With the hotel market becoming increasingly competitive, operators are turning to more designer led furniture as a means to make their exterior spaces stand out from the crowd.
Outdoor furniture has come on a long way from the humble table and chair. Furniture manufacturers are now experimenting both with material and design more than ever before to create increasingly innovative solutions. Outdoor furniture is no longer viewed as just a functional addition to a terrace or poolside, but as an object of high design and aesthetic value.
Much of this stems from the fact that greater use is now made of the outdoor space in the region than in the past. Rather than being seen as completely separate from the interior of a property, the outdoor space is now looked upon as an extension of it.
Whilst functionality is still of the utmost importance, aesthetics are playing a key role in the finished product. Years ago it was all about function, but now it is also about form.
"We view the outdoor space more as an outdoor living room," says Kevin Snyder, marketing manager, garden furniture brand Royal Botania. "Having created a luxury interior, it follows that people will want to create a luxury outdoor space."
This is particularly the case in the hospitality arena where the outdoor space is increasingly used to promote the hotel to potential clients.
"Many advertisements for hotels simply feature images of the outdoor environment, focusing on a comfortable lounge or seating area including private pavilions and parasols. Leisure furnishings within a beautiful environment are the connection between the guest and their vacation experience," says Dougan Clarke, founder of shading company Tucci.
Designers now place almost as much emphasis on designing the exterior space of a property as they do the interior, and use elements such as cushions, rugs, loungers and mood lighting as well as the usual table and chairs to create exterior environments.
There has been a big increase in demand in the region for private shaded pavilions, notes Dougan Clarke founder of shading company Tucci.
"It is all about comfort and accessibility. Private pavilions allow you to create an oasis of comfort for the guest which will enhance their experience exponentially," he says.
Given the large number of luxury hotels under development in the region, coupled with the increased focus on outdoor space, it is hardly surprising that hotels and resorts are now investing more in outdoor design.
Many well-known designers are now involved in outdoor furniture design. Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola, for example, recently created an outdoor range for Italian brand B&B Italia.
An example of just how high design outdoor furniture design has become is evidenced by the new Wave hammock by Swedish design duo Erik Nyberg and Gustav Strom.
Launched at this year's Hotel Show in Dubai, the product received three design nominations at the recent Maison & Objet trade show in Paris, France. The innovation is described as a cross between a hammock, a sun chair and a parasol.
"Compared to five or ten years ago the design element is becoming stronger," says Mark Sault, managing director of outdoor furniture supplier Parasol. "Whilst functionality is still of the utmost importance, aesthetics are playing a key role in the finished product. Years ago it was all about function, but now it is also about form."In terms of shapes, modern, geometric designs are gaining popularity as hotels go for a contemporary look with minimalist, clean lines. However, there is also a practical reason for the preference for square tables and chairs - in a commercial setting these can easily be pushed together to create more room."
Stackability is an essential consideration for commercial projects, says David Bilhari, marketing manager of outdoor brand Classique. "For outdoor lounge areas, space-saving tables with ottomans or stools tucking neatly underneath are becoming more common," says Bilhari.
"It allows for both casual ‘low dining' and ‘relaxed lounging' applications within the space concerned."
Building on the increased usage of the exterior space, many new furniture lines are designed with a view to being used in both interior and exterior environments. Material innovations mean that outdoor furniture lines are now developed to perform equally well both inside and outside the property, notes Bilhari.
"A much larger choice of synthetic weaves and fabric patterns and colour, have enabled the term ‘outdoor-indoor' furniture to be used more frequently, when specifying projects," he says.
"Obviously the materials are heat and UV tested and durable enough to last in the blistering climate, yet at the same time the design is elegant enough and light enough to be moved through to the inside of guest rooms, lobby areas and into the bar or lounge precinct of the location," he adds.
Selecting the right material is a key consideration when specifying outdoor furniture. While natural materials may appeal to clients, most manufacturers are in agreement that synthetics are infinitely more suitable for use outdoor environments, particularly in a hot, humid climate like the Middle East.
"At the moment synthetic rattan is gaining popularity is this region," says Sault. "Synthetic rattan can withstand the vagaries of this region's climate but is also extremely low maintenance requiring only a hose down if it becomes dusty."
Another benefit of synthetic rattan, according to Sault, is its flexibility, which is more suited to organic designs than the straighter, more regimented lines of wooden furniture.
Bilhari agrees. "The necessity of having true maintenance-free materials used for outdoor applications is seeing now very little organic fibres used for external applications. Repair and replacement costs of natural rattan fibres and timber cannot be compared to the long-term saving made when choosing synthetics. The mid-tone synthetic wicker colours have been our most popular around the GCC. They don't absorb as much heat, and don't show dirt and sand quite as much," he says.
Innovation in material production has meant that while a few years ago a hardwood such as teak was the main option for hard wearing outdoor furniture, modern designs can be made from everything from stainless steel, which has undergone a special electro polishing treatment to ensure it survives in a harsh climate, to aluminium.
Aluminium is particularly adapted to warm climates, as unlike traditional metal furniture, which can overheat and is prone to rust in the presence of a sprinkler system, it does not hold the heat when exposed to the sun, and is lightweight, easy to maintain, UV resistant and does not rust, say suppliers.
"We are using more and more new materials in our designs," says Snyder. "Five or ten years ago solid, luxury outdoor furnishings were all in teak. Now people are asking for all kinds of materials."Other companies are looking to other industries for innovations in their designs. Shading company Tuuci uses marine-grade materials in its shades, which are more commonly used in the luxury yacht manufacturing world than the outdoor furnishing industry.
The materials are considered ideal for use in outdoor furnishing as they are particularly resistant to UV exposure and harsh wind swept and salt air climes, according to the company. "We have developed technology in the composites industry which have helped create natural wood-like finishes while leaving the maintenance of these materials to an absolute minimum," notes Clarke.
One of the key considerations in the selection of outdoor furniture is maintenance with requirements varying greatly depending on the material used.
Particular care needs to be taken with wood, say furniture suppliers.
If wood is to be selected for use in outdoor furnishings, it is important to remember that without proper maintenance it will suffer with exposure to the heat, they warn. Untreated timber left exposed to sun and water will turn grey and start cracking.
Suppliers advise that timber furniture is treated with good quality oil every three to four months to maintain its natural appearance.
"High quality teak should be the first choice for any customer wanting a wooden look," explains Sault. "The Middle East has specific problems due to the incredible heat coupled with the humidity during the summer. This means only good quality materials should be considered. High quality teak which has been kiln dried will withstand years of the Middle Eastern climate, but even this will require some maintenance. Soft woods or non kiln dried woods should be avoided as these will warp and crack very quickly."
Balancing the budget
One obstacle to greater usage of design-led outdoor furniture is the higher cost involved at the purchase point.
High design furniture may look attractive, but the price tag can be off putting - Nyberg and Strom's Wave hammock costs US$39,000 for instance.
Coming at the tail end of the budget, it is tempting for hotel operators and other commercial property owners to cut corners when specifying furniture.
But with the luxury hotel market becoming increasingly crowded and operators keen to find new ways to make their property stand out from the competition, it is important not to underestimate the potential return on investment in the outdoor space and innovative furniture, say suppliers.
"Property developers, owners and operators must invent themselves and set their properties apart from the competition. Innovation in outdoor landscapes is the key to success through functional design which conveys an emotion and connection to comfortable, open air living," says Clarke.
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