Vintage pieces provide the appropriate look, but they are becoming increasingly scarce and pricey, and often require attention to make them serviceable. Flea markets, yard sales, internet auctions, and vintage furniture stores are all good sources for period garden furniture.
A critical eye is an asset when evaluating older patio furniture, assuring that the structure of the chair or table is sound. Webbing and upholstery can be replaced with relative ease, and finishes can be restored, but some serious structural defects can render a piece unsalvageable.
New reissues of classic designs are yet another option. They offer the vintage look, and also provide the advantages of new materials and construction. A variety of innovative retailers, including Design Within Reach and Modernica, are offering new versions of many classic mid-century designs. In some cases, these designs are licensed reissues made to the same specifications as the originals.
In 1966, Richard Schultz designed a line of patio furniture for Florence Knoll's seaside home. Intended to resist the corrosive salt air, the cast aluminum construction of these pieces proved to be extraordinarily durable. New pieces from this collection are still available today.
A third option can be found in contemporary designs. Many 21st century pieces are a good match for the mid-century modern garden. Architects Leo Marmol and Ron Radziner, for instance, originally created their bold structural pieces to complement the gardens associated with their original house designs.
"Some of our clients told us that they were having difficultly finding furniture appropriate for the spaces—the right dining room table or chairs, things like that," recalls Radziner. What started as customized projects eventually led to the company's in-house line of furniture.
As with any type of furniture, contemporary patio furnishings are available in a variety of styles and price ranges. The Swedish home furniture giant IKEA provides a constantly changing selection of clever and appealing designs. Sometimes sporting odd-sounding names and made from a wide variety of materials, the playfully modern offerings from this retailer are occasionally available at surprisingly low prices.
It is not likely that most of these pieces will endure as well as a cast-aluminum Knoll chair or bronze piece from Brown Jordan, but they are an affordable way to add great modern style, and perhaps a bit of whimsy, to your garden.
The price tag read $25. It was a vintage modern patio dining set by one of mid-century America's biggest names!
But what was the catch? Well, a quick glance at our recent purchase revealed the obvious—our sad set definitely had seen better days. When spotted at a Berkeley salvage yard, this small-scale iron table and chairs seemed destined for the scrap heap.
A closer look, however, seemed to indicate that with a little work, these forlorn pieces had some potential as an affordable restoration project. The fly swatter-style chair backs identify them as the work of Russell Wright, one of the postwar period's most talented and prolific designers for the home.
Closer inspection also revealed that the table and chair frames were solid and relatively free of rust—thanks to layer upon layer of paint. Although very dirty and rust-stained, the glass top of the table was miraculously unbroken. So, in spite of some skeptical looks from passersby, the set was loaded into the truck.
After a brief stop at a coin-operated car wash for a quick hosing, the chair and table frames were sent off to a metal-refinishing shop where they were bead-blasted down to bare metal. Once clean, the frames were prepared for powder coating, a heat-intensive process that bonds a tough polyester coating to the surface of metal. More durable and longer lasting than paint and available in a wide spectrum of colors, a powder-coated surface is an ideal finish for outdoor furniture.
The cost of a patio-furniture refinishing project can vary widely depending on the size of the pieces, the complexity of their construction, and the number of pieces involved. On average, a patio chair may cost $75-100 each to clean and refinish, a table $100 (for a small one like ours) and up. We also discovered that there are limits to the size of objects for bead blasting and powder coating.
While the frames were being refinished at the shop, the tabletop was washed thoroughly and soaked in CLR, a lime-and-rust-removal product available at most grocery and hardware stores. Though less than perfect, the top now looked clean and attractive. A two-inch-thick layer of latex foam and cotton batting material was stapled to new plywood seats that had been cut for the chairs. The project was finished off with fade- and water-resistant upholstery fabric that was purchased as a remnant from a local fabric store. The design of these chairs made them especially easy to reupholster.