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Forest Moor Road, Knaresborough, North Yorkshire, HG58JY

Garden Furniture EST:1998

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The History Of Garden Furniture

The importance of a garden and outside living space has grown in the last few years. Following the lockdown, it is no surprise that making the most of gardens is a significant project and a key part of our homes. In fact, in the UK in 2021, households spent an average of £670[1] on upgrading their outdoor space.


The importance of a garden and outside living space has grown in the last few years. Following the lockdown, it is no surprise that making the most of gardens is a significant project and a key part of our homes. In fact, in the UK in 2021, households spent an average of £670[1] on upgrading their outdoor space.

So while garden furniture is booming now, with search terms such as ‘garden furniture‘ receiving a considerable rise in Google searches (up 293% in 2021), we have thousands of years to thank for some of the garden furniture we love today.


So while garden furniture is booming now, with search terms such as ‘garden furniture‘ receiving a considerable rise in Google searches (up 293% in 2021), we have thousands of years to thank for some of the garden furniture we love today.


Rattan garden furniture in ancient Egypt

It’s hard to believe that the rattan furniture that is so popular today has origins from thousands of years ago. In fact, from 3000 BC, there is evidence of furniture made from reeds and marsh grasses, all woven to create wooden-type furniture.

While rattan is made from vines in the forest canopy, and the Egyptian chairs were made from reeds and grasses, there are elements of similar design and how this woven technique provides structure, durability and comfort.

While archaeologists have discovered rattan-type furniture along the Nile, it is unclear whether any of these items were specifically garden furniture. So instead, we have to move to ancient Rome for documented evidence of garden furniture being made and enjoyed by homeowners.



Stone benches from ancient Rome

One of the first documented pieces of evidence of garden furniture dates back to 43AD. This was in ancient Rome and is of garden benches. Beautifully preserved structures were found in Pompeii[3], and these were signs that, during this period, gardens, or typically open courtyards within villas, known as peristyles, as well as walkways called porticos, featured garden furniture.

The courtyards and gardens of ancient Rome were known to be ornate and beautifully designed. As a result, these were spaces to spend time in, relax and converse. Consequently, carved benches[4] were deployed across gardens in the Roman empire.

While these benches may be beautifully designed, these benches were not particularly comfortable. However, they were still an important part of garden design and a place to sit and talk with guests while taking in the fresh air and sunshine in exquisite courtyards.

In ancient Rome, gardens were used for leisure time, entertainment and even worship, so as well as benches and seating, gardens would feature shrines, statues, and water features such as fountains as well as pergolas. In addition, garden walls may feature frescos or paintings, making gardens a space to really enjoy and spend time in.

It is perhaps no surprise that many people still use Roman inspiration in their garden design, from statues and columns to pergolas, arches, and stone benches.



Turf benches: garden furniture in medieval times

As we move forward to 476-1453 – the medieval period, we can see further evidence of garden furniture in use. In the Middle Ages, garden furniture was perhaps less elegant and sophisticated than in ancient Rome. Instead, gardens in medieval times were typically more practical and were a space for crops, herbs and flowers.

A typically medieval garden would be quite structured. Excellent examples of medieval gardens are often in monasteries or manor houses and are usually very ordered with square or rectangular raised beds which would grow medicinal herbs as well as food. These gardens were often termed ‘physic gardens’[5] but they offered beauty as well as practicality.

Beyond these courtyard gardens, you could often find more sprawling orchards[6]; within the medieval gardens, you may find fishponds and dovecotes. With so much in the garden, there is plenty to sit and admire. Furthermore, in monastic gardens, space for reflection was important in the garden too.

Garden furniture was well thought out in medieval gardens, with wattle fences used to provide wind protection and create boundaries. Trellis arbours also created shady spaces where you could sit for a while and enjoy birdsong, flowers and possibly fountains. However, the key garden furniture of medieval times was the idea of turf benches[7].

Turf benches were often rectangular or U-shaped but may also be a curved bench. Made from stone, wattle or wood, filled with earth and topped with grass turf made for comfortable seating in a medieval garden.

While these turf benches are not exactly practical in the UK now, with the risk of muddy clothes, many people create their own turf benches using pallets topped with astroturf.



17th century Renaissance: bringing the indoors outside

The European Renaissance period saw a renewed love for the outdoors. The Renaissance period saw a love affair with French garden style from topiary to water features, menageries to aviaries[8]. The Renaissance also brought the idea of wealth symbols, and during hot summer days, parties and guest visits, it was expected to spend time in beautifully manicured gardens[9].

With this, there was a demand for outdoor seating. During the 17th century, it was customary in large estates for staff to bring indoor furniture outside for guests to recline on.

We see this trend now, with more comfortable seating such as sofas, daybeds and beanbags being used outside, which could look just as good indoors as well as in gardens.


Bistro sets in the 19th century

In Paris, there was a new trend in urban settings. In 1600, bistros began to appear[10]. Separating themselves from taverns, bistros used small marble-top tables to create a more intimate atmosphere[11]. By the 1800s, bistros were at the height of popularity, and these cafes began using these bistro tables outside on pavements and in courtyards to enable people-watching.

As developments in cast iron continued through the 19th century, so did the development of outdoor bistro tables and chair sets. Tables were typically small, perhaps using an x-frame to enable them to be collapsed down at the end of the day. Table and chair sets became more ornate, with scrolled or decorative iron and decorative tabletops.

For bistro chairs, we can thank furniture maker Michael Thonet[12], who designed many award-winning chairs in the 1800s. In 1859, the bistro chair, Number 14[13], won the gold prize at the Paris Exhibition, thanks to the chairs’ ability to be collapsed or stacked at the end of a busy day.

Now, bistro tables and chairs are the perfect piece of garden furniture for small gardens, courtyards, and patios. They are durable, long-lasting, relatively weather-resistant, and easy to fold and tidy away.

A bistro set of garden furniture is the ideal place for breakfast in the mornings, with a bistro set easy to move to the best sunny spot. Team with a cushion or chair pad for extra comfort, a bistro set as garden furniture is ideal for al fresco dining and making use of small garden spaces.


Victoriana cast iron

In the UK, English country gardens made the most of cast iron production. Public parks were becoming places to meet and connect, creating a high demand for iron park benches[14]. On the coast, seaside resorts were developing piers, also growing the demand for outdoor furniture that would withstand the harsh conditions of the salt, water and wind by the coast.

Large-scale production of iron during this time meant that more properties were making the most of the great outdoors with elegant rococo designs of garden benches and chairs.

This period also saw the rise in garden gates, railings and cast iron structures in outdoor spaces too.

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Across the pond: rattan movement

While cast iron was dominating European outdoor furniture designs across the pond in the United States, rattan furniture was growing in popularity. While cast iron offers creative designs and beauty, there was a demand for comfortable outdoor furniture, which is where rattan saw a resurgence.

Inspired by Victorian styling and Art Nouveau, rattan was easier to style into more elaborate designs. Here, we saw greater functionality from rattan furniture[15], with garden furniture collections now featuring rocking chairs, sofas, footrests and even magazine holders.

One of this period’s most interesting garden furniture designs was known as a ‘conversation chair’[16]. This s-shaped rattan chair design allowed courting couples to converse and spend time face-to-face in close proximity but without touching.

As the demand for rattan increased, the cost of imports also increased. By the 20th century, the look of rattan furniture began to change from a tight weave to a more open weave to reduce the materials required for each piece of furniture. This was more prevalent in loungers, armchairs and chaise lounges.

In the last century, rattan has continued to be a popular choice thanks to its modern designs, lightweight practicality, and ability to stain or paint the rattan to suit different colour schemes while also weatherproofing the furniture too.


Post-World War: plastic garden furniture revolution

In the 21st century, there was a garden furniture design for every garden. Following the Second World War, plastic production grew, as did the use of aluminium. Both of these materials are incredibly flexible and versatile, allowing furniture designers to be creative with their garden furniture designs.

The dream of suburban living saw the demand for garden furniture increase. Monobloc plastic garden chairs[17] took the world by storm and could be found in many gardens thanks to their lightweight, weatherproof and stackable nature.

With the ease of plastic moulding, the 1960s and 1970s saw a huge variety of plastic garden furniture options, including loungers and chairs.

The seventies also so an increase in beach chairs and deckchairs made of wooden, metal or plastic frames but with vibrant, patterned textiles.


Garden furniture trends today

After this whistlestop tour of the most influential eras of garden furniture design, we now see a celebration of many different eras of furniture design in our gardens. Luxurious rattan recliners are popular for lounging gardens, while bistro sets are still a popular choice for the patio.

Decking areas may be filled with sprawling relaxing chairs or beanbags, while BBQ areas can be equipped with full-scale garden dining tables.

In wild gardens and flower beds, a garden bench can be a great place to pause and enjoy nature and its wildlife. The current trend is to create firepit centrepieces and choose garden furniture sets with inbuilt firepits for extra cosiness and warmth when the sun goes down.

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What’s the future of garden furniture?

For spring/summer 2023, Pantone has released their colour trend report[18] , and 2023 is set to be bright and bold with colour. The on-trend colours for 2023 and beyond include garden colours such as Cherry Tomato (Pantone 17-1563), Spring Crocus (Pantone 17-3020), Airy Blue (Pantone 14-4122) and a sunshiny Blazing Yellow (Pantone 12-0643).

All of these bright, bold colours ties into the trend that garden furniture for the next few years is set to be bright, bold and colourful. This trend is easy to apply to garden furniture with fresh cushion covers, seat pads or plant pots. However, it is possible to go bold with bright furniture or even repaint garden decking, fences or walls in these trending colours.

Another trend that is beginning to grow is using luxury materials in garden furniture design and ensuring gardens feel as high-end and luxurious as the interiors. Brass, marble, copper, and granite are all set to be big trends in garden furnishings in 2023 and beyond.

Finally, another growing trend for the future of garden furniture is sustainability and investing in quality furnishings that are built to last. With this in mind, shoppers can expect to see an increase in long-lasting modular options and combination sets, where furniture can be quickly adapted and used across a range of situations.