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There’s a reason so many of us (me) aspire to a French style of living; it at once exudes effortlessness and careful attention to detail—the ultimate balance of practice and je ne sais quoi. I’ve always wanted to be that girl whose skin glows naturally, whose drugstore scent is deceptively enticing, and whose home looks stylishly un-styled. Instead, I lather on four creams at bedtime, spend rent money on expensive perfume, and agonize over the placement of books on a shelf.
When I visited Paris for the first time in 2018, I was immediately won over by its year-round outdoor cafe culture—with its patio warmers in the winter, and awnings for shade in the summer. Even in the dead of February, the sidewalks were brimming with jacket-wearing Parisians, skinny cigarettes in hand, huddled over their cafe au laits. I was intoxicated by all this (sans the tobacco), and when I came back to New York, desperately wanted to recreate the experience.
Part of what made this cafe culture possible, I noticed, was the ease with which tables and chairs were brought in and out of establishments as customers ebbed and flowed. It all harked back, I learned, to the end of the 19th century (when the Eiffel Tower was built, electricity was invented and commercialized, and post-Impressionism was creeping in), when the French bistro was flourishing and proprietors needed a way to take advantage of their sidewalk space, without having to pay fixed rent.
Enter: the folding bistro set.
The version you're most likely to see today actually comes from a company called Fermob, a French manufacturer of outdoor metal furniture. Their brightly hued sets can be seen scattered throughout the world—from Mexico City to Jardin du Luxembourg—and make a home at many businesses and homes throughout the U.S.
Fermob was first introduced to the U.S. in 1999, quickly becoming one of Paris’ best exports to our summers. Their bistro set, in particular, has been replicated by countless retailers, is a fixture in Times Square and Bryant Park, and makes a home at many an al fresco establishment.
Their version of the more classic silhouette stems directly from the Simplex design, patented by Edouard Leclerc in 1889, and is denoted by two slats on the backrest, five slats on the seats, and folding tables with crossed legs. It’s sturdy when opened, holds up well in the elements (designed for those nasty flash rain storms in Paris!), and is easy to haul back into the cafe for the night. Fermob put its stamp on it, by expanding the ubiquitous design to 24 colorways (hello, candytopia) and made them from durable, powder-coated steel that retains its color even under intense exposure to the sun. They also went beyond the bistro style, into a decadent line of benches, armchairs, and sectionals that encourage outdoor lounging.
For someone whose largest outdoor space has only ever been about four-square-feet—and that’s more than a lot of New Yorkers can say—a compact, easily-stashed-away set of table and chairs is a non-negotiable. It’s also important for most things in my apartment to do double duty, and this set looks just as comfortable in my kitchen as it does squeezed in outside.
What Fermob did, and did well, is take what was essentially a design icon of the golden age of Paris, and turn it into a modern, beautifully designed, purposeful accoutrement for city living. And while I wish I had a sprawling backyard with room for a Fermob outdoor sectional (sigh), this small-but-mighty set makes what little outdoor space I have entirely worth it.