Entertaining Alfresco

 
There’s nothing you can’t cook outside in a lavish outdoor kitchen like this. Center stage: a Kalamazoo Hybrid Fire Grill.

There’s nothing you can’t cook outside in a lavish outdoor kitchen like this. Center stage: a Kalamazoo Hybrid Fire Grill.

A trip to Turks and Caicos a few years back was memorable in many ways, but one thing in particular stands out in my mind: The hours I spent lounging on a round wicker daybed (with canopy) on the pristine beach. The attentive cabana boy serving drinks is a close second.

Since then, I’ve often thought of how nice it would be to have one of those (the lounger, that is) at home.

As the summer season gets under way, fancy daybeds like the one I remember are no longer for resorts only; I saw several at the Architectural Digest Home Design Show in New York earlier this spring. Truth be told, I still can’t afford such an extravagance, but it’s nice to know where to find one.

In fact, the sale of luxury loungers for use at home is way up—especially among homeowners whose vacation memories won’t fade, says Matthew Baglietto of Landscaper Outlet, a distributor of outdoor furniture. He carries more than a dozen variations on this theme, including one shaped like a swan. “More and more, we’re seeing people who want to create a vacation atmosphere at home,” he says, “but even more than that, they want custom designs for a custom space and the details you’d find in a well-appointed home.”
 

Outside is the New Inside
Even in New England, where we are often so weather-challenged, the trend toward outdoor entertaining is growing, according to Kurt Wabrek of New En­gland Patio & Hearth. In general, “outdoor spaces are both more popular, and more sophisticated, than ever,” says Wabrek, who, with his wife, Elaine, owns stores in Canton and Wethersfield.

The boom in alfresco entertaining can be attributed at least in part to the lackluster economy, according to Patricia Bowling of the American Home Furnishings Alliance in High Point, N.C.

“With only modest economic improvements, staying home and entertaining at home continue to be important trends,” says Bowling. Not surprisingly, these trends are influencing outdoor furniture design. “As homeowners expand their everyday living space to the out-of-doors, it makes sense they would want to incorporate their favorite indoor furniture styles,” she says—from French Provincial to Mission and mid-century modern.

The Outdoor Great Room Company (whose products are sold at Superior Hearth, Spas & Leisure in Avon) covers the waterfront when it comes to enhancing yard and garden. “We started out carrying 20 products,” says Jessica Hall, who represents the company her father started in 2003. “And now we have more than 200 — everything from grills, fireplaces, pergolas and furniture, to lighting, heating and more. We just saw a market opening up, and never looked back.”
 

Kicking Back
Known for its classic styling since the 1930s, Ethan Allen (headquartered in Danbury, with seven design centers in Connecticut), has gotten on the bandwagon, too, adding to its outdoor offerings with two new collections this season.

“Our customers have always enjoyed bringing outdoor touches, like plants, indoors,” says Christine Alba, the company’s Northeast regional design manager. “Now they’re bringing the comfort and style of the indoors out.”

Made of materials that can withstand the most inclement weather, both lines—Portico and Lakehouse—are designed to mix and match with many styles. And they’re versatile. “The quality is such that they look just as good indoors as they do on the patio,” says Alba.

At the end of the day, outdoor furniture is about durability, says Alba. “It has to stand the test of time, so we use materials that are weatherproof, whether aluminum or polyethylene, a synthetic resin with the look of natural wicker. The nice thing about polyethylene is that it mimics natural grasses, but can be made with different finishes, all durable enough to survive fading, warping and mildew.”

Seasons Too covers the waterfront when it comes to patio furniture, carrying 14 brands (each offering numerous collections), plus a wide selection of umbrellas and cushions, says Debbie Schneider, who handles sales and buys giftware for the Darien showroom. “Teak is popular as always, as is cast aluminum, which is heavier and more decorative,” says Schneider. The season’s darling is “indoor-outdoor wicker, which is selling well in both modular and deep seating styles,” she says. (Seasons Too is also a great destination for beautiful home accessories and tabletop items.)

When it comes to outdoor furnishings, less isn’t always more. “Where they used to just have a seating area, or dining table, we’re seeing more customers doing several different ‘rooms’ now,” says Wabrek, who carries more than a hundred different collections. The ‘chat group’—a large round table with chairs around it, sometimes with a fire pit in the middle—is very popular. And comfort is a big, big issue.”

Another notable trend: The sheer number of choices—in furniture styles, frames, materials, colors and fabrics. “We’ve never really seen anything like it,” says Wabrek, who has been in the patio-furniture business for more than 30 years.

Even the granddaddy of luxury outdoor furnishings is changing things up a bit this season. For years, the Frontgate catalog carried only heavy, “statement” dining tables and matched sets of poolside loungers that seemed curated strictly for the “one percent.” Its reputation for quality is well deserved. But now there’s something in that drop-dead-gorgeous catalog for everyone, says Frontgate’s Tyler Thompson.

“We do have estate-side clients, no question . . . they’ll always be there,” he allows. “But we’ve managed to design some amazing pieces, using premium materials and craftsmanship, and offered them at the best prices for customers.”

Well, maybe those in the 10 percent. Witness the Cassara teak set featuring loveseat, two chairs and a coffee table for $2,995; and the Baroque-inspired Bella Donatella collection—we especially like the settee made of cast polyurethane at $1,995.

(We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the stunning Italian bistro table made of natural stone and hand-painted in Italy, a higher-end choice at $4,790.)
Frontgate was among the first retailers to suggest that rugs belonged outdoors, and they’re still wowing us with an elegant selection of patterned and printed weaves that will stand up to wind, weather and heavy foot traffic.

Fine furnishings can be yours even if you don’t have a grand, Gatsbyesque backyard that stretches to the sea. More and more, manufacturers are designing for smaller spaces—even urban terraces. A winner: Skyline Design’s Lanna, a woven breakfast set whose two chairs nestle neatly under the table when not in use. Mendocino is a slat-back dining set designed for compact spaces, available at Crate & Barrel (in Westport and West Hartford).

Another gem: the Sea Horse Rocker, part of the Beachfront collection sold at Patio.com (with locations in lower Fairfield County).

If you prefer your furniture green, you’ll love Seaside Casual, which is made of EnviroWood (recycled plastic bottles and containers, permeated with UV stabilized coloring that is consistent throughout). These pieces offer the look of traditional painted wood furniture with virtually no maintenance. Seaside Casual is available at United House Wrecking in Stamford, as well as Walpole Woodworker stores in several Connecticut locations.
 

 

Glorious Food
Never has the tantalizing aroma of outdoor cooking been so hard to resist. Just ask Bryan Stolz, senior designer at Winterberry Garden Center in Southington. Long admired for its 16 acres of landscape inspirations, Winterberry has increasingly become a destination for outdoor kitchens as well.

“People want a well-designed, useful space where they can cook, entertain and relax. They want an extension of the home,” says Stolz. “Ten years ago it was common to hear, ‘Oh, but we can’t do this in Connecticut . . . these spaces only work in California.’ You hardly ever hear that now.”

The designers at Winterberry will work with a client to create an outdoor haven—from hardscape down to the smallest detail. “A lot of people come in because they want an entertaining area for large parties, but some just want an intimate family space. We always start with the lifestyle they’re looking for,” says Stolz. “Today, with advances in outdoor appliances you can really do anything, no matter how much room you have. I’d say the most popular request is just a grill, refrigerator and sink, but we do it all—from pizza ovens to kegerators.”

Stolz will help you choose the stainless steel appliances that work for you, and surfaces that will tie the prep, cooking and dining areas together. If you want to splurge, he’ll help you with that, too. Some of his more elaborate kitchens feature high-end grills, fridges, multiple sinks, dishwashers, warming ovens . . . even fire troughs and flat-screen TVs.

“Let the weather be damned,” says Russ Faulk of Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, producers of what many consider the ultimate outdoor grill. “We’re seeing a lot of growth in the Northeast, as people are choosing to extend the season any way they can.” (Klaff’s in South Norwalk begins carrying Kalamazoo this month.) With the popularity of TV cooking shows (including one starring Chicago chef Rick Bayless, who swears by his Kalamazoo grill), says Faulk, “people are realizing you can cook everything outdoors that you can indoors, often with better results.”

The Kalamazoo Hybrid Fire Grill (models start at $10,000) allows you to cook with any combination of gas, wood or charcoal; its varied grill surfaces are designed to cook meat, fish and vegetables to perfection.

Don’t overlook Viking, no slouch in this area, for a great selection of outdoor appliances, including gas and charcoal grills, smokers, wall ovens, warming drawers, refrigeration units, beverage dispensers and ice machines. Viking products are available at many locations, including Hollandia Garden Center in Bethel, Classic Garden Design in Weston and Mudrick’s in Stratford.
 

Gimme Shelter
Covering up is another trend in New England where the glaring sun or summer showers can keep you indoors. Here, many outdoor entertaining areas are outfitted with fixed pergolas, retractable awnings, canvas tents or one or more fanciful umbrellas, especially the free-arm variety.

Playful umbrellas of all kinds are available at Pottery Barn (don’t miss the retro Parker Stripe), as well as Target stores. Restoration Hardware’s Tucci, a stunning specimen in aluminum and stainless, designed to marine-grade specifications, is a knockout.

At New England Patio & Hearth, you can find a folding canopy wide enough to keep your dining party shaded or
(or dry) anywhere in the yard.

For a charming, freestanding gazebo—placed near the house and hub of activity, or off in the distance—look no further than Kloter Farms in Ellington, which carries some of the loveliest we’ve seen.
 

Climate Control
Paddle fans, when installed overhead in pergolas or under decks, can be cool and charming. Some of the more tropical styles can make you really feel as if you’re on vacation. You’ll find a good selection at Lowe’s and Home Depot stores.

Refreshing misters—the kind you see at theme parks—aren’t as common in the Northeast as they are in hotter regions, but you can find them. Keep in mind, however, that some of the models sold at big box stores are simply hoses with small holes punched in them.

The real thing, sold by ProMist Misting and Cooling (based in the sweltering Central Valley of California), uses high pressure and really tiny holes to provide “evaporative cooling” that can bring the temp on your deck down by 25 degrees.

Warming up isn’t so simple; not everyone is on the same page in the matter of portable heaters. Jessica Hall of The Outdoor Great Room Company says today’s standing heaters are a worthwhile way to extend the season. Others say the heaters, though popular at restaurants, are too clunky for home use—and not very energy efficient, with propane tanks needing to be replaced as often as every other day.

Fire pits are something everyone can agree on. Most garden centers have a few on display; Hall’s company carries a wide variety of styles, but the award-winning sleek and stylized contemporary gas fire pits are among their best sellers.

Fire pits with copper bowls are all the rage, according to Wabrek. “During the day, people will use them to hold cold beverages, or even as a raw bar,” he says, “but when the sun goes down, they empty the bowl and make a fire. It’s very appealing.”
 

Lighten Up
There’s nothing more frustrating than turning a steak on the grill and having no clue if it’s done because it’s so dark on your patio. “Good lighting is often overlooked in outdoor spaces,” says Stolz, “so we advise customers to make sure to consider it when designing an overall plan.”

If permanent illumination is desired, an electrician will most certainly be needed, whether you’re planning to install freestanding lampposts or want to wire lights into an overhead pergola. But there are many other professionally designed landscape-lighting options available from Alexia Lighting in Newington—for decks, patios, gazebos, pool areas and water gardens.

Finally, those small, solar-powered path lights are always an option. They’re inexpensive, but remember, you get what you pay for; we’ve found that some of these won’t last much more than a season or two. Still, if they can illuminate the perimeter of your patio, or get you from the street to the deck without tripping, they’re welcome guests at any outdoor gathering.
 

Something More
There’s nothing like flora to enhance your outdoor entertaining space . . . whether planted in the ground or in pots, which are themselves wonderful decorative elements for porch or patio. Should you require professional help, there are plenty of landscape design firms around. Winston Flowers, for one, now open in Greenwich, offers everything from dramatic container plantings to sustainable landscapes (optional maintenance and ongoing updating are available, too).

And finally, for all manner of up-to-the-minute accents and accessories, look to brand-new Terrain (which also carries a lovely line of furniture) in Westport. The finest pots and planters, terrariums and garden structures are all available here. (And for good measure while you’re visiting, don’t miss the fabulous gift selection—from candles to bath products to jewelry.)
 

Entertaining Alfresco

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