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BEYOND THE BACK DOOR
FOR COOKING, RELAXING AND ENTERTAINING, OUTDOOR ROOMS ARE ALL THE BUZZ

As the weather turns warm, people turn their attention outside. While some can't wait to start working the soil, others dig something a little less strenuous -- grilling out, relaxing, gathering with friends.

If they have been bitten by the decorating bug -- and many have -- they want the outside of their home to be as comfortable as the inside. They want to create what has become known as the "outdoor room," and they are part of a nationwide trend.

Take a look around. From dining tables that seat eight to colorful dinnerware that screams "Let's party," the home furnishings industry offers an array of new products -- in all different price ranges -- that extend style, comfort and functionality outdoors.

The goods are widely available -- from discount stores, supermarkets, specialty shops and more -- and people are buying.

"Whether they use their outdoor rooms for relaxing in private or for entertaining family and friends -- or for both -- Americans are investing more in outdoor furnishings and decor than ever before," said Jackie Hirschhaut, vice president of the American Home Furnishings Alliance.

The $2.3 billion-plus wholesale business has more than doubled over the past decade, the Alliance estimated.

And, according to one market researcher, U.S. spending on outdoor and casual furniture and accessories has increased by up to 6 percent each year since 2001, the Wall Street Journal recently reported.

And it's not just tables and chairs.

"The lines between house and garden, already blurred, are being obliterated, as furniture manufacturers and retailers continue to sell the indoor aesthetic outside," according to one Journal article.

"New waterproof and fade-resistant pieces go beyond the indoor-style plush sofas and chairs that have gained popularity in recent years. They range from the useful -- teak sideboards and full bars complete with bar stools -- to the slightly whimsical, such as weatherproof acrylic rugs and fade-resistant aluminum paintings," the Journal continued.

George T. Booth III, from Adventures in Heat, a Clarence store specializing in grills, gifts and gourmet items, said people increasingly embrace the concept of the "outdoor room" and of combining outdoor cooking, eating, entertaining and relaxing areas.

The trend is toward creating an outdoor living space similar to the kitchen/great room concept indoors, Booth said.

The grilling area has become more of a focal point, and grilling islands, in particular, pique interest. Popular, too, are restaurant-style patio heaters, fire pits and outdoor fireplaces that not only create ambience but also enable homeowners and their guests to enjoy being outdoors on chilly nights -- right into fall.

And ambience comes in all price ranges. While an outdoor fireplace begins at about $2,500, Booth said, one of his fire pits with stainless steel screen sells for $275.

(Then again, the ultimate outdoor room may have a gourmet outdoor kitchen costing $10,000 or more.)

As for outdoor furniture trends, colors definitely are abloom this season.

Linda Boldt, manager of Arthur's Home Furnishings in Orchard Park, said she is seeing bright colors on outdoor fabrics for the first time in a long time.

"Everyone who comes in says what fun the colors are -- the brightest azure blue, lime green, hot pink, orange . . . Think of the wildest Waikiki sarong and pull out all the colors," she said.

Boldt is particularly fond of the poppy reds -- on black wicker frames. "The bright shades are not for everybody, but they are a lot of fun," she said.

One tip: If you don't want to commit to cushions, use bright colors on toss pillows, place mats, dinnerware, etc.

Besides the cheery brights, another trend Boldt talks about is the Tuscan influence.

Think of the saffron and green colors. Terra cotta. Rich golds and oranges. Copper.

As for outdoor furniture frames, "the No. 1 upcoming color is Java, a bronzy brown. It goes with a lot of things," Boldt said.

Picture it with shades of lime, for example, from bright to heather tones. Multistripe fabrics -- in Java, taupe and terra cotta, for example -- also work well with these bronzy brown frames.

And zero-maintenance cast aluminum is still very popular -- especially since the designs are more sophisticated than ever, Boldt added.

Other key trends to watch for this spring:

Larger tables for outdoor dining: Seating for six or eight is the new standard, and tables often are oval, so that you can squeeze in another chair or two. Outdoor sectional sofas also are becoming part of the "outdoor room" scene.

Copper: Very big this year. Look for copper birdhouses, bird baths, fire pits, fire bowls, beverage tubs, lawn art, watering cans, weather vanes.

Stripes: On dinnerware, outdoor upholstery, hanging battery-operated lanterns, market umbrellas, beach towels, paper plates and napkins, director chair canvas sets, and more.

Textures table tops: Instead of glass, newer options include travertine, hammered copper and sculptured, faux flagstone -- as well as mosaics, tile, stone, granite, slate, punched metal and faux stone, according to the American Home Furnishings Alliance.

Greek Revival. Several manufacturers take inspiration from various aspects of Greek architecture, the Alliance observes.

Outdoor lighting: In addition to candles and landscape lighting, outdoor table lamps, floor lamps and other lighting options abound. Some have extra long cords. Others are battery operated.

Accessories galore: With everything matching, of course. Spotted at one store: a striped tray -- with flip-flops to match.
e-mail: smartin@buffnews.com