Once upon a time, cottage style, if there was such a thing, consisted of mismatched chairs collected from yard sales or the local dump, a ratty hammock strung up between two trees and rusted-out rain barrels as planters. In such a ramshackle setting, an old shirt worn with a pair of ancient dungarees was the look to match.Outdoor living, however, is no longer as ad hoc as all that. It is much more lifestyle by design – emphasis on design.
This year's editions of both the Milan furniture fair and of SPOGA, the annual outdoor-living show in Cologne, highlighted a new generation of high-quality outdoor furniture as sleek and stylish as anything found inside. Advances in weather-resistant materials and designs by such award-winning home-decor stars as Philippe Starck and Nicolas Thomkins are blurring the boundaries between not only outdoor and indoor furniture but also traditional concepts of what constitutes a rural versus urban vacation experience.
"The cottage is today as sophisticated as any design-savvy house in the city," says buyer Mark Linklater of Living Space, a contemporary design and furniture store in Vancouver. "Outdoor furniture is now more minimal and less kitsch than it once was."
As such, it better suits Linklater's clients, for whom luxury is fast becoming as much a summer preoccupation as drinks on the dock. "What they call cottages are actually beautifully designed and built West Coast homes," Linklater says. "They're not really roughing it. The furniture is co-ordinated to match the lifestyle."
Plastic chairs and rusty cots, in other words, are giving way to trendsetting pieces sporting novel designs and high-performance fabrications: Think all-weather teardrop-shaped day beds, sleek loungers, chain pod chairs, grilling kitchens and dining tables with ice troughs built into them for chilling Champagne.
"We're now also seeing a trend toward modular seating, chic low tables and outdoor drapes used to create intimate spaces," says Philip Hatherly, showroom manager at Jardin de Ville in Toronto, the outdoor-furniture chain based in Montreal. "It's modern and sophisticated yet cozy at the same time."
Outdoor spaces are increasingly perceived as extensions of people's living rooms, so a lot of the new outdoor looks mimic decor created for the indoors.
"With entertaining moving to the outdoors, luxury and design is no longer limited to indoor spaces," says Kirsten Korhani, creative director of Korhani Home, a Toronto-based manufacturer of patterned rugs and pillows for both indoor and outdoor use.
"Accessories with a pop of colour, a subtle pattern or a bold design easily bring this season's decor trends to the cottage, making a deck stand out and feel like an extension of anyone's indoor living space."
Innovations in new weatherproof and high-performance materials are enabling outdoor furniture manufacturers to create looks as sleek and stylish as their indoor counterparts, agrees Frank Rabey of Hatteras Hammocks, the U.S.-based manufacturer of the starkly beautiful PillowTop, a new-generation hammock that might double as sculpture for the backyard or woods.
"With the advent in recent years of exceptional weather-hardy outdoor synthetics like DuraCord, which allow for fabrics of vibrant colour and enhanced design without fear of heavy fading, the best of today's hammocks are not just inviting backyard relaxation nooks but true decorative elements in their own right," Rabey says. The hammocks are available across Canada through select retailers.
Despite the high price tags associated with some aspects of new cottage style, consumers are buying into the trend big time, making outdoor furniture a fast-growing market.
For example, sales figures for Dedon, the Rolls-Royce of hand-woven outdoor furniture (dining sets sell for $11,000), have increased exponentially in Canada over the last eight years, the length of time that David Beaton has been carrying the German-made brand at studio b, his contemporary-furniture store in Toronto.
Sales this season, he adds, are already past the $5-million mark, up considerably from the $700,000 Beaton scored when he first decided to carry Dedon after initially seeing it at a furniture fair in France but worrying at first that it might be too "edgy" for the Canadian market. Far from being intimidated, however, Canadians have lapped it up, becoming the eighth-most important market for the European company.
"We sell more Dedon per capita than the U.S.A.," Beaton says. "Our trucks are in Muskoka [Ontario's bucolic cottage country] every weekend. That tells us that Canadians want luxury and design in the outdoors."
One of Dedon's most popular recent designs is the cocoon-like NestRest, what Beaton describes as "a personal oasis." Also gaining momentum is Play, a new outdoor-dining set by French design provocateur Philippe Starck, whose chairs have flexible arms and backs that facilitate, well, play.
As for what to wear while lounging on all those big-ticket designer pieces of furniture, designer Jason Trotzuk, who founded Fidelity Denim in Vancouver and is a cottage owner himself, advises that the ideal summering look is both casual and chic.
"The cottage is purely about kicking back and enjoying your leisure time, but, when you leave the city, you don't want to leave your sense of style behind," Trotzuk says. "You never know who you might run into."
Indeed, many of this season's tunics, day dresses and wraps, which offer style without sacrificing comfort, seem tailor-made for strolls along a pebbly shore or short boat trips across the lake for cocktails with the neighbours. Moreover, "relaxed, rolled-up boyfriend jeans with a crisp white shirt remain a classic," Trotzuk says.
In other words, the dungarees paradigm isn't so stale – just in need of a little updating.