This year's crop of casual furniture and accessories boasts a bounty of new designs in weather-resistant materials and fun new colors.

"Outdoor furniture has become a fashion product," says Carol Harkey, a designer for casual-furniture fabric-maker Phifer Wire Products in the March/April issue of NewHome magazine. "Homeowners are seeing the outdoors as an extension of their home, and are demanding stylish as well as functional furnishings.""Awning stripes," particularly in green and white, as well as floral prints, will proliferate in casual-furniture stores this spring. Sophisticated Southwest colors, rich Victorian jewel tones, jacquard patterns and cotton- or linen-look fabrics are part of a trend toward a more "inside" look for outdoor furniture.

A relatively new fabric for outdoor furnishings, acrylic, now is being sold in bold prints that have the look and feel of cotton without the fade factor. Another weather beater is polyvinylchloride (PVC) mesh fabric, found most often on easy-care "sling" chairs that often are placed at poolside.

White will continue to be the frame color of preference. But there are regional differences here: In the Sunbelt, soft desert colors are tops. In New England, frames are white or green. Midwestern homeowners lean toward white and bone-colored frames, while navy is popular in the South for fabrics and frames. Aluminum frames make up almost one-third of the casual furniture sold in America. A table and four chairs sells at an average price of $735.

All-weather wicker - wicker coated with a plastic-like finish to fend off the elements - also is growing in popularity. An old standby, wrought iron, is making a comeback. Manufacturers are providing more options in cast aluminum, a tough material that provides the elegant look of wrought iron but doesn't rust. Cast aluminum prices range from $700 to $3,000 for a dining group.

The "green consumer" movement has created a new market for wood. Teak benches crafted of wood grown on plantations (not in rain forests) are ideal for formal spots, while traditional Adirondack chairs fit nicely on porches and less formal patios.

With the economy in shambles, casual furniture buyers will find that resin furniture is a good value. Great strides have been made in improving this material so that it holds up for years. The best buys are in hand-finished, higher-grade resin with high-gloss finishes available at casual furniture retail specialty stores. Quality features include greater durability (to prevent cracking) and UV resistance (to prevent yellowing). Prices for a resin dining group range from $499 to $799 on average but can go for as much as several thousand dollars.

For a free guide to buying casual furniture plus a listing of local casual furniture retailers, call 800-832-4663 and ask for extension 100.