Designing Outdoor Rooms
An avid gardener, I love to be outdoors. No matter what I’m doing, I always take a moment to look up at the clouds or stars. Then I turn my attention to the beauty of my gardens.
During the last 10 years I’ve been focused on giving garden tours and lectures, always emphasizing my garden design philosophy of using color, texture and interest throughout the year. This was also the focus of my first book, “Life On Mar’s: A Four Season Garden.”
I’m finishing up my second book about designing casually luxurious rooms. So now it’s time for me – and you as well – to turn my attention to outdoor spaces, or outdoor rooms as I like to call them. Outdoor rooms should follow indoor design principles. I created the outdoor spaces at my home in Westport to be extensions of my indoor spaces. No matter where you look, color and texture play a leading role just as they would indoors. I wanted an explosion of eye candy beyond the normal outdoor designs to blur the lines between outdoor and indoor living.
Two matching Adirondack chairs in my front yard are for taking in the cool morning air or for resting while I wait for guests to arrive. Each chair, painted in an orange inspired by Hermes, holds an oversized brown and white pillow to complete the look and make the space even more inviting. Once through the side rose-and-parterre garden you enter the privacy of my backyard. I’ve mirrored the front yard tableau under my Bradford Pear tree with two teak chaise lounges that invite you to relax and enjoy the views of the wisteria and honeysuckle- covered garden studio. This is the perfect place to come for shade to get away from the afternoon sun.
Just off the back French door spills a pebble and slate patio lined with Belgian blocks. An all-weather wicker loveseat, made from two sectional end pieces, is just the right size and scale. A limestone console table shows off small planters of succulents with reflective globes to capture the light. A teak coffee table is the perfect place to display weather-tolerant collectibles such as beach rocks and driftwood. An extra large pair of chairs completes the design.
A burst of blue from hydrangeas in oversized containers is complimented by the lush texture of boxwoods. An antique black urn with a rosemary plant is decorative and functional. The Garden Studio is the central part of my garden design, but here, too, one can sit, protected from the sun or inclement weather. For large gatherings this becomes the heart of the adjacent outdoor rooms and is where I have the bar or buffet table.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner can be served under the pergola; the rectangular table offers plenty of seating. Covered in zinc it is all weather as are the four teak side chairs and the two wicker armchairs. Even if I am not dining I always leave something on the table. Nothing is sadder than an empty table! I’ve turned a mirror into a tray to reflect light and to frame and highlight garden ornaments – in this case, a stone dove.
My custom-built shed by Kloter Farms plays a functional and decorative role in my outdoor room design. I store garden tools in this eight foot - by - eight foot space. Shelves are lined with vases and candles. The shed doubles as my garden office where I tuck myself away to write about my most recent garden activities in my journal. This is also where I meet and greet visitors to my garden tours. The pitched cedar shingle roof offers a bonus space for hanging and storing trays and baskets that I use for outdoor entertaining. Now let’s focus on your space using my design principles. I call them the “power of three:” Reason, Design and Style.
Always begin with why you need the space. Over the years I have designed many outdoor rooms for clients all over the country, and no matter how big or small a property might be the outdoor room concept is attainable. Even an apartment terrace can be transformed through great design. Most of our time outdoors is spent with our families and entertaining our friends. But big outdoor spaces can end up unused if the whole family is not present. That’s why I find the most intimate spaces can be the most rewarding to design.
You should always begin by identifying each zone. Understanding the zones helps you tackle vast properties by turning large spaces into a sequence of smaller spaces. Smaller spaces can seem roomier when you discover the real reason for having them and design accordingly – funny how that works. Regardless of your reasons or the size of the space there is one important rule you all should live by: Never, ever design a space for one person unless you want to stay single for the rest of your life. Two chairs, two chaises or even a hammock for two will do. The whole idea is to make the space inviting for you and someone else.
Designing an outdoor room is easy when you focus on four important details. One: Lighting. Two: Flooring. Three: Furniture. Four: Accessories. Lighting: Plan around the sun. For example, if you’re looking for a place to rest, find a space where you get shade; if you’re looking for an area to entertain, find a bright area that is protected from the full sun but has filtered light. For the best dining area look for a cool, well-lighted space that provides a respite during meals.
My outdoor dining space was once in the backyard with easy access from the back door and kitchen. But I realized that in the morning it was too cool as the house cast shade. At lunchtime it was too hot. Only after 6 p.m. was it just right. So last year I moved my outdoor dining area under the pergola. The pergola, with vines of wisteria intertwined with clematis, offers a bright yet filtered light. Flooring: Just like any well-appointed room you must begin from the ground up. Carpet, tiles or wood surfaces are the norm indoors, but the choices for an outdoor space can be even more exciting. Consider cobblestone, Belgian blocks, pebbles, brick and slate.
These materials offer durability and drainage. Mix them for greater effect. My outdoor living room combines three materials: Belgian block borders, pebbles and slate. The slate design mimics a throw carpet under the coffee table, which if not completely fooling the eye does send a subconscious signal of familiarity about the arrangement.
Furniture and Accessories:
One of the best things about designing an outdoor space is that you can be bold and use larger pieces that might be off-scale inside. Create boundaries with furniture or shrubs, allowing the openness to take center stage. A good outdoor design motto could be “No walls? No borders? No problem!” You can create spaces, from an intimate set of chairs for coffee on the lawn to a dining space under an old oak tree. With the “no wall” concept there are no limitations.
STYLE: Decide on your decorative style and stick to it. This will help you make choices about everything from furnishings to shapes. The art of mixing and matching comes easily when you pull from visual patterns, textures and layers found in nature.
Following furniture lines is a clever way to extend design schemes from room to room. A circular table can benefit from a round chair. Round decorative items in the next room results in visual continuity. The same is true of color. Tone-on-tones are fantastic indoors when you incorporate different textures such as faux fur, cable knit, linen and cotton. Duplicate these principles outdoors: all-season, all-weather materials can benefit when mixed together, from canvas to cotton to linen. Another way to add a touch of luxury to a casual space is to use fabrics as you would indoors, such as tossing a light blanket over a sectional. (You’ll have to bring the blanket in each night to protect it from the elements.)
Never, ever buy your furniture as a set unless you want your home to look like a showroom. Instead, mix and match, letting a color or texture be your guide. Iron can be mixed with teak and all-weather wicker can be blended with limestone. Your out- door room will look and feel organic, not like something that was shipped in and installed. Decide on focal points. Focal points are important because they dictate the flow of your space. Each outdoor space should have a least one area to focus on. It could be as simple as a view of the garden, pool or lawn. Either embrace an existing view or create one just as you would inside your home.
Do you want to look at the neighbor’s garage or your garden? Hopefully your garden! Always arrange rooms to direct attention to vistas that you can control and away from anything unpleasant. I’ve made sure in my own home that you are looking at something I want you to see – the Garden Studio, a garden bed, a grove of trees – rather than a fence, a driveway or a road.
Daylight hours are no problem, but night needs some help. Candlelight is good but should never be your only source; candlelight is best – and most practical – when it’s an accent. If you’ll be entertaining most often at night I strongly suggest up-lighting or spotlighting parts of your garden or home in addition to the outdoor room itself. Why? You don’t want your views and focal points to disappear. In fact, spot lighting might allow you to create a focal point at night where none exists during the day. The best way to find these focal points, such as a single tree, is to walk your property at night with a powerful hand-held flashlight. Shine the light, step back and observe. Consider up-lighting for trees and your home’s standout architectural details. Reserve low lighting for walkways and steps.
Carefully choose your lighting hardware (including a timer/power source), and consider wiring options. Just like icing on a cake, I recommend doing this last. Design the accent lighting around the space, not the space around the lighting.
My own home, Rosebrook Gardens, has been photographed for many local and national magazines. It also serves as the backdrop for the FOX Connecticut lifestyle show, Northeast Living, which I host. Whenever my home appears on camera or in print I get a round of emails, Facebook friend requests and Twitter tweets with wonderful comments and questions such as, “Where did you get that? and “I love your style!” and “Come fix my place!” So this season open your own doors to the bonus rooms waiting to be discovered outside. Expand your space and your life!
And there you have it.