THE GREAT OUTDOORS! Interior Design for Exterior Spaces

several photos of interior design ideas for outdoor spacesDuring the warm summer months, some of our favorite spaces to design are outdoors—porches, patios, courtyards, dining terraces, pool decks and rooftop gardens. The finishes, furniture, lighting and accessory options for these spaces are continually expanding and evolving, allowing for greater variety and creative approaches.

A particularly fun aspect of designing outdoor spaces is that you can really pop up the color.  If there’s one space where you can feel free to go bold, it’s outdoors!  Outdoor living spaces also work well with whimsical touches like a dragonfly pattern or quirky garden statue.  However, it’s important to follow a few basic design principles to create inviting outdoor spaces that people will want to use and can access comfortably.

outdoor seating ideasFurniture Fundamentals

Just like indoors, no one is going to sit in furniture that makes them uncomfortable.  Many outdoor furniture options have hard edges or scratchy materials that people will avoid.  However, it’s equally important not to go to the opposite extreme of oversized, puffy cushions that can be hard to get in and out of and are likely not to wear as well when exposed to the elements. The extra cushioning can also create undesirable excess warmth in hot and/or humid climates.

Universal design principals should also be considered, particularly for commercial applications.  Most people find chairs with arms easier to “exit.”   Likewise, a back recline from the seat of less than 100 degrees is typically comfortable for people of all ages.

According to Jack Carman, ASLA in Universal Design and Outdoor Landscape, “When outdoor environments are created applying the principles of universal design, everyone enjoys them the same way. There are no differences due to age or abilities, and nothing screams ‘disabled adult.’ Aesthetics, access and design are all interwoven, and everyone feels welcome.”

rooftop terrace at the Woodcrest Villa Viva Centre

The fully accessible rooftop terrace at the Woodcrest Villa Viva Centre hosts casual al fresco dining, outdoor concerts and casual interactions.

Sling chars are a good option for comfort and easy maintenance. According to Wayfair’s Patio Furniture Materials Guide, some of the best options for durability include aluminum, wrought iron and variations of plastic, polymer, and resin which can be made to look like wood while wearing much better than the real thing.  Recycled plastic furniture is made of high-density polyethylene, which comes from milk cartons, shampoo bottles, and other post-consumer materials. Furniture made with a combination of recycled plastic and resin is highly durable and resistant to moisture, stains, mildew, and insects. This type of plastic won’t peel, crack or fade.

Fabric Considerations

Fabrics used in outdoor settings require special considerations for dealing with the elements.  Breathability, how easily air can pass through the fabric, is an important concern for user comfort and to avoid mold and mildew.  While water resistance is generally a good idea, it’s often a trade-off for breathability since the more water-resistant fabrics tend not to breathe well.  Therefore, water resistance is a priority for awnings and umbrellas, while breathability is a more important consideration for seating.  UV resistance and color fastness are important for all exterior applications.  Likewise, it’s important to note the recommended cleaning approach for any materials regularly exposed to the elements.  Sailrite, initially founded in 1969 as a source of materials for amateur sailmakers, offers an Outdoor Fabric Comparison Chart  that evaluates various brands available for a wide range of land and water-based outdoor applications.

Ritz Carlton Chicago outdoor space

Regardless of the size of the space, it’s a good idea to provide some form of protection from the elements like this example from the Ritz Carlton Chicago.

Finishing Touches

Whenever possible, we will incorporate some form of fireplace or water feature to play a starring role in outdoor spaces.  There are many options for fireplaces and fire pits, including various fuel alternatives to wood.

A significant consideration for water features is maintenance. We’ve seen more than one water wall or fountain where dirt and debris have turned an eye-catcher into an eyesore.

Finally, lighting is a must for outdoor spaces to live up to their full potential. It’s a valuable tool for creating mood and atmosphere and a basic requirement for safety and security. Outdoor-rated string lights are currently very popular, but start with the fundamentals to provide a setting that’s bright enough to safely navigate, but not so bright that it ruins the ambience. Particularly for commercial applications, it’s important to consider the transition between a patio area and adjacent interior spaces to avoid blind spots. Task lighting should be incorporated if there is a bar or outdoor kitchen.

Effective lighting strategies elevate the sophistication and appeal of outdoor spaces. L to R: Woodcrest Villa in Lancaster, PA; Rose Villa in Portland, Oregon and Foulkeways in Gwynedd, PA

Effective lighting strategies elevate the sophistication and appeal of outdoor spaces. L to R: Woodcrest Villa in Lancaster, PA; Rose Villa in Portland, Oregon and Foulkeways in Gwynedd, PA.

Foliage:  Landscape Meets Interior Design

Plants are the literal natural choice for outdoor accessories. Varying heights, colors and foliage types can create visual interest and make a statement. We also consider the design theme established in the interior spaces when designing outdoor rooms. According to Surrounds Landscaping in Intersections:  Where Landscape Design Meets Interior Design, “When walking from indoors to out, there should be continuity. It should be in some way similar in character to what’s happening indoors.” An ordered English garden is an appropriate complement to traditional interior spaces. Conversely, simple, streamlined furnishings with a striking sculpture or water feature and a few carefully chosen showcase plants would work well with a contemporary interior design style.

The Nines – Departure Restaurant, Portland.

Planters can be used to define areas, provide privacy or screen unsightly views (not the case in this example!). The Nines – Departure Restaurant, Portland.

Most of us don’t need much prompting to head outdoors, but in case you need more inspiration, we have listed a few additional resources for creative distinctive experiences.  Enjoy the rest of your summer!

Rooftop garden at Waverly Heights in Gladwyne.

Rooftop garden at Waverly Heights in Gladwyne.

Lauren Rice is an interior designer with nine years of commercial experience. A graduate of Savannah College of Art & Design, Lauren spent a lot of time in Savannah’s courtyards and gardens which led to an appreciation for accessible and inviting outdoor settings. She also draws from her love of hiking for inspiration when designing exterior living spaces.

For more inspiration:

Check out the ideas we’ve pinned on our Outdoor Spaces Board on Pinterest.

Martha Stewart shares Outdoor Lighting Ideas. As she puts it, “Lighting is one of the easiest (and least-expensive) ways to cast an enchanting spell on any outdoor space.”

Take your creative inspiration to the next level with these 37 Stylish Patio and Outdoor Space Design Ideas from Architectural Digest.

Anyone looking for road trip ideas?  Check out America’s Best Outdoor Restaurants According to Travel & Leisure.

Blog Editor:  Jodi Kreider, LEED AP

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