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Hearth & Home May 2014

Chesapeake teak dining set from Barlow Tyrie.

Still in Style

By Tom Lassiter

There’s something about teak that appeals to generation after generation through the decades.

No outdoor furniture material is more traditional than teak. Yet, perhaps no casual furniture category is bolder, more on the cutting edge of design, than teak.

A contradiction? No.

Lutyens bench from Kingsley-Bate.

Teak occupies a unique position in the casual furniture spectrum. A design for an English garden bench that first appeared nearly a century ago remains a staple in the industry. Companies that make a version of the beloved Lutyens bench, designed by the British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, also regularly produce ultra-contemporary furniture.

There’s demand for both, and teak manufacturers satisfy the market by catering to traditionalists as well as modernists. It’s like Ford continuing to make the classic Model T along with the 2014 Fusion Hybrid.

Diversification into other types of materials adds another layer of complexity to the teak business. Barlow Tyrie, Gloster Furniture and Kingsley-Bate began as teak furniture companies; teak remains the primary category for each. Yet each now produces groups (or ranges, as the British prefer to say) using materials other than teak. Teak may appear as an accent element or not at all.

Catalogs from the leading teak companies now include furniture made of stainless-steel and faux leather, resin wicker, and powder-coated aluminum.

What prompted such rich product diversification?

Teak is a sustainable natural resource with a finite legal supply available in any given year. Did limited supplies of the Southeast Asian hardwood encourage manufacturers to seek out new categories?

Perhaps the market lost some of its appetite for solid teak furniture. Furniture is fashion, and all styles and materials enjoy periods of peak popularity while, at other times, interest subsides.

Perhaps the teak manufacturers experienced other forces at work, internally, prompting an exploration of other categories. Maybe the expansion into metal and resin wicker was simply evolutionary.

Interviews with executives at the Big Three teak furniture companies indicate that the product mixes they offer today reflect all of those influences. Although details of the evolution vary from company to company, all have arrived at a similar juncture of rich product diversity.

First and foremost, let’s remember that despite periodic ups and downs, there’s an enduring demand for teak. Teak has fans in every region, but the sweet spot in the U.S. market is on the East Coast, extending from Virginia north to the Canadian border.

Horizon dining from Westminster Teak.

“Teak is awesome,” says Karl Smith, manager of Arrowhead Furniture on the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts. “It’s the thing to have here. It’s a huge part of our business.”

Durable teak furniture “works so well in our environment,” he says. “For the island, teak is a staple.”

But even staid New England traditionalists can be swayed by something new. Sag Harbor, a resin wicker group by Kingsley-Bate, “took the market by storm,” Smith says. “It really put a dent in some of our SKUs for teak.”

Kingsley-Bate introduced its first non-teak product, a sling group, about a decade ago. Some stainless-steel designs were launched about the same time, says president Clay Kingsley. Woven furniture, produced in Indonesia at a plant near its teak facility, came later.

Prices for teak timber, which is managed in Indonesia by a government-controlled monopoly, were one motivation for exploring new categories. Kingsley calls solid teak a luxury. “Getting and using all teak is expensive,” he says.

Paris dining from Kingsley-Bate.

All the major teak companies have found that mixing teak with other materials, such as stainless steel or aluminum, trims costs substantially while retaining the hardwood’s allure. Teak tempers the cool mood of metal with the warmth of wood. Tradition melds with contemporary, creating new design and market opportunities.

Another motivator to explore different materials involves “making new things,” Kingsley says. “When you make enough teak benches, they all start looking a little bit the same. When you want to expand aesthetically, using new materials is a way of doing it.”

The impetus for product diversity at Barlow Tyrie came as a new, younger generation began to assimilate into the family-owned business.

Virage, a powder-coated, aluminum-frame side chair with teak seat and back, was the first breakaway product. The designer of Virage – French for “turn in the road” – was Mark Tyrie. It was his first project for the company after attending design school.

Virage, introduced in 2004, was followed by ranges blending stainless-steel and teak, and later by woven wicker furniture. Consumer demand for woven casual furniture helped push Barlow Tyrie into that market, says executive vice president Charles Hessler. Competitors were branching out left and right, expanding beyond their traditional materials and categories. Hessler says Barlow Tyrie felt compelled to join the fray and not leave “dollars on the table.”

Barlow Tyrie, which traces its history back to 1920, values tradition, Hessler notes. The company, now a three-generation family business, will not abandon a historically important niche market just because it does not support container-load purchases in this volume-driven world.

“We’re not going to stop making something” when demand declines a bit, he says. “We’re just not going to make as many of them.”

Products can continue to evolve while a company remains true to the past, Hessler says. This year saw the expansion of a Barlow Tyrie range that has no teak whatsoever; the company also introduced a traditionally styled solid teak range.

Vermont from Gloster Furniture.

Market forces at the turn of the century pushed Gloster Furniture to explore new categories, says Gloster America president Eric Parsons.

“In the late 1990s, teak went out of fashion,” he says, “and the market was flooded with inexpensive teak.”

That fashion transformation first took place in Europe, where “stainless-steel became the new teak. We started getting into woven, stainless-steel and aluminum. But they almost always included teak elements.

“Teak is our heritage,” Parsons explains. “That’s how we got into the business.”

Now, with a mission to be “the leading international brand of outdoor furniture,” Gloster balances the tastes of Europe and North America with the challenges of national and regional economies in a global market.

Teak-framed furniture accounts for about 45 percent of Gloster’s business, Parsons says; that means “more than 50 percent of what we sell is non-teak. As we continue to grow as a company, that percentage stays about the same, which says there is still a market for teak.”

In some markets, teak is a category that better specialty merchants are expected to offer, but it usually isn’t the sales leader. The contrary is true at Abaca Imports in Alexandria, Virginia.

Teak is not just the leading category of casual furniture at Abaca Imports, which also carries interior furnishings. Teak is the retailer’s only type of outdoor furniture.

The company launched 12 years ago, concentrating on indoor furniture. “The outdoor teak was kind of an afterthought,” says owner Jim Helwig. Interest in teak casual furniture ironically picked up in 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession. “Now it’s the majority of our business,” he says.

Abaca Imports’ website lists five brands of teak – Barlow Tyrie, Gloster, Kingsley-Bate, Jewels of Java and Les Jardins.

Abaca Imports in Alexandria, Virginia.

“We love wood,” Helwig says. “We’re specialists in teak. We’re just now learning about other materials.”

Abaca Imports sells a lot of teak, he explains, because it stocks a lot of teak. Customers who shop on Thursday can expect delivery in time for a weekend party.

“We try not to confuse people with different types of wood,” he says. “What we do is teak.”

Helwig’s customers buy teak furniture in contemporary designs, transitional looks and traditional styles, including the Lutyens bench. Benches of all types account for about five percent of sales, Helwig says. As with other frame materials, deep seating is the growth area.

Abaca Imports enjoyed its best year in 2013, Helwig says, with teak driving much of the business. “I can’t explain it,” he says. “Teak is a natural for us.”

Maybe Helwig has hit upon the enduring popularity of teak. Whether in solid frame construction or mingled with other materials, teak is a natural for outdoor furniture. As leading teak companies and retailers have discovered, having other categories by the same brand just leads to more sales. Naturally.

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