How We Do It: The Evolution of An Outdoor Room

The days are getting warmer. The boxwood outside of my window are flushing out in new, bright green growth. Early birds like forsythia, redbud, and camellia are in full bloom and the dogwoods are just days away from their full glory. It’s springtime in Virginia and everyone is outside, albeit six feet apart for now. 

Our thoughts have turned outside toward our lawns, our gardens, and our outdoor living areas. Outdoor rooms are a big part of our home décor now. In designing exterior living spaces, our approach is much the same as interior ones. Beauty is a prerequisite, comfort is important, and durability is a necessity. Avoiding furniture groups in matching sets and cultivating an outdoor room that has the right mix of materials creates an evolved, layered space. In the images below, note the quiet color palette (more on this later), and the addition of tall pedestals with ferns. Just as an interesting exterior garden is landscaped with plants that vary in scale and texture, we landscape our outdoor rooms with varying heights of furnishings and accessories.

In the rear of the brick Georgian home below, the terrace seating area and dining space have a mix of powder-coated aluminum seating, woven chairs, lead planters, cast stone tables, and ceramic garden stools. On a large, open terrace like this one, adding tall plants can help to create intimacy by spatially defining an area. Again, the color palette is simple. Blacks, whites, grays, and greige are the building blocks we prefer — Mother Nature is a dominating color force and we like to take a backseat to her ever-changing palette. Small garden stools have multiple uses in an outdoor room and can serve as drink tables, plant stands, and extra seating.

Waterfront properties and tropical climes (like the south Florida bungalow below) beg for and in turn tolerate pops of true color. So, while everything pales next to the gorgeous purple bougainvillea, we added turquoise accessories like pillows, planters, and a whimsical umbrella. A circular jute rug defines the seating area, and a sweet pup has definitely found his happy place on the sofa.

The waterfront porch below has panoramic views. So, with the surrounding expanse of blue sky and water, blue accessories seemed the logical choice for a color accent. Vintage grey wicker with white cushions are dressed with a range of blue pillows in hues from sky blue to deep indigo. The rattan peacock chairs bring a taller landscape element. The mix of materials is what gives the room a warm, lived-in feeling. The collection of wicker furniture (a family heirloom) feels right at home in this historic farmhouse, as do the antique trunk and the vintage tortoise shell table next to the napping cots.

Everything tastes better outside! Make time to tablescape your outdoor dining rooms just like the interior ones.

In the winter months, this mountain terrace is home to strong winds. Heavier teak furnishings insure that nothing can be blown about and feels more in keeping with the overall rustic vibe. The ceilings lanterns are chained in all four corners for added stability. Like the pillows, bean bag footrests provide a softer touch.

We often change out accessories in summer and winter seasons and a few small tweaks can make a dramatic impact. The two photos below show a mountain home porch outfitted with seasonal changes. In the top photo, the addition of a puffy white hide footrest and a fur blanket take the chill off. The roaring fire doesn’t hurt. Rules are made to be broken, so we veered off of our quiet palette for the upholstery cushions. If limiting your palette to black, white, and greige is difficult, make sure to use colors that you can see in your vista like the blue of the sky or as below, the green of the evergreens on the mountain range.

Remember that your outside rooms need to relate to their adjacent interior rooms. The terrace below reflects our client’s preference for clean, streamlined design elements. Tall zinc planters with tailored boxwoods and the simplicity of the Saarinen-inspired table provide a fluid transition from the indoor kitchen.

On my own porch I repeat many of my outdoor design go-tos such as limiting color (let Mother Nature rule the show), a rug that defines a seating space, the addition of tall plants, and a mix of materials including woven chairs, an aluminum sofa, a zinc console table, an antique jardiniere planter, and paper mâché cocktail tables.

Summertime is calling me and so is my summer cottage on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The cushion color on the outdoor porch below was chosen to blend in with the weathered wood of the benches and the teak coffee table aged naturally to a similar hue. Chairs with rope slings have a beachy feel and also a sentimental value: they were woven by two of my sons during their summer working as weavers at our local hammock shop.

If you are leery about installing art in an exterior room, use exterior architectural elements or finds from nature like these pieces of driftwood below. The monkey vine adds height, more sculptural interest, and also serves a dual purpose: when wrapped with small lights it becomes a floor lamp.

Enjoy springtime and start thinking about your outdoor spaces! If you can’t be outside, I hope these pictures transport you to a time very soon when you’ll be dining al fresco with family and friends.

Be safe, Janie