In a season of cost-cutting and “staycations,” many Americans are taking a second look at their outdoor living area.
Whether you’ve got a sprawling yard, mid-size patio or even a single balcony, you can create a great space for relaxing and entertaining, say designers Mallory Mathison, Janine Carendi and Brian Patrick Flynn.
Sprucing up outdoor space doesn’t have to cost much. Prices for new outdoor items are likely to be lower this summer than last year, and the flea market/yard sale circuit is full of treasures needing only minor rehabbing.
Some advice on making your outdoor living area gorgeous – and functional:
Define the space
“Think of it as an outdoor room,” Flynn says. “Just like a house has four walls, I like to visually create four walls outside, even if it’s a small space.”
Construct a pergola or simple wood frame around your outdoor dining area, which will define the space without penning you in. It can be attached to your home or freestanding. Flynn suggests attaching curtains to the upper supports; this adds drama to small spaces and breaks up larger ones.
Plants can also define the space. “Row of plants create a privacy screen,” Flynn says, while still keeping things airy.
Choose potted plants that remain lush all summer, says Carendi: “If they flower a short period of time, that’s fine. But make sure the leaves are green the rest of the time.”
For flooring, Carendi suggests covering cement patios with decking tiles – available at home improvement stores and easily installed – for a more organic look. If you have a deck, Flynn suggests painting it the same color as your house. (If it’s made of high-end wood, though, it may look best stained.)
Mathison likes outdoor rugs made of polypropylene. They resemble sea grass or rope, she says, but are inexpensive, easily cleaned, moisture-resistant and won’t fade.
For daytime, umbrellas do double-duty: blocking unwanted sun on blistering days and gathering warmth around your table on chillier ones. In urban town house gardens, Carendi says, they can also be angled to block an unappealing view.
At night, these designers love adding a warm glow outdoors. Try using hurricane lanterns or hanging a candelabra filled with pillar candles (easy to suspend from the pergola Flynn recommends, or hung on an iron arm like a hanging plant).
If you have an electrical outlet, hang strands of small lights – Carendi suggests using all white ones – or look for outdoor hanging fixtures that plug in.
Seating and dining
The range of choices in outdoor furniture – especially compact pieces for small spaces – has increased in recent years, says Carendi. Her advice: Prices should be low this summer, so go for quality. You’re seeking not just style, but also comfort and durability.
Though it may seem unnecessary, do buy plastic covers to keep outdoor furniture in good shape for years to come. “It’s an investment,” she says.
Flynn and Mathison suggest combing flea markets for old wrought iron and rattan pieces. Add a fresh coat of spray paint, says Flynn, then “cover cushions with brand new outdoor fabric. You’ve got this one of a kind, designer-looking set for pennies on the dollar.”
Mathison agrees. Spray painting, she says, “is so noncommittal. If you paint it lime green and then hate it, you can always do it again.”
Shops that spray-paint cars may spray an entire set of outdoor furniture for as little as $30, she says, and the paint is durable.
For outdoor dining, Flynn suggests a large, low wooden table, which you can make yourself by adding legs to a slab of decking or an old exterior door.
For a small space, such as a balcony, don’t pick a table that’s too tiny, Mathison says. Choose one at least 24 inches wide so two people can dine comfortably.
Art and accessories
These designers advise having fun with bold color outdoors. White or very light colors will show dirt and pollen quickly, so go for deeper shades.
There’s no need to match outdoor styles and colors with your home’s indoor design. But Carendi recommends keeping all the small details (plastic dishware, napkins, upholstery fabrics) in coordinating colors. A random collection of mismatched colors and items, she says, can “make the yard look like a yard sale.”
Flynn’s advice: Bring art outdoors by having a favorite image, perhaps a photo you’ve taken, made into a large outdoor banner – the weatherproof kind stores use for advertising a sale – to hang on an exterior wall.
Other outdoor items that merge style and function: colorful planters and pottery (Mathison loves the selection at elegantearth.com), a pretty outdoor storage box for toys, candles, grilling accessories, etc., and an herb garden (pretty, easy to tend, and saves money at the grocery store).
“One of the most amazing things about creating your outdoor living space is that when the weather gets nice, you can be outside working on it,” says Flynn.
Enjoy the fresh air, put in a bit of effort, he says, and “two weeks later, you’re entertaining in a space you made yourself.”
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