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Hearth & Home May 2016

A Touch of Class

By Tom Lassiter

Adding a bit of wood to other frame materials can take a collection into the upscale realm.

Casual furniture retailer Randy Renyer understands what his wood furniture customers are looking for. Randy and his wife, Sharon, have operated a large store in a small Missouri town for a dozen years.

“Most of our customers,” he says, “are second and third homeowners. What we’ve seen through the years is that customers like ‘that unique look.’”

“That  unique look,” of course, means fashion-forward furniture – designs that are trendsetting, though not necessarily trendy. Lines and profiles and looks that stand apart from run-of-the-mill furniture products that pile up every spring at Big Box stores.

Randy Renyer, owner, Outdoor Rooms by Design, Kimberling City, Missouri.

Renyer’s store, Outdoor Rooms by Design, provides “that unique look” in wood with teak by Gloster Furniture and Lloyd Flanders, which in recent seasons added teak to its product mix. 

Renyer’s discerning customers live in and around Kimberling City. The town sits on a peninsula jutting into Table Rock Lake and anchors a resort area in the Ozark Mountains, west of Branson, Missouri’s famous entertainment destination.

Outdoor Rooms by Design has a 20,000 sq. ft. showroom. Kimberling City has 2,400 people.

“The wood customers like Gloster,” Renyer says. In his opinion, Gloster offers “the nicest teak on the market.”

Other makers of high-end teak casual furniture might argue that point, and rightly so. The industry in North America supports an array of leading teak furniture brands. Some, such as Gloster, are international companies with European ownership. Barlow Tyrie also falls into that category. Royal Botania, which recently made its presence known at United States trade shows, is a Belgian firm.

Other brands, such as Kingsley-Bate, are based in the United States. All manufacture in Asia and obtain their premium hardwood raw material from sources that responsibly manage forest resources. Annual supplies are regulated, and the demand for top-quality teak keeps an upward pressure on prices.

Jensen Leisure Furniture uses ipé and roblé, South American hardwoods from managed forests, for its handsome wood furniture. The brand’s striking designs have garnered industry honors and increasing representation in retailer showrooms in recent years.

Split/Sway – teak and sling – dining from Gloster.

What these manufacturers share, regardless of which species of wood they employ, is the never-ending pursuit of “that unique look.”

Charles Hessler, executive vice president for Barlow Tyrie, sums it up this way. “You can’t keep making heavy teak chairs from the 1920s for the rest of your life,” he says.

Depending on tried-and-true classic designs presents two dilemmas for a furniture maker. The most obvious is that producing the same-old, same-old eventually bores everyone, including customers. The up-and-coming generation doesn’t want, and never has wanted, the same outdoor lifestyle products as their parents.

The second dilemma is knock-offs and competition. When the market is replete with products that look pretty much alike, the allure of premium-priced, top-quality goods is diminished.

The teak category saw this happen in the 1990s, when inexpensive teak furniture flooded the North American market. In some cases the furniture used inferior timber and didn’t look all that good. But the fact that it was teak at a lower price clouded buyers’ judgment and, for a time, there was a glut of teak on retail floors.

The market eventually corrected itself, and the leading teak manufacturers reestablished their dominance. Since the turn of the century, casual furniture makers that built their reputations in other categories have added teak products to their lineups. Summer Classics, in addition to Lloyd Flanders, are two that come to mind.

Bali White Label – teak – from Summer Classics.
Equinox – teak and stainless steel – from Barlow Tyrie.

All of the companies named understand the interplay of quality and fashion in creating a product mix that appeals to high-end consumers, whether they are Millennials or Baby Boomers. To retain perceived marketplace value and protect the hard-earned cachet of a leading brand, designs must continually be fresh.

Sometimes fresh designs are so groundbreaking that they become an enduring product line. Barlow Tyrie’s Equinox range was introduced around the turn of the century. Equinox’s then-radical look added teak accents to stainless-steel frames executed in contemporary style.

“My customers at the time were gobsmacked, as the British say,” Hessler recalls. “They said, ‘We can’t sell that!’”

How wrong they were. The Equinox range has remained strong for well over a decade. The line has expanded and diversified to include seating featuring Textilene-brand sling.

Additional manufacturers over the years also discovered that blending wood with other outdoor furniture materials has a way of making everything look fresh.

The wood retains its character but contrasts smartly with stainless steel or bright, extruded aluminum. Teak, as well as other woods, warms the elemental coolness of metal furniture. The addition of performance fabrics adds yet another dimension of color, texture and contrast.

Equinox remains an important range for Barlow Tyrie. “It has legs that just won’t give up,” Hessler says.

Lloyd Flanders first introduced teak accessories to accent its woven groups. “We believe there is a real synergy between the look of woven and teak,” says Dudley Flanders, president. “The two materials just seem to complement one another.”

Mike Hartley, owner, The Patio Shop in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Photo: ©2016 Nic Powell Beacon Imagery.

Lloyd Flanders’ first teak products were side tables. Teak and wicker chairs followed, then teak tabletops for its Mackinac collection. “Teak is growing,” Flanders says. “We don’t dominate the category, but it is important to us. We are continuing to broaden its use.”

Expect to see new introductions incorporating teak at the Preview Show in July and at Casual Market Chicago in September, Flanders says.

With last fall’s introduction of a group called Coral, Jensen Leisure proved that a beautifully designed woven group can have visual synergy with a wood other than teak. In this case, that wood is ipé. 

Coral proved to be a hit with buyers, says Janet Wansor, vice president of Sales and Marketing for Jensen Leisure. The collection gets credit for the company’s continuing growth, says president Hlodver Olafsson. “We are very happy with what’s happening,” he says.

The Patio Shop in Chattanooga is in its third season as a Jensen Leisure dealer. The store’s 11,000 sq. ft. showroom is complemented with another 20,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space outside. While the store offers teak by Kingsley-Bate and Gloster, manager-buyer Mike Hartley says Jensen Leisure’s ipé currently is more popular.

“I think it’s because of that warm, rich, brown color,” he says. “And they have unique things,” such as a 53-in. square table with bench seating. Another popular Jensen Leisure product is a wooden bar stool that swivels. The swivel, Hartley says, “is very important. Plus, it’s very comfortable.” 

Kingsley-Bate has long been an innovator in mixing materials. Founded as a teak company, Kingsley-Bate more recently has expanded into the woven category. But, says president Clay Kingsley, “wood is very good, very steady.

“We try to do things that combine materials to give new products a unique look,” he says. “We try to keep things fresh.”

Teak’s current prominence in the home furnishings market, especially reclaimed teak, led NorthCape to enter the teak category. NorthCape offers products made from reclaimed (recycled) timber as well as furniture made from virgin teak.

NorthCape’s teak products debuted last year. “Reclaimed did a little better than we expected,” says NorthCape president Tom Murray. The reclaimed wood saw previous use in structures throughout Asia. As those buildings are pulled down, the wood is recycled and reenters the marketplace, often becoming furniture.

Reclaimed wood, Murray says, “is all over the magazines. It’s definitely got traction in the marketplace.”

The company expected virgin teak accessory items, such as smaller tables, to have the most consumer acceptance. Murray says he was surprised that was not the case. A traditional dining table, with extensions, “was the biggest driver with the virgin teak.”

He thinks that NorthCape’s experience with teak, albeit limited, portends bigger things to come. He’s also observing the role teak plays in the catalogs of trendsetting companies such as Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn.

“At the higher end, wood is clearly making a comeback,” he says. He suspects the high-end catalog brands are sensing (or pushing) a trend more than most specialty retailers. “I expect teak to be a strong growth area,” Murray says.

Sunset West is another newcomer to teak this year. The company launched a line of teak dining and occasional tables with a weathered driftwood finish after Casual Market Chicago 2015. 

“We wanted to give our customers the ability to add different textures,” says CEO Wes Stewart. With teak, Sunset West can offer its customers alternatives to the “matchy-matchy” look.

Customers who prefer solid wood casual furniture always will be outnumbered by those who opt for aluminum or stainless steel or cast aluminum or woven or plastic. But many of those non-wood customers, as it turns out, enjoy seeing a bit of natural wood grain to accent their Outdoor Room décor.

Think of it as the wood trim in a luxury automobile. The wood adds unmistakable class and ambiance.

Gloster Furniture understands this as well as any manufacturer. The addition of wooden arms to a metal chair, or as a slatted teak top to a metal table, gets wood into the Outdoor Room in a subtle way.

Combining wood with other materials (sometimes called mixed media) will get more emphasis from Gloster in the coming years, says Eric Parsons, president of Gloster America. This design strategy, he says, “will broaden the market for us.”

Teak and woven dining chairs paired with a Bistro table from Lloyd Flanders.

It’s a challenge for a retailer to convert a shopper “who doesn’t think of themself as a wood buyer” into buying a teak set, Parsons says. But if teak is a component of the set, an accent, “it’s much easier to get them to move,” he says.

“There are varying levels of attraction to wood,” he explains. “But if you offer metal and wood, you are broadening who you can speak to.”

Gloster for this season discontinued most of its brushed stainless-steel frames, opting instead to powder-coat them in white or meteor (a dark gray). Expect to see more powder-coated groups introduced in Chicago.

A Gloster modular sofa called Grid features powder-coated aluminum frames and waterproof cushions. Table tops and extensions have surfaces made of narrow teak planking. Grid won a prestigious Red Dot Award, which recognizes excellence in design in many categories, when it was introduced in Europe last year.

Gloster’s sales last year were up about 20 percent, Parsons says. Going forward, the company will continue to balance its heritage as a teak manufacturer with the interests of an always-changing consumer.

“The pure wood category is still very healthy,” Parsons says. “But as we look longer term, we want to make sure that as tastes change, we are changing with them.”

Coral collection – woven and ipé – from Jensen Leisure.

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