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How to buy quality outdoor furniture

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Tips for navigating the market

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The covetable outdoor area of a California wine country dream home.
Photo: Aubrie Pick

As an interior designer with J.S. Brown Design, Scott Brown has beautified interiors along the West Coast for 30 years, from Mexico to his home base in Bend, Oregon. "Fifteen or twenty years ago," he says, "The outside was all but forgotten."

Now, he frequently has clients requesting equally savvy backyard destinations, and he’s happy to comply. "I think it’s so important for designers to not just stop at the door," says Brown. "The outdoor spaces are just as important as the indoors."

Today, the outdoor furniture market is booming, with many retailers offering pieces at a variety of price points. "It’s an interesting time right now to do outdoor design. There are a lot of resources available," says Brown. He offered his tips for navigating the market, as well as some of his favorite finds.

Make a list of activities to determine what you need

Brown approaches the design of an outdoor room much like he does an indoor space, and that means pulling out the tape measure and graph paper before going to the store. "Definitely start with a space plan of the area and consider the uses—whether that’s dining or sitting around a fire pit," says Brown. "Then build from there."

Begin by knowing where certain activities will occur, then hone in on what size furniture will fit the dimensions of the area. For smaller yards, simple furniture will save space, like a wood bench adorned with cushions, and there are a variety of DIY tutorials online to build one. Having a good plan in place before you begin will keep you from wasting money on pieces that don’t work for your space.

Choose durable materials, and know how to maintain them

Try to choose the most durable material that you can afford. Good options include teak and cedar, powder-coated metal (including aluminum and iron), and various plastics and fabrics.

Emmet Lounge Chair & Ottoman, $429, Room & Board.

For good examples of the latter, Brown endorsed two designs from Room & Board: the Emmet chair and ottoman set ($429) is made from high-density polyethylene with UV-stabilizers added to minimize the fading, while the Maya chair ($899), is a fully upholstered piece comprised of a marine-grade plywood frame and weather-resistant Sunbrella fabric.

Next, know how you’ll care for the pieces once you own them. Do you have room to store them in the off-season? If so—lucky you! If not, plan for pieces to be placed under a roof overhang where they will be more protected year-round.

"Nothing is maintenance free," says Brown. Look out for rust or discoloration. To abate either, clean and cover metal pieces, oil or re-stain wood, and stow upholstery indoors. Chairs like the Maya are even pretty enough to use inside.

Evaluate quality

"With exterior furniture, you have to buy decent quality or it's shot within a season or two," says Brown. He recommends looking for sturdy construction.

Start by inspecting a piece’s joinery. Metal welds should be smooth and gap-free and blend in with the overall finish. Wood joints should fit close together. Avoid glued and nailed connections; inset screws and wood dowels, as well as mortise and tenon joints, are stronger.

The attachment hardware, such as the screws and bolts, should be positioned so that they’re protected from the elements, or made of stainless steel. "You have to know the quality," says Brown. "At least for the pieces that have to stay out or can’t be covered."

Shop around

There is furniture to be found at every price point, says Brown, so shop around and compare. He has made successful purchases for clients at a range of retailers, like World Market, Room and Board, Crate and Barrel, and Design Within Reach.

"We do find good deals at retailers," says Brown. "You just have to keep an eye out." Some companies, like the higher-end outfit Summit, will have lifetime guarantees rolled into the price. But remember: "It’s perfectly fine to mix the high and the low," says Brown. "That’s always been the designer’s favorite thing to do."

Broom Chair, $225, Design Within Reach.

Mix up styles

Brown likes to blend various pieces from different aesthetic styles and materials. "I hate buying suites or matched sets," he says. "Mixing up the textures makes it more interesting. That’s what makes it more architectural and like an interior room."

Buying pieces from various outlets can also help with the budget, as you’re not locked in to the price of a whole set, and are better able to capitalize on deals. One of Brown’s favorites is the Broom Chair ($225) from Design Within Reach, designed by Philippe Starck.

"You can stack them and you can leave them outside," he says. "They’re very sturdy and they’re very classic. It’s a modern sleek design but it really fits with any style." Contrast is key here, in style and texture, so feel free to pair modern with traditional, or wood with metal.