A Brief History of Metal Lawn Furniture, aka 'Motel' Chairs

Outdoor Furniture and Accessories

motel chair
A retro motel chair in front of a motel in Santa Barbara. Lisa Hallett Taylor

Every few years or so, metal lawn chairs, occasional tables, and gliders that are powder-coated in assorted colors become popular again. Why? Perhaps a retailer features them in a new catalog, they're pictured in an ad for some other product or company, or are glimpsed in a movie or cable series. In case you haven't noticed, things have a tendency to go in and out of style.

Originally, those colorful stamped metal lawn chairs were the ones that Grandma (or Great-Grandma) and her friends would sit and slowly glide in or on while they sipped beverages on the front porch.

Later referred to as "motel" chairs for their propensity to show up near pools or outside the front offices of Route 66 motels, most of ​the originals were allowed to rust and corrode until it was time for them to be sent to lawn chair heaven. Others know these iconic pieces as bouncer, shell-back, clamshell, or tulip chairs.

Post-World War II Chairs

It was after World War II that Ed Warmack, an Arkansas manufacturer and sheet metal fabricator, became the largest producer of gas heaters in the United States. The Warmack Co. also began making steel lawn furniture for all of those postwar families and new houses with backyards springing up throughout the country. Demand increased for metal lawn chairs, gliders, matching steel lawn tables, and swivel-based platform rockers. The company soon became the biggest steel lawn furniture manufacturer in the U.S. Some lines were designed exclusively for the Sears department store and were featured in their seasonal catalogs.

In 1954, Flanders Industries bought the metal lawn furniture company from Warmack and continued production until 1996. By then, the more sophisticated outdoor casual furniture industry was in full swing, and consumers wanted large, comfortable, upholstered patio furniture to fill up their outdoor rooms.

The less expensive casual furniture--including those metal lawn chairs--had been replaced by plastic and resin chairs that were lightweight and stackable.

The Torrans to the Rescue

In 2002, a nostalgia-minded couple named Louis and Kathy Torrans and their appropriately named Torrans Manufacturing Company reintroduced the same collection of iconic metal lawn furniture, along with some tweaks and updates. They have the molds and tooling to produce several different styles of vintage-inspired chairs and gliders. Minor modifications have been made to improve upon Warmack's classic designs, and the Torrans consider the chairs and other pieces to be "continuations and not reproductions or copies" of the originals. One change: Torrans Manufacturing Co.'s metal chairs are heavier, sturdier, and generally more substantial than the original Mid-century models.

Torrans' metal garden furniture receives an exterior-grade UV-resistant powder-coated finish that they maintain is comparable in hardness to the finish of contemporary automobile paints. There's much more of a variety of colors available with the new lines of stamped metal furniture: turquoise, lime, green, white, blue, maroon, orange, purple, red, seafoam, aqua, honeydew, raspberry, tangerine, huckleberry, lemon, pear, sunkiss, coral, honeycomb, and yellow.

Capitalizing on the retro theme of their products, Torrans' lines include Mad Men-era-sounding names like the Bellaire, the Thunderbird, the Americana, the Parklane, the Belvedere, the Skylark, and the Riviera collections. The company also manufactures vintage-inspired metal coolers and Texas-style Adirondack furniture, designed by Louis "Skip" Torrans. Skip is also the author of the 2014 book, A History of Metal Lawn Furniture, that was referred to on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon in an occasional bit called "Do Not Read" in which Fallon and announcer Steve Higgins mused about the book's subtitle, What We Know Now. Hey, it's a mention, right?