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May 29, 2024

Top Interior Designers Reveal How to Create an Enviable Outdoor Area

For a Manhattan townhouse, David Kelly of Rees Roberts + Partners masked the skylight for a subterranean gym with a reflecting pool in a terraced outdoor garden. Photo: Scott Frances

Perhaps no living space has experienced a greater cultural shift than the outdoor area. The pandemic inspired homeowners to reevaluate how they used their terraces, and their appreciation for exterior design has only continued to grow since the start of COVID. “I think the city was the biggest transformation because people realized these gardens are not just something to look out at,” says David Kelly, who oversees landscape design at Rees Roberts + Partners.

Whether customizing rolling lawns at a country home or maximizing an intimate plot in an urban residence, creating thresholds like winding paths, grade changes, or garden gates helps formulate visual boundaries, which designers then outfit with furniture, structures, or statuary. Towering trees enhanced with moonlighting—soft lights high in the canopy—and living walls of ivy or bamboo screen these open-air spaces from prying eyes while keeping the look bucolic. And not illuminating the perimeter gives the illusion of infinite space. “I find that more often than not, even if the house is going quite modern inside, people still want a romantic garden that has a lot of plantings and is lush,” says Kelly.

Design studio Lucas orchestrated a vibrant outdoor area in the California desert, installing the home’s only dining room near a fireplace and seating area enveloped in bold tile. Photo: DOUGLAS FRIEDMAN/TRUNK ARCHIVE/LUCAS INTERIOR DESIGN

Inside Out

Many designers pull colors, palettes, and style from interiors. “It’s so important for a house to flow well,” says Kathryn M. Ireland, who featured a number of inspired spaces in her new book, A Life in Design (Cico Books). For a home in Southern France, she transformed a courtyard with a cluster of weathered teak furniture, while in Carmel, California, she installed numerous tables that can be reconfigured for entertaining small groups or hosting dinner for 40. “It’s important for your house not to look like you’re always waiting for some kind of festivity. I just like things to be adaptable, functional, and multipurpose.”

Other designers, such as Alessandra Branca, have found that flexibility keeps the overall look unifying, a principle she applied to a residence in Windsor, Florida. “We made an effort to expand the interior and exterior visually by including things inside that would have typically been found in gardens, like antique iron furniture, and then taking things that are typically inside—like woven wicker, William Haines furniture, and wonderful accessories and accents like mirrors—and brought them outside,” says Branca, whose homes and Casa Branca collection are often populated with pieces that conjure a tropical vibe.

Working with landscape architect Janice Parker, Drake/Anderson enlivened a New York terrace with cozy seating areas and a dining table that doubles as a surface for Ping-Pong. Photo: BRITTANY AMBRIDGE/OTTO

Garden Glory

It’s not just furnishings and soft goods that elevate an outdoor area. Built-in elements like fire features and benches made of weather-resistant wood, concrete, or polished aggregate can help define a space. For a home in the California desert, Lucas principals David and Suzie Lucas took inspiration from the Parker hotel in Palm Springs for a round fireplace that anchors a multifaceted pool surround. “What’s nice is that the fireplace functions as furniture as well,” says David. “I love it when things blend between architecture and furniture.”

Newer urban builds often include a subterranean gym under the garden area. To give both the interior and exterior spaces a dynamic and multisensory design, Kelly frequently masks a skylight using a reflecting pond, which allows light to flow into the underground room while still looking enchanting from above. “People don’t typically like to stand on glass, so to be able to turn it into a water feature is really beautiful,” he says.

Kathryn M. Ireland conceived a romantic courtyard at a multigenerational home in Southern France, selecting teak furniture for its unique patina. Photo: TIM BEDDOW

In the Zone

One of the greatest shifts designers have seen has been clients requesting public and private outdoor areas. Often homeowners create a secluded spot off the primary suite that can be used for anything from wellness activities to taking a phone call away from the fray.

Even an urban terrace can offer both intimate nooks and alfresco gathering spots using greenery, chaise longues, and playful accessories, like the dining table that doubles for Ping-Pong that Drake/Anderson’s Jamie Drake installed in a Manhattan high-rise. “You have to be clever about working with them, because they often are narrow,” he says of city balconies. “Why not maximize what you can do out there? Whether it’s taking a nap, reading a book, or having drinks with friends, a single seat cushion on a sofa allows for reclining by yourself, but it also has space for a crowd.”

No matter if the outdoor area is crafted with groups in mind or just for a little alone time, experts agree that its most important attribute is sensory. “Gardens are about experience,” says Kelly. “You want to feel transformed, you want to feel magical, you want to feel romantic, you want to feel different.”

A version of this article first appeared in print in our 2024 Spring Issue under the headline “Green Room.” Subscribe to the magazine.

Cover: Kathryn M. Ireland conceived a romantic courtyard at a multigenerational home in Southern France, selecting teak furniture for its unique patina.


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