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Hearth & Home January 2015

Belle Isle from Telescope Casual.

One Hot Product!

By Tom Lassiter

As if plastic furniture isn’t hot enough, now we have plastic fire tables that add real flames to the category.

This outdoor furniture doesn’t peel, chip, crack, warp or splinter. Never needs painting, either. Doesn’t fear relentless sun, salt air or sub-freezing temps. Dares blustery winds to budge it. Is the very definition of care-free.

Best of all, consumers understand the concept. They get it. Which makes the makers of plastic casual furniture quite happy.

“How’s business?” we asked. They answered:

“Up in double digits. About 20 percent.”

“Up about 15 to 20 percent.”

“Above-average growth; 20 percent or more.”

And then there’s Malibu Outdoor Living, which is growing like kudzu at a fertilizer factory.

“We’ve seen substantial growth over the last few years,” said president and CEO Michael DiCenso.

“For example?” we asked.

“For several years, we’ve been over-doubling in size.”

Monterey collection from Malibu Outdoor.

Over-doubling – that means a growth rate of more than 100 percent. Year after year. It’s not unheard of for a startup company, but DiCenso’s company, launched in 2009, is moving from the start-up phase to early adolescence.

Plastic furniture is a hot category, DiCenso said, because it provides what so many consumers want. He was speaking about his own company’s products, but his comments are applicable to virtually any brand of heavy-duty plastic furniture, whether built of extruded plastic lumber or sheets of polymer.

Homeowners, he said, “want this product because it’s maintenance-free, heavy-weight, and comes in a lot of cool colors. The look attracts the consumer. Then it’s the comfort and price after that. And it’s so deep on warranty.”

Impressive warranties are fairly standard throughout the category, he said, regardless of manufacturer. Most plastic furniture manufacturers use the same basic material – high-density polyethylene, or HDPE, which is derived from petroleum. It’s the same material used to form milk jugs, detergent bottles and other packaging materials marked with the familiar recycling symbol and numeral 2.

Palm Coast from POLYWOOD.

Plastic lumber may be formed entirely from recycled material, a mixture of recycled and virgin HDPE, or from 100 percent virgin plastic. And the plastic lumber is itself recyclable when the furniture has outlived its usefulness.

Some makers of plastic furniture, most notably Telescope Casual Furniture, use an enhanced HDPE material called marine-grade polymer (MGP). Manufacturers of MGP say this plastic has additional stabilizers that offer further resistance to salt water, chemicals and damage from the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

Most plastic furniture is built of HDPE extruded in lumber-like dimensions; it can be worked with standard woodworking equipment. MGP differs in that it can be produced in large sheets, much like plywood. Telescope introduced its first MGP products in 2008.

“We wanted to do things a little differently in order to make a place for ourselves in the market,” said Bill Vanderminden, executive vice president.

SYM from Seaside Casual Furniture.

Telescope’s first MGP design, Leeward Sling, remains a strong seller. Sales were up 30 percent in 2014, he said.

Several makers of plastic furniture began by producing Adirondack-style furniture. Once they became established, they began to flex their design muscles and explore looks not derived from basic Adirondack chairs and tables. Seaside Casual Furniture did this with its SYM collection, which features transitional styling, and the Cambridge deep-seating collection.

For 2015, Seaside Casual again looked to its Adirondack heritage to create the MAD collection. Modern Adirondack Design, said vice president of Sales Andy Boyce, “is something a little more edgy” for markets “that aren’t looking for the traditional Adirondack.”

The profile of the MAD chair is a bit lower and sleeker than its stylistic ancestor. It appears to have shed a little weight and some New England stodginess. Boyce hopes this will endear the MAD line to city dwellers and the California market.

The POLYWOOD brand has two new collections. Harbor is a deep-seating collection with “more design quality and features,” said Megan Pierson, director of Sales and Marketing. Harbor launches with five frame colors, while Palm Coast, a shellback chair group, comes in 13 color choices.

Two companies have integrated fire features into their lineup of plastic products for 2015.

Plastic-topped fire pit from Berlin Gardens.

Berlin Gardens offers two fire pits. A plastic-topped model is expected to retail for about $1,000, while a concrete-topped version goes for around $1,200. A plastic fire pit may cause raised eyebrows, but president Sam Yoder says the design was extensively tested.

The gas burner and metal fire bowl are separated from the plastic top by a 3-in. stainless-steel flange, he said.

Telescope brings two chat-height fire tables to its MGP lineup for 2015. One model is 36 by 54 in., while the other is a 54-in. round product. Each features an aluminum frame with an MGP surround, Vanderminden said. An aluminum cover for the burner converts the entire surface into usable space for entertaining. Each fire table will retail for about $1,999.

Telescope’s other MGP introductions include a double chaise (“a real statement piece”) and Belle Isle, described as a “starting-point cushion group. Belle Isle has an aluminum frame featuring MGP arms. Customers may mix and match six MGP arm colors with 11 powder-coat frame colors, Vanderminden said.

Element Square, a Canadian manufacturer of HDPE furniture, offers a console table with a slide-out tray, and a hot tub table with a drawer that conceals towel rods. The hot tub table, which measures about 48-by-15 in., can double as a staging and prep table near the grill.

Oxford Island from Select Outdoor Kitchens.

Plastic’s role in the Outdoor Room goes far beyond seating and decking. Select Outdoor Kitchens builds a line of ready-made cabinets for Kamado Joe and Big Green Egg ceramic grills, as well as other brands. The company also builds custom cabinets. All use King Starboard ST, a brand of marine-quality HDPE.

Company founder Mike Miller said consumer acceptance has been greatest in the South and Southeast, especially in coastal areas where sun, sea and salt take a toll on all but the sturdiest of materials.

In a pattern that parallels the experience of plastic furniture companies, Miller said the Midwest market has been a bit slower to warm to the company’s HDPE outdoor kitchen products, and the West Coast slower still. But he thinks it’s only a matter of time before consumers from coast to coast embrace plastic products for outdoor living.

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