We Asked 4 Designers How to Make the Most of Your Outdoor Space


I’ll spare you a saccharine ode to summer. Or maybe I won’t.

At least in my Minnesotan edge of the country, sweet, sweet summer months are fleeting, sunrising and sunsetting at a rate I’d rather not discuss because time is a construct I’ll never understand. Maybe it’s because our days with green grass and sun-kissed cheeks are so limited, but there’s a certain je ne sais quoi to eating breakfast on a balcony, turning pages of a book on a front porch swing, drinking too many Negronis in the backyard and burning bratwursts on the grill.

Eating, napping, walking, kissing, being: it’s all better outside. So! Let’s live our best outdoor oasis life while we can. (We see you, Old Man Winter. Back off. Not yet.) With the help of four design experts, we’ve pulled together tips, tricks and tidbits on how to make the most of your outdoor space – whether that’s a full backyard, a balcony or otherwise.

Our Panel of Experts
Claire Staszak, owner and designer of Centered by Design in Chicago
Tanya Krpan, owner and designer of Tanya Krpan Design Co., based in Vancouver
Meredith Rodday, owner of Meredith Rodday Design, based in the Boston ‘burbs
Denise Ashmore, principal designer of Vancouver’s Project 22 Design

First Things First
No matter what kind of green patch you’re working with, first decide on its purpose. “Figure out what you are going to do with your patio space. Is it outdoor dining? Lounging?” says Vancouver-based designer Denise Ashmore of Project 22 Design. “Consider what time of day you will use it and that will lead you to how to plan for furniture and lighting.”

She makes a good point. Say you’re a chef/entertainer/all those things I’m not. You’ll likely want to consider designing around seating and a however-many-people-you-plan-on-feeding dining table. Or if you’re more interested in a cozy spot for alone time, make room for a hammock or rocking chair and a side table to set your bevy of books and beverages on.

Be aware of the cardinal direction of your backyard too – that’ll factor into your needs for lighting, gardening and heating. South-facing yards, warns Denise, will require sun control and shading, while north-facing ones will lose light faster, a better fit for a fire pit or heater. (Don’t forget the blankets and s’mores fixings!)  

There’s a lot – a lot – to think about in designing an outdoor space: how much grass you’re willing to mow, how much you’re willing to spend, how much time you can spend pulling weeds, what time of day you’ll be using it, what weather will allow for, how to transition the space season by season. No need to fret. Here’s a breakdown of what to consider first.

Furniture
Seating is e-ssen-tial. Ain’t nobody coming over to stand around in your backyard!

East Coast-based interior designer Meredith Rodday – you may know her from the blog View from My Heels – suggests furniture that can be used indoors or out, not only serving a dual purpose, but making for a better investment in the long run. I have a bench that can go in my entry or on my front porch, dining chairs that can easily move between our kitchen table and porch table, and a console that can double as a serving station or bar,” she says. 

Designer Tanya Krpan adds that your outdoor furniture should look like an extension of your indoor style. “Some of my favorite patio furniture feels like indoor furnishing. It connects the patio to the interior, while giving it a warm, comfortable accessibility that makes you want to spend all of your time outside.”

We’re in. A few staples Tanya swears by: Serena and Lily’s Capistrano Outdoor Daybed, Kettal’s Outdoor Basket armchair and World Market’s White Strap Girona Woven Chair. Meanwhile, Denise is a fan of Blu Dot’s outdoor furniture line. “It looks good with and without cushions, which is important in the off-season, when the weather turns and you have to look at the furniture uncovered,” she says.

Here is the love seat, the chairs, and a similar table pictured above.

Lighting
Lighting has a way of making or breaking any mood. Sun-drenched day? Invigorating. Overhead dressing room lighting? Uh huh, you know the feeling. Candlelit dinner? Ooh la-letsgetbusy-la.

So treat your outdoor lighting with the same consideration. A cozy, warm glow is what you’re going for – nothing the neighbors will complain about. Swap out old, ugly light fixtures you inherited with your house with pretty pendants, hanging lanterns or string globe lights.

“Cafe-style string bulbs are always a hit, and I love anything with a lantern feel,” says Claire Staszak, a Chicago-based designer. (Her go-to stop for black or white strands: Brightech.) Stringing bulb for bonus visual interest points. “Even paper lanterns grouped together is an inexpensive way to create a focal point and that soft glow for after dark.”

Here are similar lights as pictured above.

Flooring
Tanya, take it away: “When choosing an outdoor flooring, whatever your material might be – cement tile, concrete paver or decking – try laying it in an interesting pattern instead of the standard install.”

“For example, if you’re choosing a concrete paver in a 3”x16″ size, you can brick it while also installing them on the diagonal. You can also try creating a cool graphic pattern with your tiles. It’s sure to leave the space with the feeling of elevated design.”

Everything she said. We agree. 

Want those tiles? Here they are.

Greenery
A little bit of plant love goes a long way. Tanya recommends adding some feature landscape items, like a wall-climbing plant. “This not only creates a lush, green feel, but also creates a sculptural art feature within your space. Pairing the wall climber with potted greens of varied heights, planted in pots of mixed textures, materials and shapes is one of my favorite ways to fill a space.”

Green thumb more, um, brown? God bless succulents. They always look good, last forever and require very little attention. Done, done and done.

No matter the size of your outdoor space, Meredith suggests planting an herb garden. “It’s one of my favorite things to do – it adds greenery and is functional too!” Functional for say, adding basil to your gin and tonic that you’ll now enjoy on your porch. Or chopping up in a salad that you’ll serve your friends for an al fresco lunch.

Meredith mixes thyme, basil, rosemary and sage, as well as tomatoes for good, delicious measure. But she warns against mint, as it doesn’t play nicely with other herbs. “It’s highly invasive and works best in its own planter.” Noted.

No Matter the Size of Your Space, Take Advantage
You don’t necessarily need a whatever-color-picket-fence and a mortgage to create a zen outdoor space.

Say you have a teeny tiny balcony off your city apartment. Claire nudges you to create a tiny oasis. Cover the floor in faux grass and add cabana style drapery and plush furniture. Even if your space is thisbig by thisbig, use all the space you got by diverting the eye up. Claire recommends creating vertical walls with lattice, allowing you to grow climbing vines.

“Ambiance is everything when it comes to decorating your outdoor space,” says Claire. “It’s really about creating an atmosphere, so try to think beyond utilitarian pieces such as a table, chairs and standard umbrella.” Instead think who of you’ll invite over, which cocktails you’ll whip up and how you’ll make the most of both summer and your outdoor space.

Here is a similar small space, two-person patio set!

Images 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6


Megan McCarty is a writer, editor, etc.-er who has written about life, travel and – shh, don’t tell her mother – s-e-x for Garance Doré, Apartment 34, Rue and more. She’s a firm believer in the zipper merge. Follow along with her adventures (and, well, misadventures) on Instagram