Deck chairs.

The common deck chair has had its day. It used to be common enough, covering every sunny surface of the ocean liners, spread thickly on popular beaches, or waiting patiently in almost every garden shed for its moment of summer glory. Now, for garden use, the deck chair has been superseded by both the cheaper and the more luxurious outdoor furniture, leaving the deck chair in the doldrums. This is just the moment for the modest collector to take an interest in it.

Do not get the wrong impression. I am not suggesting that the deck chair will feature as the next blue-chip art investment. But the trend for fine examples is definitely on the up-and-up.

``What fine examples?'' you may ask. ``Isn't a deck chair just a deck chair?''

Not when it's a steamer chair. These are the aristocrats of the breed. These solid slatted, wood reclining chairs with adjustable back and foot rests were made for the luxury ocean liners of the '20s and '30s.

As a rule, when an old piece is being reproduced it has arrived as an antique; and modern copies of steamer chairs can now be had for 95 to 120. Originals are worth seeking out and may be expensive.

If, at those prices, you feel that you have already missed the boat and that you will never be able to bring to your garden the charm and discomfort of an age gone by, all is not lost. There are numerous alternatives just waiting to be discovered.

Reclining outdoor chairs do not have a long history. Until the 1920s, a tan was considered in polite society to be quite vulgar. Folding garden chairs of the late 19th century and the early years of the 20th are no-nonsense affairs from the days of straight backs even in the garden, neat little cucumber sandwiches, and wing collars regardless of temperature. Movable reclining chairs first made their appearance in the conservatories of the belle 'epoque. Those made of wicker or the slatted wood frame, long chairs with handles and wheels -- looking remarkably like green grocers' carts, can occasionally be bought but rarely for a modest amount.

The more luxurious deck chairs, dating from the inter-war period were well made, usually of beech and stained to protect from the weather. Some had the addition of an integral or detachable foot rest, and many had arms. For those who were not completely abandoned to the fashion of sun worship, a genteel awning with scalloped or fringed border would be a necessity.

Many of these still serviceable chairs can be bought for a very modest amount in what used to be called junk shops, or from dealers who specialize in house clearance. They can also be bought in local auctions, but here you may have to be prepared to take away with them any amount of ``interesting'' items the auctioneer can dispose of in no other way.

To refurbish your alfresco investment you may have to begin with paint stripper and steel wool or wire brush to remove old varnish. The clean wood should be treated with either teak oil or a modern weatherproof varnish. The oil will give a more natural look, but will need an application each year; the varnish will have a glossy appearance, but will last for several years.

Deck chair canvas can be bought either in cut lengths or from a roll with a standard width of 17 inches. Price per meter ranges from 2 to 4; and designs are plentiful, including plain colors, stripes, and multicolored patterns. The adventurous may like to paint their own designs onto a plain canvas with fabric paints. Avoid nailing the canvas to the wood frame, ot it will eventually become peppered with holes.

You would not be the first unconventional homemaker to use deck chairs in the sitting room.

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