A Short History of Outdoor Furniture



Rustic Collection by Summer Classics

Today’s outdoor furniture is not only beautiful, but the designs are sophisticated and the materials are extremely durable. Outdoor rooms are more than just porches and patios and indoor comforts reign. Summer Classics offers more than 33 furniture collections ranging in styles from cottage to contemporary in resin wickers, teak, and metal. While manufacturing and technological advances offer more looks than ever before, history shows that the first outdoor furnishings harken back to the ancients and were made from woven grasses, stone slabs, and even the earth itself.

Ancestral Outdoor Furniture

While uncovering the forgotten civilizations of Egypt, archeologists discovered dozens of examples of wicker furniture made from reeds and swamp grasses. A plentiful hardy resource, these materials grew in abundance along the banks of the Nile river. The furniture they made was used indoors and out and included pieces such as storage chests, chairs, and baskets.

DID YOU KNOW? Wicker is a weave, not a material.

Made from stalks and branches, wicker is the weave that artisans use to turn plant material (or synthetics) into usable goods such as baskets or furniture. Over the centuries, many cultures and civilizations have contributed to the different styles and patterns of weaves. Materials used include willow, bamboo, rattan, and a variety of grasses.

Victorian Wicker

Victorian wicker turned to intricate designs filled with fanciful curlicues, serpentine lines, and lace-like edging.

Wicker: Victorian and Modern Times

As trade increased in the ancient world, so did the expansion and popularity of wicker furniture. The wicker furniture styles that we recognize today are mostly thanks to Victorian England (1798-1901). Victorian wicker, with its delicate weaves, while artistically beautiful, were fragile. Their fragility makes it rare to find one of the original English antiques in perfect condition.

In the US, wicker came into vogue in the 1850s thanks to Cyrus Wakefield, a Boston native who discovered loads of rattan used for securing cargo at Boston’s shipping docks. (Think today’s bubble wrap!). Wakefield realized that rattan had more possibilities than just cushioning goods and started importing it for furniture making. While the material was inexpensive and readily available, he discovered that artisans capable of hand weaving were scarce and the process proved laborious and time-consuming.

loom wicker

Peninsula Loom Wicker Collection manufactured by Summer Classics 2002-2006

Enter the Loom

Competing with Wakefield, the Heywood brothers created a loom that would make wicker furniture faster and replace the slow process of handwork. The competitors eventually merged and became the Heywood Wakefield company. Together, they dominated the industry until the 1920s when the fashion of wicker furniture began to decline. A resurgence wouldn’t happen in great force until the 1960s and 70s when the first cost-effective synthetics became available.

Halo Collection | Summer Classics

Hand-woven resin wicker furniture from the Halo Collection by Summer Classics

Wicker for Beauty and Longevity:

Today, Summer Classics offers hand woven wicker in synthetic N-Dura™ resins that are both stylish and long-lasting. Summer Classics has reinstituted the art form of hand weaving giving overdue attention to the age-old craft and as a result, greater strength and durability. Click HERE to see Summer Classics’ resin wicker furniture collections.

Stone Bench

Stone: Durable, but definitely not the most comfortable!

Before wicker migrated to Rome, the most prevalent style of outdoor furniture was stone slab benches. Gardens have always played a big part in the design of outdoor furniture. Just as archeologists discovered wicker furniture in ancient Egypt, they also uncovered formal garden designs in Pompeii, the Roman city destroyed (and eerily well preserved) by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Designed for recreation, rest, and worship, the symmetrically designed gardens and outdoor rooms show evidence of benches and statuary along with walkways and fountains. Beyond Pompeii—and still today, stone benches are used in gardens—but more as a sculptural focal point than a practical seating option.

What Was That About Earthen Seating?

Historians call them turf benches. During the Middle Ages (around the 15th-Century) gardens held a variety of purposes. Some gardens were created for growing food, others for medicines, and still others simply for pleasure. Regardless of their purpose, they were all designed with regard to beauty and were the precursors to many of the formal gardens we see today. The earliest forms of seating in these gardens consisted of earthen benches. Frames were constructed of mounded earth (the most primitive forms) or brick, stone, wood, or woven branches. Once formed, the frames were filled with soil and surfaces were topped with grass.

Per castlesandmanorhouses.com: “While there isn’t a clear delineation between gardens for pleasure and utilitarian gardens, orchards, etc. it’s clear that some parts of some gardens were intended primarily to be a delight to the senses, and others for their end products.

The kitchen or utilitarian garden, in contrast with the pleasure garden, contained food and medicinal plants as well as plants for strewing on floors, making hand waters, quelling insects and other household purposes. Most every manor, abbey, and great estate would have utilitarian gardens, farm fields, and perhaps woods and even vineyards or orchards in addition to some sort of pleasure garden…. Castles and manors often had gardens of pleasure for walking in, with seats, private nooks screened from the wind for sitting, flowery meads for sitting and/or playing games.”

For a list of formal, public gardens throughout the world, click HERE. 

In Medieval paintings and tapestries, turf benches are shown to be rectangular, circular, L-shaped, or U-shaped. According to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, arbors or trellises were sometimes built into the seat to provide shade and shelter, while circular benches were constructed around single trees.

The simplest form of turf bench, and the easiest one to replicate, is the four-walled rectangular frame with turf growing only on the top of the bench. Such benches are very common in representations of medieval gardens, as in the view through the window in a detail of the triptych, The Annunciation.


The view through the window of the Virgin’s household exhibits the simplest form of turf bench: the four-walled rectangular frame with turf growing only on the top of the bench. The turf bench in this painting is especially interesting because it serves not only as seating, but also as an enclosure for the garden. Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden (possibly Hans Memling, active by 1465, died 1494) (Netherlandish, 1399/1400–1464) The Annunciation (detail), 1465–75 Oil on wood; 73 1/4 x 45 1/4 in. (186.1 x 114.9 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 (17.190.7)

Wrought Iron

What About Iron?

Iron is an element that has been around for ages. Both abundant and easy to work, iron is a natural choice for outdoor furniture—if finished correctly.

The earliest iron furnishings in gardens coincided with public parks. Susceptible to rust, iron must be treated to withstand the elements. And, for utmost performance, the highest quality iron must be used.

Garden Benches

Early examples of garden furniture may have showcased great style, but lacked an adequate finish causing rust and deterioration. Many early designs are still replicated in modern ways today. All take their cue from indoor furnishings.

Designed to Last:

Summer Classics uses high quality iron and a four-step finish that ensures this time-honored material will last well beyond the next generation. For Summer Classics furniture, the process consists of taking lengths of iron and forming them into signature, designer looks. Once formed, the iron is electro galvanized, dipped, pre-finished, and powder coated to ensure a high quality finish, designed to combat the elements.

Iron Patio Table and Chairs

Paris Wrought Iron Collection by Summer Classics manufactured 2013-2016

Wood Furniture:

With public parks in urban settings gaining in popularity in early England and America, along came benches for sitting and conversation. The demand for outdoor furniture in private homes and gardens increased as well. Before the creation of what we now consider wood furniture appropriate for outdoor living, people would take their interior furnishings outside to enjoy the temperate seasons.

windsor chair in garden

Seeking to create true wood furnishings for outdoor seating, the English introduced the first wood outdoor chair in the 17th-century. They called it the Windsor chair. A detail of the painting above showcases the use of the Windsor chair in 18th century America. Painting: In America 1772 by William Williams (American artist, 1727-1791). The William Denning Family Collection

Wait. We Use Those Inside.

Yes, we do—today. But, originally they were designed for use in the garden. How’s that? According to Designsponge.com, the chairs were used in the Windsor castle garden in 18th-century England. They became popular garden seats throughout the country and were often painted green or simply left to weather. By the late 1750s, the English Windsor chair was ubiquitous indoors as well as outdoors and would have been used everywhere from inns and taverns to libraries and meeting houses. One of the major selling points of the Windsor chair was its portability. Light and easy to carry to from room to room, it was extremely popular in both England and in North America. The Windsor chair is made from multiple woods — the legs were hardwood, while the seats were a soft wood. (Necessary for that lightness factor.)

Cast Aluminum outdoor furniture

Sheridan Collection by Summer Classics manufactured 2003-2009

Wood Furniture from the 1950s to Today:

Teak furniture made its debut in the mid-1950s. Long used for boat building, flooring, and construction across the globe, the dense tropical hardwood high in oil is naturally insect, disease, and rot resistant. Unlike the mix of woods on the Windsor chair, teak pieces, left untreated, will endure up to 70 years. Left natural, teak weathers to a pretty silver-grey. Treated with oils, teak will retains its golden honey brown color. For more on teak, click HERE. To view Summer Classics teak collection, click HERE.

teak wood patio furniture

Charleston Teak Collection

Modern Advances:

After World War II, the demand for patio furniture boomed and manufacturers started cranking out cheap imitations to quickly fill the demand for suburban backyards. While these pieces served a purpose and cost very little, the inexpensive materials lasted little more than a season. Even painted pieces that were more sturdy had a limited life span.

Summer Classics works with designers and engineers well-versed in styles and materials that perform. From iron to resin wickers to teak to upholstered, each collection is cultivated and tested to ensure longevity and comfort with little to no-maintenance.

Resin Wicker and Aluminum Outdoor Furniture

Aire Collection










past & present: windsor chair history + resources