Choosing outdoor furniture used to be a simple thing. A couple of rockers for the porch, a picnic table for the back yard, some folding lawn chairs, and you were done.
But that was when a yard was just a yard.
Now, yards, patios, terraces and decks are essential extensions of our homes -- places to retreat and relax, to play and entertain. And, increasingly, we're furnishing them in high style.
"People are decorating their outdoors like they decorate their indoors," said Audrey Solomon, manager of the 4 Seasons Fireplace & Patio store in Blue Bell, Pa., where the big sellers include outdoor area rugs and lamps, dining tables that can seat eight or more, and furniture groupings in teak, powder-coated aluminum or synthetic wicker that feature thickly cushioned "deep seating."
The American Home Furnishings Alliance says sales of outdoor furniture have more than doubled in the past decade, reaching an estimated $2.3 billion in 2003.
It's an easy sell, said Carol Christensen, patio director for Waterloo Gardens in Devon, Pa.
"People don't have enough leisure time, and they want to make sure that when they do get outside, the setting is something they can really be comfortable in."
Big right now at Waterloo Gardens is the "chat group," typically a 42-inch round cocktail table surrounded by club chairs, in teak or aluminum, with ample cushions.
"Maybe they'll get an ottoman, too, so they can put up their feet," Christensen said. "They want a really nice area they can invite friends to have a drink or a convenient place to play games with the family."
Waterloo customer Kelly Molitor was looking to raise the comfort level when she decided to replace the tired-looking steel-frame sling furniture that used to sit outside her home. Now, teak steamer chairs with bright melon cushions line up beside the pool under celadon green umbrellas.
For her arbor-roofed patio, Molitor chose a teak and synthetic-wicker dining set with more of the melon cushions. A teak serving cart, an elegant area rug, and a standing lamp make the space look as polished as any dining room.
"We have three kids, and we open the pool in May and keep it open into the fall," Molitor said. "We're just out here all the time. Even when we don't have company, we eat outside almost every day."
People are looking for ways to extend the use of their outdoor spaces, said Linda Moran, patio-furniture buyer for Hill Co. in Chestnut Hill, Pa. They're buying more and bigger umbrellas to provide shade, or installing retractable awnings.
For cooler nights, they're buying fire pits, chimineas and free-standing fireplaces, said Moran, who teaches a workshop on outdoor decorating at Temple University's Center City campus.
But new or improved products are giving the biggest boost to sales, by making those outdoor looks possible, she said.
Now there are outdoor rugs, for example, that you can clean with a hose; they work beautifully to define a seating area or disguise a slab of concrete. They just didn't exist a few years ago, Moran said. Neither did lamps that can sit out in the rain.
Outdoor fabric has come a long way, she said. Now available in an infinite variety of colors and prints, it can resemble anything from chintz to velvet, and won't fade in the sun or mildew in the damp.
Then there is the new synthetic wicker developed over the past four years, generally woven with stainless-steel wires coated with resin and polyester and mounted on aluminum frames. It looks like the real thing yet can sit outside year-round. "We're selling so much it's unbelievable," Moran said.
Also driving the outdoor-buying binge are simple demographics.
A 2003 survey by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard found the median age of first-time home-buyers was 31, five years younger than it was a decade earlier. These youthful home-owners take a different approach to furnishings.
"We see younger people with a new house and a mortgage bigger than Texas. They don't have anything in the living room or dining room, but the first thing they do is buy furniture for the patio," said Waterloo Gardens' Christensen. "They want a place to have their friends over. For formal dinners, they go to their parents' [house]."
Young families also are increasingly focused on exteriors, said decorator Eric Rymshaw, a partner in Fury Design, whose projects include a dining pavilion at a house that will include vintage cast-iron furniture and an outdoor kitchen.
"A lot of people who have children don't go to restaurants," Rymshaw said. "They have these big gatherings at their homes that are a more sophisticated version of the backyard barbecue."
And then there's a whole older generation looking for more from their back yards.
Architect David Amburn's firm, Amburn-Jarosinski, recently redesigned a back yard to include a fountain, a fireplace, and a custom dining table and banquette made from steel and durable masaranduba, an African wood.
"The clients own a beach house, and they were looking to bring more of that indoor/outdoor feeling to this one," said Amburn, who added some classic black wire Bertoia chairs as a sculptural element. "They wanted it to be multifunctional. They wanted a place for lounging, for eating, and a nice place to look at when the weather is not so good."
Young or old, more homeowners are doing their research, retailers say, and they are increasingly willing to pay the prices top-quality outdoor furniture commands.
A well-designed powder-coated aluminum dining set for six can start at about $2,500 (optional cushions, at least $60 each) and run as high as $3,900 for a Woodard Landgrave set.
A single teak and synthetic-wicker lounge chair from Gloster retails for $1,300 at Waterloo Gardens. And Barlow Tyrie, a venerable English maker of teak furniture, has found a best-seller in its 73-inch round teak table for eight that comes with eight chairs, a lazy Susan and an umbrella. The set costs more than $10,000.
"Even people who have purchased in the past what you might call disposable outdoor furniture are buying now for the long haul, and they're buying quality," Christensen said. "People are making real investments."
That's how Robert Dennenberg of Philadelphia, sees the 16 pieces from the Richard Schultz collection he recently bought from contemporary-furnishings store OLC. Coveted by modern-design connoisseurs, a single lounge chair in the line can run more than $800.
"I like to look at nice things," said Dennenberg, who chose the pieces with his wife, Anneliese, for their penthouse terrace. "And Schultz's furniture is the best-made stuff around. It's lifetime furniture."