By Tom Lassiter
Here’s a quiz for you casual furniture retailers. What do these collections have in common?
- Wildwood by Lloyd Flanders
- Coral by Jensen Leisure
- Monterey by Barlow Tyrie
- Azores by Kingsley-Bate
- Split Raw by Gloster
The obvious answer, of course, is wood or, more specifically, wood in combination with another material. Wood may be the primary material, as in the case of Wildwood and Monterey. Or it may be a secondary, or accent material, as in the Coral and Azores collections.
Another common characteristic shared by these groups is strikingly handsome design. Each has a unique identity and definite eye appeal.
Two of the groups – Coral and Monterey – have been out long enough to establish themselves as proven sellers. Wildwood and Azores are new for 2017; initial orders, the makers say, indicate that these groups also may do quite well.
Wildwood, says Lloyd Flanders’ president Dudley Flanders, was the company’s most popular introduction at September’s Casual Market Chicago.
“Coral is hugely successful nationwide,” says Janet Wansor, vice president of Sales and Marketing for Jensen Leisure Furniture.
The Monterey armchair, which won a Design Excellence Award at Casual Market Chicago when it was introduced in 2014, also is a winner with consumers. “We can’t keep it in stock,” says Charles Hessler, executive vice president at Barlow Tyrie. The Monterey armchair was an initial product in an expanding collection.
Azores is a new launch for Kingsley Bate that will make its first appearance on showroom floors this spring. “Sales so far are very good,” says company president Clay Kingsley.
The wood used in three of these collections is teak. Jensen Leisure depends on another species. Ipé, the Bolivian hardwood from managed, sustainable forests, is used in Coral. Jensen Leisure also builds furniture with roblé, another Bolivian hardwood.
The practice of combining wood with other materials has generated some fresh excitement in the last couple of seasons, but seasoned retailers note that is not a new idea.
“We’ve been selling that stuff pretty successfully since Gloster came out with their Plantation collection over a decade ago,” says Eric Brenner, co-owner of AuthenTEAK in Atlanta.
|Azores dining side chair from Kingsley-Bate.|
Furniture using wood as a secondary, or accent, material extends the category’s reach and reinforces an elemental part of AuthenTEAK’s business. “Our business in wood is steady,” Brenner says. “Our wood business is strong.”
The higher-end wood furniture business, in markets where there’s a substantial population with lots of disposable income, tends to be stable over time. Fine wood furniture, especially teak, is an aspirational purchase.
“The higher-end consumer, especially along the coasts, is familiar with the properties” of teak, Hessler says. “It’s something they know is expensive.”
A consumer’s exposure to teak might be less common in the heartland, but teak is as much a part of coastal America as sea gulls and salt air. It’s been the wood of choice for many types of seagoing vessels for generations, simply because of its durability.
The deck of the U.S.S. North Carolina, a World War II battleship memorial moored in Wilmington, is teak. Teak in varying quantities can be found in many sailboats and motor yachts today. A general rule of thumb: The more teak present, the higher the price.
That’s also generally true of fine teak furniture. Supplies of plantation grown teak – the only source used by leading furniture makers – are limited in a world of growing affluence. That places upward pressure on the price of the raw material, which in turn pressures manufacturers to be creative in their use of the wood.
Recent years have seen furniture designs that use fewer massive timbers, creating looks that literally look finer and lighter. Using less wood helps moderate the prices consumers ultimately pay.
Another way to maximize use of the raw material is to use wood in a secondary role. A metal-frame chair takes on a different character with the addition of a teak arm. Adding teak feet to a resin wicker sofa instantly upgrades the look.
|Monterey by Barlow Tyrie.|
The effect, Brenner says, is an easy way to introduce a bit of sophistication into the Outdoor Room.
“If the dining set is all wood, and the deep seating is woven with wood accents,” he says, the accents “pull it all together. The unifying thing is the teak.”
There’s also another benefit: “It avoids the dreaded matchy-matchy look.”
Philip Payne, National Contract Sales manager for Gloster Furniture, credits fresh, mixed-media designs with “breathing new life into the category.”
Not that the category was ailing, of course. Gloster competitor Clay Kingsley notes that business “is always very steady for us, very solid. It doesn’t change a lot.”
Gloster’s contract business grew by about 15 percent in 2016 over 2014’s numbers, Payne said. That’s new growth on top of recovering from a dip in sales in 2015.
“A lot of people are buying pieces with teak components (accents),” he says, such as chairs, to pair with “all-teak occasional tables or dining tables.”
Payne says this design trend on the contract side tends to further influence sales on the retail side, where the blended, eclectic look of mixing materials and products from different vendors already has taken hold.
Several designs featuring wood or wood accents earned 2016 Design Excellence Awards from the International Casual Furnishings Association. Among them were Jensen Leisure’s Coral Chaise, by Povl Eskildsen; the Wildwood Dining Chair, by the Lloyd Flanders design team; and Gloster’s Split Raw Dining Table, by Henrik Petersen.
A design trend in residential décor also may be pushing more buyers toward better wood casual furniture.
Much of the new home construction in Southern California features architectural looks that fall somewhere between an homage to Mid-Century Modern and contemporary. That look, says veteran casual retailer Ron Safran, calls for furniture with “cleaner, simpler, European lines,” whether indoors or out.
All of the design-oriented makers of fine wood furniture mentioned so far have groups that fit that description.
Safran is a third-generation owner of Victory Furniture in Los Angeles. He also owns Gloster LA Showroom, a single-vendor store focused on the Gloster line.
“Wood continues to be a strong and solid category,” Safran says. Demand for “more traditional teak exists,” he says, but “the market is becoming more contemporary.”
Safran says that this shift toward more contemporary styling, which Hearth & Home has been watching for the past several years, is not a passing fad. “I think it’s going to have a pretty long life,” he says.
|Coral by Jensen Leisure.|
Janet Wansor, of Jensen Leisure Furniture, agrees. While some of Jensen Leisure’s collections may be described as having transitional styling, others show more of a Mid-Century Modern or contemporary European influence.
“The Mid-Century Modern trend is building,” she says, citing Jensen Leisure’s new Richmond collection as an example. The styling is most apparent in the collection’s deep seating, she says, but also can be seen in Richmond’s dining products.
Jensen Leisure’s Coral collection introduced in 2015, was an instant hit with retailers and consumers. The collection features sophisticated, somewhat contemporary resin wicker with ipé accents.
“The combination of that fine weave with ipé timber – customers just love it,” Wansor says. “Right out of the chute we’re trying to keep up with demand.”
Jensen Leisure now assembles the Coral line at its facility in Virginia. Frames and woven components arrive from the Philippines, where they are joined with wooden components shipped from Bolivia. The company also is moving toward making cushions in Virginia, she says.
The hardwoods mentioned here – teak, ipé and roblé – naturally are suitable for exposure to the elements. Without annual maintenance, weathering will cause teak, of course, to lose its honey-blonde color and eventually turn a light gray. The need for maintenance to allow teak to retain its original appearance sometimes is seen as a detriment.
|Gloster’s Split Raw dining table.|
However, another design trend favors the look of weathered, gray teak. Indoors, says Pam Kellogg of Designers’ Resource Collection in Costa Mesa, California, the Bohemian look of rustic tables is “in fashion. It’s huge.” Weathered teak is one way to achieve that look in the Outdoor Room.
Manufacturers from Kingsley-Bate to Summer Classics jumped on that look in teak, creating finishes that mimic the look of natural weathering. It’s also a look promoted by leading catalog vendors, including Restoration Hardware.
“Grays are very happening now,” says Lynn Rose, owner of Rose Casual in the Dallas World Trade Center.
She purchased Kingsley-Bates’ new Azores Collection for her showroom, where it will accompany Lloyd Flanders’ Wildwood, and Bahama, a metal and teak collection by Mountain House, the Canadian firm with a penchant for contemporary looks.
The sheer beauty of casual furniture with wood accents attracts some shoppers. Brenner, at AuthenTEAK, says wood introduces what he calls “a chameleon effect,” adding interest no matter the style, from traditional to contemporary.
Other shoppers come to a retailer knowing they want wood for the statement it makes.
“It’s a mindset of the client that they want to buy wood,” Rose says.
“There’s always a teak buyer,” Kingsley says. “It’s just a very steady, solid category.”