Embellished for the Elements

Embellished for the Elements

Outdoor Furniture from Wicker to Wrought Iron
By Maxine Carter-Lome

Since the dawn of time, Man has strived to be one with nature, or to at least admire it from the relative distance and comfort of a patio, porch, veranda or terrace. Creating and staging outdoor spaces and gardens with furniture and objects to create controlled natural environments has a long design history, which is what makes collecting antique garden furniture and accessories so interesting, and sometimes quite valuable.

Archeologists excavating the Roman city of Pompeii, destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, uncovered formal designs that show symmetrical gardens and outdoor rooms used for recreation, rest, and worship, and evidence of benches and statuary along with walkways and fountains. These are considered the oldest surviving examples of garden furniture found to date. Beyond Pompeii – and still today, stone benches are used in gardens – but more as a sculptural and decorative focal point than a practical seating option.

Archeologists have also discovered dozens of examples of wicker (a broad term for furniture woven from willow, reed, cane, raffia, fiber-rush, sea grass and other materials) furniture made from reeds and swamp grasses dating back to ancient Egypt. A plentiful hardy resource, these materials grew in abundance along the banks of the Nile River.

The furniture they made was used indoors and out and included pieces such as storage chests, chaises, and baskets. The popularity of wicker was passed from Egypt to Rome and then throughout Europe, as international sea traders carried wicker wares to Great Britain, Portugal, and Spain. It arrived on America’s shores in the early 1850s through the industry of Cyrus Wakefield, now considered the father of American wicker furniture.

History has it that Wakefield discovered large quantities of rattan, the most common material for wicker furniture, on the shipping docks of Boston, and became fascinated by this discarded material frequently used in this time period to hold cargo in place on trading ships that had ventured to Asia. Recognizing rattan’s potential in the making of furniture, Wakefield started importing and eventually producing his own line of wicker furniture. His popular furniture designs soon caught on and Wakefield Rattan Co. of South Reading, MA (later renamed Wakefield in his honor) became the industry leader in wicker furniture.

The Great Victorian Outdoors
Although originally designed as indoor furniture, it was the Victorian Era that swept wicker seating on to America’s front porch with the Victorian’s renewed appreciation for the health benefits of fresh air. The Victorian style was the more the better. Plant stands and many different types of tables were added to the porch (or veranda in the south) to create outdoor living rooms. Many families had porches full of outdoor wicker furniture, but not a lot from this era survived due to prolonged exposure to the elements.

Stepping off the porch or patio and into the garden, the preferred material for seating and decoration was wrought iron for its durability and sturdiness. Wrought iron garden furniture was almost impervious to weather, was light enough to move around at whim, and was malleable enough to be fashioned in a variety of ways by local craftsmen. It was,  however, a hand craft, which made it an expensive luxury.

From the 1790s to the early 1840s, vast quantities of elegant wrought iron seating were made and used in gardens throughout Europe, mostly painted in grey, blue, green or white (the fashion for painting it black seems to have begun around 1900). As the largest and most innovative producers of iron in the world, Great Britain supplied the lion’s share, but continental European countries manufactured it as well. Only a very few rare examples of wrought iron garden seats have been documented as having been made or even used in America before the mid-nineteenth century.

Today, early wrought iron garden furniture and other outdoor accessories can command a premium at antique shops and vintage markets, designed, like the gardens they’ve adorned over the years, to live on through the seasons needing nothing more than a fresh coat of paint. Not all wrought iron furniture, however, is created the same. To determine the quality of a wrought iron piece of garden furniture look for: Coating, Welding (rough, shoddy welding is never seen in quality wrought iron furniture), Weight (solid and heavy), and Comfort (quality wrought iron furniture is designed with relaxation in mind).

As it had with wicker outdoor furniture, the Victorian Era, with its passion for gardens, also created a consumer demand for garden furniture and lawn ornaments which was met more economically by cast iron. Between 1850 and 1890, iron workers developed the skills necessary to make decorative cast iron outdoor furniture and lawn ornaments, replacing the more expensive hand-made wrought iron used largely from the early 1800s to the mid-1840s.

Some of the companies that made Victorian-era cast-iron furniture and ornaments include: J.W. Fiske, New York City; Janes, Kirtland & Co. Manhattan, NY; Westervelt, New York City; Lorio Iron Work, New Orleans; F.P. Smith, Chicago; Kramer Bros. Dayton, OH; and Robert Wood & Co., Philadelphia.

Reproductions of cast iron outdoor furniture and lawn ornaments have been appearing in large numbers since the mid-1990s. Many pieces not widely reproduced up until that time-such as fountains, birdbaths, chairs, benches, urns, planters and fountains-began to be copied from vintage originals. To determine if what you are looking at is really cast iron, look for the following: 1) Marks or stamps from manufacturers: this will help you trace its history; 2) Weight: if its heavy, it might be cast iron; 3) Ornamentation: Cast iron was/is often adorned with classic motifs like flowers, fruit, and grapevines; 4) Molded or shaped: Furniture was made from carved molds and forged into curves and ornate patterns; 5) Details: All castings should have sharp, clear detail with relatively smooth surfaces. Casting flaws such as finning, pits, and bumps are signs of new work. Old pieces should show evidence of normal aging and wear; 6) Nuts & Bolts: Be suspicious of any bench, chair or table that is not fastened with removable English measure nuts and bolts. Seats and tabletops should have flat head bolts in beveled holes for a flush surface; and don’t overlook the obvious – carry a magnet to make sure you’re looking at cast iron and not cast aluminum.

Gradually, the fussiness of the Victorian Era gave way to the clean lines of the Arts and Crafts style. Garden and outdoor furniture became less ornate, the settings more natural, and the seating more comfortable. By the 1930s, lawn chairs were all the rage, along with straight back chairs for city dwellers looking for places to sit outdoors.

The Lawn Chair
The lawn chair comes in many shapes and materials, including the omnipresent white stacking kind popular poolside, but if you ask lawn chair historian and furniture maker Louis “Skip” Torrans, he’ll tell you that there’s only one true classic: The cantilevered stamped steel model. The metal lawn chair goes by many nicknames: the Shellback, the Tulip chair, the Clamshell, the Motel Chair, and the Bouncer. But even if none of those ring a bell, you’ve probably seen one as they now populate flea markets.

In his book, A History of the Metal Lawn Chair, Torrans says as best as he can tell, what we know as the metal lawn chair began in the ’30s. “Somewhere around ’35 to ’38, there were some flat metal chairs in a metal frame. They didn’t really have a design to them, but they had the basic shape of the metal lawn chair.”

One possible source of the metal lawn chair as we know it is a design by Leo Jiranek, an industrial and furniture designer, who contributed concepts to the likes of Ethan Allen and, in the 1960s, was the president of the Jiranek School of Furniture Design and Technology in Manhattan. During the course of his research, Torrans found a hand-drawn print that Jiranek did in the late ’30s that came close to what we know of as the classic metal lawn chair.

What makes the metal lawn chair an American classic is its longevity and ubiquity. What makes it still highly desirable and a collectible today is its place in design history, and the nostalgia it triggers of summer lake houses, seaside porches, and urban sidewalks.

Mid-Century Modern
When looking for patio decor inspiration, look no further than the Mid-Century design movement. The post-war era saw a boom in leisure time, with planned communities springing up around major cities. Each neighborhood had houses with little picket fences and each house had a patio, complete with a charcoal grill and a set of stylish chairs.

From the late 1940s through the 1970s, wire and bent steel were the preferred mediums for outdoor furniture, which mixed organic and geometric forms to great effect.

Several designers of the period, including Russell Woodard, John Salterini and Brown Jordan, championed a design movement that saw their furniture as ideal for both outdoor and indoor use. As a result, many of their pieces have stood the test of time, creating a strong market among collectors during this mid-century revival movement. The most desirable brands from this era include Ames Aire, Brown Jordan, Homecrest, Molla, Salterini, Tropitone, and Woodard.

John B. Salterini is widely credited as being responsible for the resurgence in wrought-iron garden furniture and his designs resembled the popular styles of this period, including Gothic Revival and Art Deco. Salterini produced a wide range of garden furniture, ranging from the traditional tables and chairs to more exotic pieces, including chaise lounges, ottomans, and settees that had arching patterns in the back to hold large canopies. In company ads in home and garden magazine, he touted his furniture as, “the decorative trend, using wrought iron furniture indoors because it brings into your home the freshness and gaiety of a flowery summer garden.”

Instances of vintage John B. Salterini garden furniture sold at national auction houses are rare; however, internet bidding sites, such as eBay and 1stDibs, regularly advertise a wide variety of vintage John B. Salterini garden furniture, ranging from the staple patio tables and chairs to his more curious ottomans, settees, and chaise lounges. Collectors should proceed with caution when purchasing Salterini items from eBay as there are many cheap reproductions on the market, many of which come from Asia or Mexico.

New manufacturing processes and materials such as mahogany, teak, cast aluminum, and synthetic resins have replaced earlier applications of stone, wrought iron, cast iron and rattan in the design and manufacture of lawn and garden furniture for reasons of cost and durability. Most new wicker furniture sold today is made from synthetic resin, which is often made of recycled plastic. Synthetic resin wicker furniture can be molded to resemble real wood or wicker, is inexpensive to produce, and is so durable as to be sold with a warranty.

Although new outdoor furniture is durable, comfortable, and affordable, the original cast iron and wrought iron outdoor furnishings now popular online and at vintage and antique markets remind us that design, quality materials, and craftsmanship live on for generations, not just a few seasons, and that value extends beyond utility. Buy what you like, that you’ll like to look at, and that’s comfortable. Most [real wrought iron, cast iron, wicker] pieces you find can be brought back to life with a day’s worth of elbow grease, a few cans of spray paint, and some new cushions!

Embellished for the Elements