When it comes to outdoor furnishings, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Frontgate’s philosophy. Oddly, though, veterans of the South Fork house and garden tour circuit don’t typically see seating more exotic than the teak wood used in the traditional benches at Hildreth’s Department Store.
Jack Larsen understood this and also knew there was an entire world of creative approaches to garden seating that didn’t involve making time-honored indoor forms for the outside, as is the current rage in places like Restoration Hardware. The pieces he chose, along with a team of curators led by Wendy Van Deusen that also included Sherri Donghia and Elizabeth Lear, are now part of a rambling 200-plus outdoor and sometimes indoor exhibition called “Exteriors: The Explosion of Outdoor Furnishings‚” on view through Oct. 4.
The furnishings, shelters, tables, lighting, and fabrics are put together in nine outdoor rooms spread among the LongHouse gardens. In some places, familiar areas and sculptural pieces at LongHouse have been transformed in subtle and dramatic ways by the inclusion of furniture, fabrics, water features, lighting, or fire pits. At the Lear Memorial there are Sunbrella fabric-covered cushions and a Wave Hill lawn chair. The Wave Hill chair was based on a design by Gerrit Rietveld, part of the Dutch art movement de Stijl along with Piet Mondrian. The chair is painted red, like the memorial.
Also in red is the Lip bench by Colin Selig, a settee that looks like it lopped off the top part of the Rolling Stones logo and reformed it out of a repurposed propane tank. Studio Tord Boontje also incorporates red into its nylon Sunny and Shadowy chair designs for Moroso, which are digitally drawn and woven by craftsmen in Senegal. The whimsical rolled frames are based on beach furniture used at the North Sea in Europe in the 1920s.
Equally iconic in a more hardline geometric way is a brick armchair by John Houshmand. Softened somewhat with cushions, it still imparts a sense of a Le Corbusier chair that has petrified.
Another hard and cold material has been transformed into a graceful armchair with a straight angular back and seat with a fluid, curving apron and cabriole legs, all in sterling silver. That piece, the Louise club chair by Paul Mathieu for the Stephanie Odegard Collection, is in the gallery, along with several other tables, chairs, and loungers needing extra shelter from the elements. The Fortune Cookie bench by Johnny Swing purports to be stainless steel, but is also made of hundreds of United States quarters in a pleasing curvaceous form that does resemble its namesake.
There are more traditional materials such as teak, aluminum, steel, and woven fibers included, but they are used in novel ways. The Two-Seater sofa from Norm Architects for Design Within Reach is made of mesh and teak, but has a midcentury-style frame, made more fluid and delicate by a black mesh fabric that feels very Now. The teak Pagoda furniture for Landcraft Environments is its opposite, stocky and blocky with an Asian inflection that would never be considered staid.
Gaze Burvill’s Boardwalk Jubilee Spiral bench is basically as described by its name, taking Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” aesthetic and applying it to oak seating in a way that directs those sitting there outward and somewhat away from each other. The firm’s Border two-person seat encourages in timacy with a cozy bentwood seat back.
The Outdoor Chaise lounge chair by Maximillian Eicke for Max ID uses bent teak and strong angles to mold to the body in a way that looks organic and comfortable in a sturdy, structured package. It sits on a polished stainless steel base.
In aluminum, color seems to be an important consideration, particularly red, punctuated by white and black. Michael D’Amato has designed Star chairs and Fluid Ribbon chairs for Lamberti Decor, each looking very much like their muse. The ribbon chairs seem particularly comfortable, with split seats and backs that hint at a custom fit for back and bottom. A red aluminum bowl planter supported by a base in the shape of a jack, by Shannon Lester for Steel Life, fits nicely in this setting.
Plastic and ceramic are also popular options, including a chair by Thomas Heatherwick for Herman Miller that looks like a giant indented head of a push-pin, called the Spun chair. It is red and has a rudimentary swivel option.
Ceramic cube seats by Gustav Kraitz might be cooling in the shade on a hot afternoon.
Taking their cues from the more natural state of their materials, designers such as Huga Franca, whose Calunga chaise appears to be taken straight from the trunk of a pequi tree, and Gary Haven Smith, whose Conchoid bench is not far removed from the glacial boulder it was carved from, create seating that looks as though the garden grew it.
Intermixed with some of the world’s best furniture designers and architects, including this year’s Pritzker Prize-winning architect Shigeru Ban, represented by his 10-Unit System, are a few South Fork masters, among them Silas Marder, Jose Oscar Molina, and Nico Yektai, whose designs all take new and fresh approaches to what might otherwise be standard dining and seating options.
Obviously there are far more things to see and covet, and even if your garden will never look like Mr. Larsen’s you might still be able to take home a piece of this year’s incarnation with one or more of these “Exterior” designs.