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Cecile Corral

The new frontier: outdoor living

NEW YORK -Laminated linen decorative pillows and chair cushions, faux straw place mats and olefin area rugs that are stain- and mildew-resistant are examples of innovative product manufacturers are creating to tap into the growing trend of outdoor living. These new concepts were introduced recently at winter mini-market in New York City.

Outdoor living is one of the industry's fastest growing segments, retailers agree. As consumers increasingly stay at home and maximize their outdoor spaces-patios, lanais, decks, courtyards and verandas-for entertaining purposes, they are spending more money. They are adding not only new barbecues, grills, refrigerators and wine storage, but also furniture and decorative accessories that are functional and stylish.

"The patio is another room in the house now," said Claudene Clarke, accessories and tabletop merchant for Atlanta-based Dekor. "Consumers are definitely extending their living space to the outdoors, but they are doing it now with much more sophistication, with the right colors and textures, to bring the outdoors indoors and the indoors outdoors."

Suzanne Bair, outdoor living merchant for Home Expo Design Center in Marietta, GA, attributed the trend to consumer's increasing willingness to stay home for "vacation, leisure and social time." Backing up Clarke's statement, Bair said styling is being done "from the inside out," with consumers looking to interweave their indoor and outdoor living with mood lighting, upscale cooking gear and fabrics and textiles that can be used both in home interiors and exteriors.

"Overall comfort is key," Bair said. "The most important thing to the consumer is comfort-for example, how a chair sits."

Enter decorative pillow and chair cushion maker Ashford Court, based here. Hoping to fit that outdoor comfort need, Ashford Court has introduced two new collections using innovative fabrics appropriate for both indoor and outdoor uses--laminated linen and pleather.

The Slicker line includes decorative pillows, chair cushions, and barstool covers in any of 15 fashion-forward colors of laminated linen. The West Indies collection, a pleather assortment of decorative pillows, chair cushions and bar stool covers, comes in a variety of animal skin looks, including ostrich and alligator.

"Both collections are completely weather-resistant, fade-proof and water-proof," said Neil Zuber, president. "They can easily be wiped clean if they get dirty."

Added executive vp and designer Amy Bell: "These collections are functional but also decorative. These are not the looks we typically see for outdoors, the kind with stripes or flowers. These collections are about adding another room to your house, but with more sophistication. They change your patio from a picnic look to becoming another room in your home."

Bell said for people living in Florida, for example, like herself, patios and lanais are extensions of the home, "and these products can sit on your patio or lanai with no problem and still look sophisticated." Price points range from $5 to $50.

Table linens are also becoming transitional, Clarke noted.

"We are seeing from manufacturers better and better designs for outdoor accessories like place mats, napkins and napkin rings," she said. "For spring, I'm looking for a designer look that complies to this outdoor living trend. Plastic dishes and paper napkins are out. I am looking for accessories that people can use inside but not be afraid to take outside."

Trendex's new Pier Collection of table linens is comprised of chairpads and decorative pillows as well as place mats and napkins that look like straw but are actually machine-washable and made of 91 percent polyethylene and 9 percent polypropylene.

"We've had tremendous success in the past with natural straws for the outdoors. The problem is that all it takes is one spill of wine or the drop of a piece of barbecue chicken and it's ruined," said Lorraine Ragland Maberry, vp, sales and merchandising, Trendex. "Our product portrays the look without downside of not being able to clean it."

The Pier Collection's place mats come in multi-color stripes and solids and are available in straw, sage, Wedgwood, denim, black, red and natural.

For the fall market, Trendex is adding Aubergine, burgundy, bronze, navy and forest. Price points for the place mats are $4.99, and $15.99 for an 18" knife-edge pillow. The collection is targeted for specialty and department stores.

"We felt that in terms of product that was easy care, a lot of it tends to be very juvenile-looking and we wanted to do something more sophisticated," Maberry said. "Buyers also told us there was a void for that, as well, so that only encouraged us."

Offering one of the inventive products this past winter market was Design Network, an affiliate of the Cecil Saydah Company, in Los Angeles. It's new Deckmate rug is made of olefin, making it stain, fade and mildew resistant. It has a rubber back for stability and can be easily rolled for storage. The rug is "easy care," emphasized director of marketing Deborah Powell, and can be hosed for cleaning.

Powell said that the Deckmate rug's "styling makes it a subtle accent under any patio, deck or porch furniture."

Deckmate comes in a range of sizes, from 18' x 30' to 60' x 96', as well as 4' and 6' rounds. Price points range from $9.99 to $ 99.99.

"We feel the 6' round will be in the greatest in demand as most outdoor tables sold are round," Powell said. "The trend in outdoor gear is upscale in look-rattan and wicker, attractive iron and metal combinations, a variety of wood looks including woods mixes with metals, all in subtle earthy colors."

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