, Mitchell says, and takes a finish well. It's a favorite for the Chippendale style mainly because it was a wood readily available in the South, where that style was popular.This year Park Place is offering a cherry Adirondack chair of its own making. Price: $179. Before selecting cherry, Mitchell weathered several samples of wood in his own back yard, testing for strength and warping. The wood is finished with a marine-quality epoxy urethane. Mitchell estimates it'll be four to five years before the finish even begins to deteriorate. All painted furniture, he says, is subject to chips and dings and is never fully free of maintenance. "Anytime you paint something, you have to maintain it." Even the Weatherend line may lose its glossiness after 10 years or so and need polishing, he points out.Oak and pine are two other popular woods used in outdoor furniture. Neither is high on Mitchell's list, although he thinks oak is fine for a porch or other protected area. For those on a limited budget, however, a number of attractive, low-priced painted pine pieces are available. There's the Adirondack chair ($127) and Victorian settee ($189) at the Door Store, the garden bench at Conran's ($149) and the English loveseat at Pier 1 ($270). This year Conran's also offers an Adirondack called the Delta for the first time. Made of pine, it is weatherproofed in white lacquer or mahogany stain and costs $139. Ikea offers knock-down oiled-pine pieces at very low cost. The Graso style features foldable chairs and bench and a folding table. Chairs are $65, benches $90, the table $95.Recycled redwood is another wood making an appearance, with Molino of Sonoma in Forestville, Calif., using it instead of cutting endangered old-growth redwood trees. Demolished buildings are the source for these, which are replete with carving and French in feel, with a touch of Spanish thrown in. Park Place is carrying the line for the first time this year. The pieces are protected by a stain that seals them against moisture. Prices compare with those of teak pieces. W I C K E R W O N D E R L A N DFashions come and fashions go, but like lawn parties and Newport beaches, wicker is always in the best of taste.Antique wicker has been the rage for many years, and the plenitude of pieces still around attests to the durability of its natural materials. In fact, though, wicker has become a generic classification that covers all woven furniture made from natural and synthetic materials. The pieces we call wicker are really made of reed, rattan, fiber or any number of other materials (in the early 1920s, even twisted paper came into popular use, with the Lloyd Loom chairs). Rattan is the most common material. Vine-like, young rattan shoots are woven over hardwood frames to produce the look we recognize as wicker. Older rattan is stronger and doesn't need to be woven.A little weather can be good for wicker. In fact, dousing it with water is the prescribed way to remove dust and dirt and to ensure continued flexibility (don't try this with "wicker" made of twisted paper, however). Nonetheless, wicker lives longest when it spends most of its day indoors or in a protected area such as a porch.The good news is that now there is a new honest-to-goodness all-weather wicker. Lloyd/Flanders has come out with a copy of the Lloyd Loom twisted-paper "wicker," weaving a composition fiber with stainless steel over an aluminum frame. A plastic-like finish, offered in a rainbow of colors, protects the fiber, and Lloyd/Flanders says that the pieces can withstand 15 to 20 years of outdoor use and still look good.Bamel's, Bloomingdale's and Dalton- Brody, a Northwest Washington gift shop, carry Lloyd/Flanders all-weather pieces. Expect to pay about $340 for a dining chair, more for armchairs and rockers. Conran's offers a weatherproof version of the Lloyd Loom-type wicker as well. Though these seats are made of woven paper, frames are updated with aluminum, and steel rods are used in the construction. An armchair is about $300. Caribbean Designs in Alexandria carries its own all-weather wicker made of plastic on an aluminum frame. An armchair costs about $249.Now that you know the territory a bit better, you can decide how big a check you want to write this spring. And once you've written it, you can sit back and relax this summer.Kathy Legg is on the staff of the Home section of The Washington Post.

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