Now in Vogue
By Tom Lassiter
Maybe it’s the leadership of Restoration Hardware, that major influencer of consumer tastes, lists more than 500 outdoor living products as being made with Teak.
Maybe it’s because indoor furnishing trends emphasize mixing and matching materials, and one sure-fire way to soften the impact of stainless steel and aluminum and miles of resin wicker woven fiber in the Outdoor Room is to juxtapose it with fine wood.
Or maybe wood casual furniture is more in vogue now simply because the fashion cycle has pushed it back squarely into the trend spotlight.
In any event, 2019 promises to be a good time for a casual furniture merchant to have several choices available for shoppers in the market for fine wood furniture.
It’s also a good strategy to win over those shoppers who don’t know what they want. Shoppers who don’t have a notion of how stylish and serviceable wood can be often open up to the possibilities when they see the range of choices available in Teak, Ipé, Roblé and other fine wood furniture.
(Modify that last suggestion. When talking about fine wood casual furniture, there’s Teak, Ipé, Roblé, and not much else.)
Wood casual furniture – whether constructed wholly of solid wood or using wood as an accent in a so-called mixed-media product – currently is in vogue. The product category has been trending strongly for the past couple of seasons, manufacturers and retailers say.
“I think it’s going to be a fantastic year,” says Brian Blakeney, vice president of Sales and Marketing for Kingsley Bate, a leading brand of Teak and other types of casual furniture. “We had a very strong early-buy season.”
“There’s a market for Teak,” says Tom Murray, CEO of NorthCape. “That’s a fact in the marketplace right now. People are asking for it more.”
Ashland deep seating by Summer Classics.
Recent sales of Summer Classics’ Teak products are up more than 20%, says Bew White, president. That’s on top of a 40% gain in 2017. White projects more double-digit growth in this coming season.
Consumers like Teak furniture for its natural appearance and its longevity, he says. “I’m a purist,” he says. “It’s my favorite category, by far.”
Durability is a big selling point for Teak furniture. Teak garden furniture first earned its reputation by enduring season after season exposed to the elements. That legendary durability continues to enhance Teak furniture today.
Regal Teak specializes in traditionally-styled outdoor furniture constructed of Grade A plantation-grown Teak. “It’s made to last several decades,” says Elsa Rao, president.
New accounts and early-buys are up for Barlow Tyrie in 2019, says Charles Hessler, executive vice president. Atom, a collection that debuted at Casual Market Chicago last September, “is one of our strongest new Teak introductions in maybe 10 years.”
Teak Adirondacks, chaise lounges, deep seating, and patio dining set from Regal Teak.
Blurring the Lines
The lines have truly blurred between those casual furniture manufacturers that made a name by focusing primarily on Teak, and those that concentrated on other materials to construct outdoor furniture. Now just about everybody is doing just about everything. So-called Teak companies craft furniture from stainless steel and resin wicker and aluminum, and vice versa.
The upshot is that specialty retailers now may choose from a much wider array of furniture makers offering some type of Teak products. Everybody wins. Unlike 20 years ago, when the U.S. market was inundated by Southeast Asian startups pushing Teak furniture of sometimes dubious origin and quality, Teak furniture today is much more reputable and trustworthy. Leading casual furniture companies typically use first-quality timber from sustainable sources.
As a result, Teak and other fine wood furniture usually command prices starting at the middle-upper range and rising to the stratosphere.
“Even cheap Teak isn’t cheap,” says Murray, president of NorthCape International.
NorthCape, a brand most often associated with resin wicker furniture, chose to enter the Teak category with solid wood furniture. “We’re doing focused SKUs that kind of fit our customer model,” Murray says.
Lloyd Flanders introduced its first Teak products about five years ago, first with a few Teak tables and later incorporating Teak components into resin wicker products.
Pairing wood with another material changes the experience. It’s like adding a pocket square to a standard blue business suit. All of a sudden, you’ve got something different.
“Teak gives a warmth that you don’t get from a metal frame,” says Dudley Flanders, president of Lloyd Flanders. “We try to use it to accent our woven product. We’re happy being in the category.”
Live Edge Teak Table from Lloyd Flanders.
Consumers Not Familiar
Most consumers aren’t familiar enough with the category to ask for Ipé, the Bolivian hardwood most prominently featured in much of Jensen Leisure’s catalog. But they certainly respond well to the rich, deep tones of the finish and the smart, transitional styling that characterizes much of Jensen Leisure’s line.
Consumers, says Janet Wansor, vice president of Sales and Marketing, love Ipé. “We’ve introduced Roblé, another good timber, but Ipé is the real star.”
Jensen Leisure came on the scene in 2008, the result of a union between Australia’s Jensen Jarrah and Roda Group of Bolivia. Since then the company has expanded its line season after season and established itself on the front lines of transitional design, positioning itself to take advantage of today’s leading home decorating trend.
Contemporary preferences in furniture design may be stronger than ever, but the masses are most comfortable with transitional looks.
Jensen Leisure introduced a record number of new products for 2019, Wansor says. Designers contributing to the collections reflect the international tastes so prevalent today; they come from the United States, Denmark, and Italy.
Jensen Leisure’s products have earned strong sales as well as respect for design leadership, Wansor says. “It’s beautiful furniture, well crafted,” she says. “We’re very excited to be seen in the same categories as Gloster, Kingsley Bate, and Barlow Tyrie.”
Bar Cart from Gloster.
Jensen Leisure ranks in the top five suppliers for The Fire House Casual Living Store, a four-store retailer in the Carolinas. Among the store’s wood furniture vendors, Jensen Leisure is No. 1, says Jonathan Ogden, general manager. The retailer also offers furniture by Gloster, Kingsley Bate, and others.
Design preferences for natural materials in the Outdoor Room are helping to fuel sales of wood furniture, Ogden says. Natural stone and manmade pavers that mimic the look of stone have replaced concrete for the hardscape in many Outdoor Rooms, he notes. “The natural look of wood tends to fit those better than some other looks,” he says.
Regional tastes continue to influence sales of wooden casual furniture. The Northeast has been a perennially strong region for Teak, for instance. Florida, on the other hand, cares not so much for furniture made from the Asian hardwood.
Doug Shearer, owner of Paine’s Patio in Pocasset, Massachusetts, notes that, “We’ve always done extremely well in the Teak category, the last couple of years have been extremely strong.
“The golden Teak look and feel is what’s going out our door,” Shearer says. The store carries Teak by Kingsley Bate and Gloster. Teak products account for about 25% or more of his outdoor furniture sales.
Pocasset is a waterfront community on Cape Cod with traditional preferences, he says. Customers know what to expect maintenance-wise when they purchase Teak furniture. “At least half are letting it go, letting it gray up and be a more natural tone,” he says.
Frances dining chairs from Kingsley Bate.
Shearer recently added Jensen Leisure to his offerings, and customers are warming up to the look of Ipé. “We have to educate them about what it’s going to look like down the road,” he says.
Jensen Leisure products lead the wood category at Outdoor Elegance Patio Design Center in La Verne, California. The dark, rich tones of Ipé make Jensen Leisure’s furniture “a grand slam home run” for the store’s Southern California customers, says owner Doug Sanicola.
Sanicola points out that Teak is a more difficult sale in his market, which is some 40 miles inland. Teak becomes more popular with Southern California customers the closer one gets to the coastal communities south of Los Angeles.
“I’ll sell Teak to places like Santa Barbara and Newport Beach,” says Sanicola, also a Gloster dealer.
Wood lends itself to the mixed-media look, and Sanicola has items from Jensen Leisure’s Coral Collection in his own home.
The wood and resin wicker Coral Collection, first introduced about three seasons ago, was an instant success with its combination of natural-colored fiber and Ipé. The collection was refreshed for 2019 with a gray fiber option.
“It’s absolutely spectacular looking,” he says of Coral. “When you look at the wood arm, it makes the furniture pop. Put a wood arm on a woven piece, and it makes it 100% better.”
Sanicola especially likes wood furniture for its ability to pair with other materials in a “mix and match” approach. A Teak dining table takes on an entirely different appearance when surrounded by wicker seating. The same goes for a metal or concrete fire pit, encircled by chairs with wooden arms.
Teak tables in the Havana collection from Sunset West.
Mixing and matching dissimilar materials “has become the deal,” Sanicola says. It’s how many products are displayed in the Outdoor Elegance showroom.
Sanicola credits Wes Stewart, CEO of Sunset West, for being a pioneer in the realm of mix and match in the Outdoor Room. Stewart’s philosophy is that outdoor trends mimic indoor styles, where mix and match reigns supreme these days.
He sees Teak becoming increasingly more important to Sunset West’s product lineup, offering “an alternative to the resin wicker coffee table.” The eye appeal and texture of wood contrast with, and enhance the look of, other materials.
“Teak allows us to have a more sophisticated offering,” Stewart says. This will be Sunset West’s fourth season with Teak products.
Mixing and matching wood with other casual furniture products takes a seasoned eye to perfect. It takes practice and a certain level of skill to take products, often from different sources, and bring them together “to make it look like one collection,” Stewart says.
Mixing and matching and getting it right can be hard on specialty furniture buyers and presents inventory challenges for manufacturers such as Sunset West that pursue that strategy, Stewart says.
“But in the end,” he says, “it’s worth it. Because it’s a better solution.”