Terry Lin is an experienced designer and outdoor enthusiast. He has developed groundbreaking product strategies for the world’s top innovation powerhouses, including IDEO, Casper Sleep, and Walmart. He was the Head of Furniture Design at Pottery Barn for close to a decade and has shaped evolving trends in the US home furnishings industry. He is now Co-Founder and Chief Design Officer at Outer, the outdoor furniture brand on a mission to inspire people to spend more time outside.
As a product designer with more than a decade of experience with companies like Pottery Barn and Walmart, I field a lot of questions about shopping for and buying outdoor furniture sets. The most common ones: why is it so expensive? Why isn’t there more choice? And how can I get the most bang for my buck?
Designing furniture for the outdoors presents a new set of challenges that indoor furniture never encounters: the elements. The blazing temperatures of a Palm Desert, CA summer (where the average daily temperatures in summer hit 105 degrees) can sunbleach, burn, or even melt a set of outside chairs. On the other hand, what if your outdoor sectional encountered 114 inches of rain each year, as it would in Forks, WA? It would need to be highly waterproof.
These are extreme examples. People who face less inclement weather still run into issues: high salt content from being near the ocean, or a little bird that poops on the patio chair. Manufacturers have no control over where the product lives, so their designs need to handle “all of the above”.
That being said, the first thing to consider when purchasing outdoor furniture is materials. What’s it made with? Have the manufacturer and designer ensured that the materials will endure? And if not, is that reflected in the price?
Here’s a breakdown of what you’ll find out there:
Outdoor Furniture Frames
First things first, the frame is really important. Worse comes to worst, you can replace cushions over time, but it’s great to have a quality frame that won’t rot, melt or splinter after a few seasons of weather. Choosing the right frame material also depends on your style and local climate.
Teak is the gold standard of outdoor furniture woods because of its resistance to decay and rot. The price, naturally, reflects this. It comes in a golden or medium brown shade, and tends to darken over time. It’s also resistant to termites—though may not stand up against marine borers or powder post beetles. It’s considered a mostly sustainable wood, as it’s not on any endangered species lists.
Dark Red Meranti
Another common outdoor furniture wood is Dark Red Meranti. This one is widely harvested and available worldwide, and again isn’t considered endangered in any way. It’s also available at a lower price point, however it’s only considered moderately (to not at all) resistant to any kind of rot and decay. It won’t hold up well to extreme weather, and probably will only get you through a few calm seasons before showing its wear and tear. Avoid frames made with laminated or stapled joints. These will need to be replaced after a season or two.
Acacia and Cedar are also widely available wood types used in outdoor furniture, with lower levels of resistance to weather and outdoor conditions. We suggest opting for a wood with a high resin or oil content (like teak) to help protect it from rot and decay.
Final tips on wood: Check to see if the wood is FSC or SFI certified. Also, protect your wood frames in the winter/off season by covering or moving indoors—if not maintained, the wood will splinter and split.
Acceptable metals for outdoor use are wrought iron, stainless steel and aluminum. It really is a matter of style preference. Remember that all metals have augmented temperature absorption so be careful on hot days so you don’t get burned!
Stainless steel and aluminum are easy to maintain, durable and can be left out year-round with minimal worry. Avoid regular steel even if there are claims of a protective coating that makes it withstand the elements. It will rust. Wrought iron is heavy and requires more maintenance than stainless steel or aluminum. There is a potential of rust if left out in persistently damp environments.
All weather wicker (AWW) sofas are a popular choice for a number of reasons. It has the same characteristics as aluminum but the addition of AWW minimizes temperature absorption making this style family-friendly, durable, and easy to maintain. If considering an AWW sofa, you will need to identify if the AWW is made using PVC or HDPE.
HDPE is hands-down the way to go. HDPE is a higher grade material that’s UV-resistant (meaning it won’t fade or crumble in hot sunlight), and it stands up well to rain, heat, and humidity. PVC wicker is prone to damage. In even moderate sunlight it will fade and dry out, becoming brittle and cracking over time.
Outdoor Cushion Fabrics
A comfortable piece of outdoor furniture comes from the shape of the frame, but mostly the fabric of the cushion. Again, there are varying degrees of quality when it comes to the synthetic fabrics that can sustain a life outside. Here’s what you’ll find.
A polyester fabric may be sufficient if your sofa resides in a covered patio area where it is sheltered from the effects of the elements. If the sofa is in an area where it gets full sun exposure, the fabric will fade and you’ll be investing again in a new set of cushions after one or two seasons at best.
100% Solution-Dyed Fabric (Acrylic or Olefin)
It’s worthwhile to invest in a 100% solution-dyed fabric. Solution-dyed fabrics are manufactured in a way where the color completely permeates the fiber giving it a high UV-resistance. The best fabrics offer a five-year warranty.
This fabric, and similarly another type known as “duck cloth”, is another popular waterproof option used in outdoor cushions (and tent materials and the like). The cotton fibers in the cotton canvas swell when they get wet, thereby sealing the weave and keeping water from seeping through. However, cotton canvas has a special affinity for mildew.
Make sure to check with the salesperson or manufacturer’s website on the technical details of their fabrics.
As you narrow your choices, take the time to read the warranty policies that each product carries. This is not only a great way to ensure your product will last for a certain amount of time (or be replaced otherwise), but it’s a reflection of the quality of the design.
Manufacturers of high-quality products are proud of the materials and the design and will offer a generous warranty. The highest is a five-year warranty on fabrics, and 10 years on the frame.
If a product offers an optional paid warranty, it may be 10-20% the price of the product and be comparable to a higher priced set with better materials.
For products that don’t offer any warranty, the appeal might be a low price. Depending on your priorities, and how long you want to hold on to the furniture, that may be the right choice for you.
Armed with all of this information, you’re ready to go out and find the perfect sofa set for you. Keep in mind comfort too! Happy shopping!