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Article updated: 5/25/2012 4:46 PM

Outdoor furniture making patios look more like family rooms

By Deborah Donovan

After checking out all the options available from patios to grills for building backyard retreats, it comes as no surprise that furniture comes in wide varieties, too.

Whether your backyard enjoys a full kitchen and space for an outdoor family room or is only large enough for a cozy sitting area, you will find many choices when it's time to shop for furniture.

You might need just the right dining set -- or sets. But furniture that enhances relaxation -- called deep seating -- is what homeowners want today, said Dan Mayer, an owner of Northwest Metalcraft in Arlington Heights.

Yes, we're talking family-room style furniture from club chairs to sofas and even sectionals. But there is one big difference, of course, between this and what you use indoors -- the materials.

While you want to relax, your outdoor furniture really can't because it has to stand up to all the ravages of our Midwest climate from rain to sun and back again through temperature changes and occasional hail. Also, the last thing you need when it's time to relax is furniture that needs pampering.

This calls for frames of metal, wood or plastic. The seats might be quickly drying woven material. And if they wear comfy cushions, the fabrics must be sturdy outdoor types such as Sunbrella or Crypton.

Mayer says many of his customers want to furnish a lounge area.

"Everybody's taking the inside out," said the man whose store carries about 20 different brands of furniture in many price ranges.

Pat O'Donnell, owner of Hearth & Home in Mount Prospect, explains that when guests sit comfortably around a fire pit with an outer rim for setting drinks or plates or maybe around a shorter, conversation-height table, it's a great way to entertain casually.

People are staying outside more, he said; it's no longer the scenario where "the family sat around the table and ate dinner then went back inside the house.

"It is far more comfortable to sit in a conversational group with deep-seating, comfy spring chairs and maybe around a gas or wood fire pit. This type of entertaining is a much more intimate and casual experience in contrast to the typical dining set."

But families with large enough patios might enjoy both, O'Donnell said.

Sling furniture -- woven water-shedding material suspended on a frame -- is very popular with both Mayer's and O'Donnell's customers. Today this furniture is even available with padded slings for better comfort.

At Viking Ski & Patio in Barrington, Manager Steve Olson agrees that his customers often choose the slings.

"You're still getting the soft seating, but don't have to deal with cushions, and they dry a lot faster," Olson said.

While Northwest Metalcraft has more than 100 displays, Mayer still has a soft spot for the traditional Adirondack chairs, cheering on Seaside Casual Furniture for making them in many colors. The company says the chairs look like wood but are really made from recycled plastic.

If you are going to spend more time outdoors, don't forget some form of shading, such as an umbrella or awning.

"The 9-foot market umbrella with the collar tilt mechanism is still our tried-and-true umbrella used with dining sets," said O'Donnell. "However, with the casual conversation groups, the cantilever umbrella puts the base off to the side of the group and allows for the free-hanging position of the umbrella over the group without the mechanism in the middle of everyone.

"Another very popular option is the use of retractable awnings. Think of the old-fashioned storefronts where the storekeeper would crank the awning in and out on a daily basis for shade. Nowadays they are sold fully motorized with remote controls and wind sensors. I love ours."

You will be seeing furniture in primary colors this summer, Mayer said, but most homeowners still choose earthtones and browns.

Customers at Viking Ski & Patio put a priority on convenience and ease of maintenance, Olson said.

Tables and chairs are often counter or gathering height, which is taller than regular dining height, making the chairs easier to slide into, he said. That height table is also easier to serve because it requires less bending over, according to one online report.

And the frames on the seating are often cast or extruded aluminum for low maintenance, Olson said, while vinyl wicker also offers that advantage.

Another low-maintenance option can be a South American wood called ipe, if you don't mind the rich brown color turning gray, Olson said. Preserving the natural color requires coating it every year, he said.

Ipe is considered a sustainable wood, and O'Donnell says many people are looking for "green" products. One of his favorite brands for this is Berlin Gardens.

"Available in several real wood colors as well as many fun and fashionable colors, this company has an entire outdoor lineup sure to please anyone. Their pieces are made entirely with recycled plastics and stainless steel hardware. They are heavy, durable, comfortable, easy to maintain and stylish too. Their Adirondack chairs sell themselves," O'Donnell said.

One thing that Northwest Metalcraft does not carry is fully upholstered furniture. This new trend on the scene really does look like something out of a contemporary family room.

"It's all changing," Mayer said. "A lot of the companies are trying to push upholstered furniture. I haven't bought any of that. In the Midwest we're more traditional than that."

Beginning May 6, through June 3, the Daily Herald is publishing finalists in our Get Your Summer On backyard makeover contest. Two winners will be chosen and they will receive prize packages valued at about $15,000. Winners will be featured in Home & Garden on June 10. To see more backyard makeover ideas, special Web page at www.dailyherald.com/entlife/homegarden/summer.

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