After World War II, fiberglass, aluminum, and nylon became an important part of the designer's palette. These materials contributed to one of the most remarkable characteristics of good modern design—multi-functionality. In earlier years, it had been all but unthinkable to take the dining room chairs outside; but in postwar California, it was not only possible, it was encouraged.
Some classic mid-century designs are as appropriate poolside as they are in the living room. Industrial designer Charles Eames' fiberglass shell chairs and sculptor/designer Harry Bertoia's wire-mesh chairs and stools are two examples of seating that can move easily from indoors to the patio. The Umbra company's Oh chair, designed by Karim Rashid, is an inexpensive contemporary design that can also make this transition.
Mike Stephenson, founder of Vessel USA Architectural Pottery, the San Diego-based company that produces the classic Architectural Pottery line of indoor and outdoor pottery, agrees that good design can often work as well on the patio as well as in the living room. "Being from California, it just seems natural to me that things should work as well outside as in," says Stephenson. "Because our pieces are very refined and linear, they work well indoors. But they also look great outside, where the geometric lines make for a nice contrast with the organic forms of plants."
Since the mid-century, imaginative designers have dreamed up a dizzying array of furnishings and accessories for the garden and patio, including rolling drink carts, sunshades, floating pool snack caddies, and more recently outdoor heaters and even air conditioners. But it is basic items such as tables and chairs that are the mainstay of the well-furnished garden.
Of all accessories for the garden, a sturdy and stylish table and chairs are among the most important pieces to consider. Dining outdoors is one of life's great pleasures, and beautiful and functional furniture can make the experience even better. Once again, some thought needs to be given to the number of people that need to be accommodated and the space in the garden that is available for dinner parties.
Square or rectangular tables respond well to spaces that are closely related to the house, such as atriums or alcoves. Round or oval tables are more suitable for irregular spaces and can seat odd numbers of people more graciously. Fortunately, there is a myriad of both vintage and contemporary designs that respond to most situations and satisfy almost any taste. Built-in tables and bar-height counters are other options for casual dining and entertaining in the modern garden. Pieces such as these provide a focal point for garden furniture and can help create circulation paths through the garden by pointing to fixed destinations.
When selecting chairs for a patio dining set, it is important to remember that these pieces will be the most mobile furniture in the garden. Beyond stylish good looks, the ideal patio dining chair also needs to be light enough to be moved easily and include a handle or some means to transport it without causing strain. The surface of the outdoor dining area should also be considered. Chairs with small feet that stand efficiently on concrete or terrazzo may sink awkwardly into a gravel surface, while seating with pedestal or runner-style supports may function on the same footing with considerable elegance.
Lounge chairs and chaises provide a comfortable place to relax and spend longer periods in the garden. When considering lounge-style seating for the garden, keep in mind that these pieces should be comfortable enough for longer periods of lounging. Deep upholstery and adjustable backs and footrests allow for naps or sun bathing for hours at a time. Pieces that have some degree of mobility can be shifted to follow the sun and shade patterns in the garden. Low occasional and accent tables complement lounge seating, add a degree of sophistication, and provide a critically important place to set a cold drink and reading material.