15 Top Designer Tips for Creating Inviting Outdoor Spaces

Designers James Farmer, Terracotta Design Build and etúHOME share some of their favorite outdoor design tips for creating the perfect retreat.

July 22, 2020

Photo By: Alea Moore

Photo By: Jeff Herr Photography

Photo By: Jeff Herr Photography

Photo By: Jeff Herr Photography

Photo By: Jeff Herr Photography

Photo By: Jeff Herr Photography

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Jeff Herr Photography

Photo By: Jeff Herr Photography

Photo By: Alea Moore

Photo By: Alea Moore

Photo By: Alea Moore

Photo By: Alea Moore

Photo By: Alea Moore

Outdoor Oasis

It's easy to overlook personal outdoor spaces. Maybe it's because the area can't be used year-round, or it's too small, or it simply needs some work. Now that more people are spending time at home, attention has turned to these spaces. For those at a loss about how to transform an outdoor setting into a private oasis, HGTV asked three top designers to share accessible tips that can be implemented now.

Proper Placement

Furniture arrangement is one of the first things to consider when creating outdoor spaces. "Think about how you will converse with people," says Katelyn Rountree, an interior designer at Terracotta Design Build in Georgia. "Is it an intimate setting or a setting for entertaining?" She also encourages people to decide on a focal point, such as a fireplace or pool, and to factor in activities, such as lounge seating or dining. Use these guidelines to arrange functional zones. "Furniture that works double time is even better," Rountree says.

For example, she recommends adding a tray to an ottoman or pouf to create a coffee table. "That gives you seating, a foot stool, or a place to set your drink all in one." Rountree adds that garden stools can also serve as additional seating or cocktail tables. Chairs can be multipurpose too, so choose ones that can function in a seating area and at a table.

Quality Control

Rountree says choosing quality furniture that meets the needs of your outdoor space is crucial. "Covered areas and non-covered areas will require different types of furniture and different quality of materials," she notes. "It is important to know the maintenance required for each piece you are buying ... Just because it says 'outdoor' does not mean it is suitable to sit in direct sun 24/7."

For specific examples, she likes Perennials for its fabrics and rugs, while popular brand Sunbrella is another reliable choice for the aforementioned, along with throws and pillows. "Whatever you buy, be sure it specifies for outdoor use," Rountree advises. "Slipcovers, throws and some small pillows should be machine washable. Rugs should be able to be bleached and rinsed outside to get rid of pesky mildew or dirt. A true quality outdoor piece should have colorfastness that will last for many years."

Attention to Detail

Really anything goes when it comes to decorating your outdoor space, or in this case, indoor area with easy outdoor access. "We think the outdoors is the perfect place to take some color risks and have fun," says Rountree. The fun might include touches of classic navy or bright orange, green and yellow. And those with a fear of commitment can simply swap accessories to match the seasons, especially in warm climes.

What really matters is "choosing materials, lighting, furnishings and palette that echoes your home's architectural style and sensibility," Rountree adds. Although finishes are equally essential for outdoor decor. "Metals need to be coated to not rust, paints need to be outdoor quality to not peel, fabrics need to be acrylics to not fade and woods need to be dense to not rot." She recommends plastic for those who want sturdy, easy-to-clean items. "When it comes to the elements, natural fibers will begin to break down quickly," she explains. Instead, eschew cottons and linens for acrylic and poly-type materials.

Fired Up

Outdoor fireplaces make a great addition in climates with chilly evenings. Terracotta created this space that is defined by open trellis walls, and made the floating fireplace the focal point. "Be sure the fireplace complements the style of your home," Rountree suggests. "Also be sure to consider the size of your space ... If the fireplace is too large, it can overwhelm the space, but if it is too small it will look out of place."

She also recommends weighing the pros and cons of gas vs. wood-burning fireplaces. For example, some local ordinances have wood-burning restrictions that need to be taken into consideration. "Both have distinct advantages, so familiarize yourself before making your final decision."

Mood Lighting

When it comes to lighting, Rountree notes how lanterns, shown here, provide a classic style. But she also love café lighting (string lights) for its whimsical feel, and battery-operated solar candles for ​their ease of use. Be wary of wax candles, since they'll quickly melt in hot and humid environments. "With any outdoor lighting, be sure it is outdoor rated," says Rountree. Another factor to consider in your outdoor lighting picks? "Outdoor lighting requires special housings and seals to keep water away from the electrical components."

Decisions, Decisions

For designer and author James Farmer, one of the first steps for outdoor design is deciding how you want to use your space. "The outdoors can be enjoyed very similarly to the indoors, so make it a true extension of your home," Farmer explains. "Do you plan to host parties? Do you want to be able to serve and dine? How large is your family? Do you envision mornings with coffee or afternoon naps? Dive into how you can best enjoy the space you have."

Avoiding uncomfortable furniture is another high-ranking factor for Farmer. "Just because it's suited for the outdoors doesn't mean it has to be uncomfortable metal or concrete," he says. He also emphasizes balancing the overall scale, which is just as important outside as it is inside. "Inside, you must consider ceiling height and room dimensions. Outside, the dimensions are different but the scale is important nonetheless," Farmer explains. "Are you seating one person or two people? Are you sitting or reclining? Are you under an arbor or by a pool? The outdoors is just another room! Utilize your space properly."

Push the Limits

"Thankfully, outdoor fabrics have advanced to the degree that you are not limited to your grandmother's plastic awning or material anymore," Farmer says. "Explore your options and choose what you are naturally drawn to. Just because it's outside doesn't mean it can't suit your personal style." He also loves seasonal and locational suggestions, such as palm fronds at the beach, or a branch of fall leaves in the mountains. "These can work just as well in planters," he adds, as potted boxwoods or annuals.

Inside Out

Farmer notes how today's outdoor fabrics and floor coverings can be just as comfortable as indoor furnishings. He's also all for mixing patterns and colors, as seen in this screened-in porch area.

Welcome Moments

"A table at an entry outside is like a table at an entry inside," says Farmer. "It's a place to display objects that say 'welcome home!'"

Sensory Engagement

"I like to engage the senses outside," Farmer adds. "So I love to use visually beautiful plants." But don't feel limited. "I am drawn to delightfully scented and textural plants as well." For example, rosemary is one of his favorite plants to use in containers and flower beds, while tea olive and gardenia are also among his favorite scents. Farmer prefers lamb's ear and succulents for their visual and physical texture.

Flower Power

Speaking of plants, etúHOME specializes in elevating the ordinary, especially when it comes to home entertaining. "You can never go wrong with an arrangement of hydrangeas in a recycled glass mason jar," says Stacy Borocz, founder of etúHOME. "Hydrangeas are a favorite as they are common to come across in gardens or at local farmers' markets, and due to their size, only a couple of stems are needed to romance your outdoor space."

Nature's Bounty

"Sprucing up your outdoor space can be quite simple with fresh clippings from the garden and vessels you’ve collected over the years," says Borocz. The aesthetic is exemplified here with greenery arranged in cheery yellow vases. "A recycled glass vessel filled with branches styled organically can be just as inviting as expensive blooms."

Festive Touches

Small outdoor spaces are a reality for many, but that shouldn't deter your from creating a visually pleasing environment. "Use a long narrow board or plank to run down the center of a table with charcuterie and dips, which will make the intimate space feel more festive, like a party," Borocz suggests.

Uninvited Guests

Pesky insects can be unwelcome guests where food is involved, but Borocz has an easy solution for that. "A must-have for summer serveware is a recycled glass demijohn cloche (shown here). Not only do they protect food from insects, but they elevate the ambience of dining outdoors," she says. She loves that the cloches are available in three sizes, noting that the small version is ideal for individual place settings, while the medium and large sizes make stunning statement pieces for cheese spreads.

Make It Special

Large social gatherings may be on hold, but the same concepts apply to entertaining on a smaller scale. "Add a unique element outdoors with an unexpected touch from the inside, like linen napkins or found silver flatware," Borocz advises. The takeaway? It doesn't have to be expensive or elaborate to be special and memorable.

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