Interiors & Design

3 Designer Tips for Making the Most of Your Outdoor Living Area

Three top designers share their secrets to applying interior design principles outdoors and creating a space for both work and play—whatever the season

Earlier this year, 60 percent of Americans surveyed told OnePoll that they appreciate nature far more now than before the pandemic. And, according to research from LV General Insurance, three-quarters of garden owners have changed the way they use their outdoor space. Many are now choosing to cook, eat, and even work in the outdoor living area they once reserved for lounging and entertaining.

With many of us now spending more time at home, blurring the lines between indoor and outdoor spaces is a welcome move—but it’s not without design challenges. How do you delineate the space available for different functions? And is it possible to make the most of your garden, terrace, or balcony in every season—especially during the coming winter chill?

Three designers answer these questions and share their tips for maximizing every kind of private outdoor space, no matter the weather.

View from living room onto outdoor living area
The interiors of this brownstone in Brooklyn, designed by the Meshberg Group, meld into its exterior space—a design feature that, in a time where we’re all spending more time at home, can help to foster productivity and balance.

Create Dedicated Sections

“Many people are now looking for sanctuary from the city,” says Adam Meshberg, a Brooklyn and Miami-based architect and interior designer. He believes that the key to finding this escape lies in maximizing “outdoor livability”—discretely defining sections of your outdoor space to accommodate different functions, much in the same way you would approach the living spaces inside your home.

Spending so much time at home this year has made people more attentive to the space in which they want to live their lives—Charles Nevinson

Meshberg’s top tip is easy to apply: simply use varying flooring materials to delineate different sections. “Having grass in one section and paving stones in another, for example, helps set the tone for that area’s use,” he says. It’s an especially effective approach for a balcony or terrace, he says, adding that the aim is to break up the space rather than having “one continuous area of porcelain tiles.”

A penthouse terrace with view of sckyscrapers
For this terrace, Meshberg created subtly delineated areas with the installation of artificial grass, and used furnishings to indicate separate spaces for dining, entertaining, and relaxing.

Charles Nevinson, whose Atlanta-based firm, Architectural Accents, offers interior design consultancy and landscaping, points out that outdoor areas have become more pivotal than ever during the pandemic. “Spending so much time at home this year has made people more attentive to the space in which they want to live their lives,” he explains.

He suggests creating “outdoor rooms,” or spaces that are set up with a specific purpose in mind. “A quiet, underused nook in your garden has great potential as a spot for pre-dinner drinks, and allows you to reserve the main patio setup for outdoor dining,” he says. He also recommends exploiting the potential of split levels; stepping down from a larger area into a cozy sunken deck built around a fireplace, for example, to enjoy after-dinner conversation.

Make the Outdoors Work for You

A major benefit of working from home has to be the ability to take the office outside with you. For Meshberg, that only works if you have the essential equipment to do so, which is why he places a large cantilevered umbrella at the top of his list for working outdoors. It not only provides instant cover from the elements, but is “more versatile than a parasol fixed in a table,” he says. He adds that an outdoor router is worth investing in too: “Your indoor one may not give you strong enough continuous WiFi.”

A wooden clad terrace with a built-in fireplace
“Even when the fire is not on, a sculpture transforms a fireplace into a lovely niche to sit beside,” explains sculptor Cathy Azria of the pieces she creates for clients’ outdoor spaces.

Sculptor Cathy Azria of BD Designs is renowned for her outdoor fireplaces, intricate metal installations that transform into glowing forms in the heat of the flames. She has a more unusual suggestion for working outside—”installing a light-emitting sculpture can help to focus concentration and lift the mood,” she suggests. “A university library in California has one of mine, and it was specifically commissioned to help calm the surroundings.”

People are looking for the same accoutrements and comforts in their outdoor living areas that they are used to inside—Charles Nevinson

Take the Inside Out

All three designers agree that the greatest challenge to an outdoor living area is ensuring it is comfortable enough to enjoy year-round. But all were equally adamant that you don’t have to head indoors once the chill sets in.

Covered outdoor kitchen with bar
Nevinson ensured this lakeside setting can be enjoyed throughout the seasons with the inclusion of a covered outdoor kitchen and bar, along with thoughtfully sheltered seating areas.

Nevinson’s solutions include building self-contained structures, furnished with seating and cooking facilities, which provide shelter from both the rain and—in high summer—the heat. Meanwhile, electric or gas heaters, installed in the roof of covered outdoor spaces, are Meshberg’s winter go-to. For a balcony space, he recommends gas-fired tables, with controlled flames at their center. “They’re a safe alternative to a firepit,” he explains, “and remove the worry of having open flames in a potentially windy area.”

Although some of her sculptures mimic firepits, Azria finds that more conventional fireplaces built into a garden wall create wonderful areas for socializing during the long fall and winter nights. Their positioning means that they can often be surrounded on both sides by sofas—the ideal setup for relaxing after a meal.

Nevinson also builds fireplaces into walls, and has noticed a particular outdoor trend. “I’m increasingly being asked to add a mantelpiece. It’s a sure sign that people are looking for the same accoutrements and comforts in their outdoor living areas that they are used to inside.”

Banner image: The Planes outdoor fireplace by Cathy Azria