Traditionally garden furniture has been a mere sideshow to the garden itself. Although Victorian walled gardens might have featured the odd stone bench, their only function was to provide a place to sit and admire the plants. If tea was taken outdoors, it was usually on a table that was carried outside and then swiftly taken away.
But attitudes have changed over the past 50 years. Nowadays people expect their garden to fulfill a range of different functions and furniture has evolved to meet this need. Deck chairs have been replaced by plush outdoor sofas and picnic rugs can now be swapped for soft outdoor carpets. People can even sit outside, reading late into the evening, under the light of a freestanding lamp – weather permitting, of course.
“Gardens and patios are becoming the new room of the house,” says Simon Chaplin, managing director and owner of Chaplins, a company that sells high-end furniture. “Large furniture houses are developing new outdoor ranges to complement their indoor collections,” driven in part, he says, by the quality of outdoor furniture used in top hotels around the world.
Most of this new furniture is design-led and, true to this “new room” concept, some of it is barely distinguishable from items we might expect to see inside our homes. For example, Cassina’s latest outdoor collection – which features famous designs by Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand – or Missoni Home’s outdoor table poufs and bright-patterned cushions, work just as well inside as out.
More and more furniture is being designed to meet the brief of an outdoor living room, with companies focusing on comfort and good quality upholstery. Now people can spend time in what Chaplin describes as “high-tech pergolas”, outdoor shelters, some of which cost tens of thousands of pounds. Options include Gandia Blasco’s Cristal Box, a transparent cube with a floor made from plant and plastic fibres, a material that supposedly requires little or no maintenance, or Dedon’s City Camp, an outdoor daybed with a roof and curtains that could even be used to put up guests. This is outdoor comfort taken to new levels.
“There is no reason why we should lack the great comfort and aesthetics we know from the indoors in outdoor areas,” says Nicola Rapetti, design director of German outdoor furniture company Dedon.
Both Chaplin and Rapetti say that comfort and durability are of the utmost importance to customers when it comes to garden furniture and advances in technology have made both of these qualities easier to achieve. Dedon uses a special fibre that is weatherproof and environmentally friendly to create outdoor fabrics that mimic those inside our homes, from tweed to silk – and will soon expand into leather. Chaplin adds that many companies are using innovative technology to get the most out of garden furniture. “Cheap rattan or painted metals are replaced by more technologically advanced and durable materials like synthetic fibre and technical foam and fabrics,” he says. “With the development of synthetic fibres, new sun and weather-resistant material, and new moulding techniques, the possibilities are almost endless.”
Lighting specialist Flos has collaborated with Dedon to produce an outdoor standing lamp as well as an adjustable floor lamp, the “Superarchimoon”, both designed by Philippe Starck. “You don’t tend to see freestanding lights used in an exterior location,” says Ulysse Dormoy, managing director of Flos’s UK distributor Atrium, “and that is what is nice about it. You are bringing localised light to an area that would not necessarily have it.”
While it is easy to imagine Missoni’s bright colours blending into the Tuscan countryside or to visualise a Starck lamp poolside in Miami, will these new designs suit a more traditional garden? Thomas Hoblyn, a British landscape and garden designer, says some of the contemporary furniture has become “too designed. In a traditional English garden, you want furniture that is harmonious with the surroundings. A bright sofa could just wreck a whole scheme so easily.”
Hoblyn says that attitudes to how we use furniture in a garden setting have changed considerably over the past hundred years: “From the 1850s up to the first world war, your garden was a thing to be viewed,” he says. “The interaction was not like it is now where it is an extension of the house. You didn’t want man-made stuff to ruin the view.”
Although Hoblyn leans towards neutral colours for furniture, he says that introducing bolder colours can work, so long as they do not look unnatural in their environment: “We’ve used furniture by Belgian company Domani in the past, which makes beautiful, brightly coloured pieces. If you can associate the colour with the landscape, I think that is half the battle.”
With much of the latest outdoor furniture being just as expensive as high-end indoor furniture, will people be prepared to invest in pieces and lighting that will only be used for a fraction of the year? Dormoy believes that for those who care about having a well-furnished home, keeping a beautifully furnished garden is equally important: “If you have a nicely designed home, the last thing you want to do is let it down by having poor design outside.”