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Can Inflatable Outdoor Furniture Ever Be Chic?


For the recurring series, That’s Debatable, we take on a contentious issue of the day and present two spirited arguments—one in favor and the other emphatically opposed.

INFLATABLE FURNITURE CAUSED A SENSATION when it hit the mod design scene in the 1960s, and seems to have been inflating and deflating in popularity ever since. During its brief resurgence in the 1990s, the genre was associated less with style pioneers than tween girls and dorm rooms. Yet some style watchers say the trend is once again having a moment, especially in outdoor furnishings.

What’s behind this boomerang? Los Angeles interior designer Kimberly Biehl sees a parallel between the eras. “The vibrant palettes of the 1960s were a direct contrast to the grim political times we were in,” Ms. Biehl explained. “People wanted color and joy.” While not for everyone, she said, the new iterations of inflatables—like Mojow’s MW02 chair, which pairs a linear acrylic frame with colorful inflatable thermoplastic cushions—“feel like a fresh design that I could see working for a retro-modern home.”

A striking balloon chair from French designer Marie Galoyer combines poolside fun with pop art. (Sit’in Bulles Chair, $650, Marie Galoyer, +33-6-65-46-85-28)

Still, other pros remain resolutely skeptical of the genre’s practicality—and staying power. So, is the trend worth taking seriously? We reached out to design experts to get their take on the inflatable debate. Here’s what both sides had to say.

Yes, today’s patio-ready inflatables are fun, well-designed statement pieces that are built better than ever.

“I think the appeal of inflatables is always a sense of playfulness,” said Temi Stallings, an interior designer in Cape Town, South Africa, who has suggested poolside inflatables to clients in the past. “The aesthetic feels youthful and relaxed.”

New York City architecture and design critic Alexandra Lange noted that though the style has retro roots, today’s inflatables one-up the originals by offering decidedly modern comfort. “In the 1960s, inflatables were a wonderful way to suggest we needed to free ourselves from the confines of the living room set, but I suspect in practice they were squeaky and sticky,” she said. “Last summer, I tried and loved an inflatable hammock…and I was impressed by how much [fabrication] had improved.”

Sharon Francis, author of “Bubbletecture: Inflatable Architecture and Design,” explained that environmental concerns have also helped bring the trend full circle. “[Today’s] inflatables offer a space for exploration, just as they did in the ’60s.” For instance, the French brand Mojow now uses a recyclable and biodegradable thermoplastic in all of their new products.

To other enthusiasts, inflatables are not just furniture but art. “Looking at it, I instantly saw that ’60s photo of a woman floating in a bubble on the Seine,” Ms. Biehl said of Sit’in Bulles, a translucent beach ball-esque chair created by French designer Marie Galoyer. “These are statement pieces for inside or out.”

On the flip side, added Ms. Biehl, there’s an appealing practicality to inflatables that deflate and stash for easy storage. Plus, said Ms. Stallings, amphibious pieces, like the Lazy Chair made by the Fillup Club, offer twice the pleasure, doing double duty as floats in the pool and lounges on land.

No, blow-up outdoor furniture is an impractical gimmick that will never have staying power.

For reasons both practical and aesthetic, naysayers argue that the current interest in inflatables is just a passing fad—and one that someone really ought to have stuck a pin in way back during its first revival in the 1990s.

Specifically, said interior designer Amanda Reynal of Des Moines, Iowa, it’s the brief shelf life—both literal and stylistic—of inflatable pieces that gives her pause. “When I purchase furnishings for clients,” she explained, “it’s generally quite a large investment. It’s my responsibility to make sure I’m suggesting something that will have longevity.” (Consider the ever-present fear of leaks and pops.)

Atlanta designer Jared Hughes remarked that inflatables and the great outdoors seem like especially strange bedfellows. “[These pieces] don’t feel natural enough to coexist outside with nature.” Although he could see one being used “at a Las Vegas pool party,” Mr. Hughes felt that most designs would call too much attention to themselves when arranged in a typical residential backyard. “I think outdoor furniture should be a part of the environment,” he said. “It doesn’t need to have such a voice.”

Inflatables also lack a sense of refinement that Mr. Hughs prizes. His particular pet peeve? The extreme color palettes. “They come off as very middle school, like a Lisa Frank, Trapper Keeper situation,” he said, referencing the riotously colorful cartoon stationery supplies beloved by late-20th-century tweens.

Scott Yetman, an interior designer in Montreal, agreed that inflatable furniture has a hard time escaping connotations that are not just youthful but childish. “I’m sure my little brother had a Charlie Brown blow-up chair,” he recalled.

“I’m not opposed to sitting in a swimming pool on an inflatable doughnut with a drink in my hand,” Mr. Yetman said. “But as far as furniture goes, I can’t really see it being the next big thing.”

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