Nothing ties an outdoor living room together like an antique Balinese pergola and chandelier, seen at the Miami Beach home of Argentine hotelier Alan Faena.
Patios, terraces, and screened-in porches aren’t the only places to sit in the sun for a few minutes. In recent years, they have become spots to truly live—more an integral part of the home rather than a nice-to-have add-on. To support that shift, designers are creating beautifully appointed outdoor rooms that are pushing the dowdy old patio sets of yesterday to the curb.
“I design outdoor rooms the same way I do indoor rooms,” says New York–based ELLE DECOR A-List designer James Huniford, who composes open-air spaces repeated with sofas, rugs, side tables, and lanterns. “I start by thinking about the seating areas and focusing views on the garden, the water, or a firepit,” he says, just like he might center an indoor room on a fireplace or notable work of art. Increasingly, Huniford also designs outdoor spaces to address homeowners’ particular needs. “Some people want to have outdoor foosball or billiard tables,” he says. “They want a comfortable place for a casual meal, as well as for entertaining a large crowd.”
Laura Hodges, a designer in Baltimore, approaches plein-air spaces in a similar way. “When I do an outdoor room, it’s an extension of the house that’s for a specific use—a kitchen, a gym, an office,” she says. “It’s something that serves an actual function rather than just a place for sitting outside.”
Creating an outdoor space is much easier today than it used to be, thanks to advances in durable fabrics and other materials. “We’re able to capture an unbelievable feeling that no one’s achieved before because we have all these amazing new performance yarns,” says Los Angeles–based A-List designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard, who reports being inundated with requests for outdoor rooms with plush furniture. “So many companies are producing beautiful outdoor fabrics with very intricate weaves. The days of those stiff blue-and-white-striped sofas are over.”
Now sofas and chairs are being covered in luxurious outdoor velvets, chenilles, and linen-like fabrics that look as if they were meant for indoors. “If you live somewhere like New York or Oklahoma, where it gets cold in the winter, you can just pull that furniture inside and it works just as well,” Bullard says.
Or if you want to extend the season, there are plenty of attractive outdoor heaters that can deliver warmth in targeted areas, notes, including slim units tucked into pergolas, underfloor radiant heating, and fire bowls. Lighting should also mimic what you use indoors: different dimmable layers delivered by sconces, pendants, chandeliers, and accent lights hidden in planters rather than a romance-killing flood lamp. “Dim the lights, light the firepit,” Bullard says, “and you create a mood.”
Of course, to really make an outdoor space feel like a room, you need to define its edges, even in the absence of walls and ceiling. “An outdoor room needs to have architecture,” says Robert Remer, the founder of Opiary, a landscape design firm in Brooklyn. “It’s not just a matter of putting some outdoor furniture out there. It should have boundaries, framed views, and different levels.”
Sometimes the existing architecture of the space delivers with a porch or pergola, but it’s also possible to create an enveloping feel in other ways. Frequently, Opiary defines the edges with clusters of planters offering green at varying heights. Other times, the firm has installed vertical green walls. Recently, Remer also designed Spolia, a modular system of sculptural geometric planters featuring arches, semicircles, and diagonals that can be stacked like Legos and seeded with pockets of foliage. “We can put all sorts of domestic elements into it, like fireplaces, sinks, whole kitchens, and built-in seating,” Remer says. “The nexus of architecture and garden space is what we’re most excited about.”
Clearly, the professionals at Opiary aren’t the only ones. Designers and homeowners are working to blur the boundary between indoor and outdoor living ever further by making the transition between those spaces seamless. “The outdoor room is actually one of the most important rooms in the house,” Bullard says. “People have figured that out and are using those rooms more than ever.”
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of ELLE DECOR. SUBSCRIBE