Tricks of the Trade: Designing an Outdoor Room

Good design can literally go out the door.

With some careful planning, expert advice and the right materials, you can create an outdoor room that’s stylish and comfortable.

Have a plan

Just as you need a plan for your interior design, likewise think before you execute outdoors.

  • Consider the big picture. Explains Anne Flannery, owner of The Beaded Garden, a landscape architect can help you design outdoor spaces that artfully blend into your landscape and incorporate seasonal blooms and plant growth.
  • When building patios or terraces, take into account the dimensions of the furniture you intend to use as well as the spaces you want to create (e.g., eating, lounging, grilling).
  • Mark out your proposed dimensions in the landscape with paint and flags, and live with it for a week or two before you execute.
  • If you are considering a solid shade structure, hang a tarp or sheet over the space to check the overall effect on lighting and view.


400x3002 Owentsia after terrace fireplace

Keep it intimate

It’s easy to feel dwarfed in an open landscape, just as you do in a vaulted room. The trick is to create a sense of intimacy and privacy within the context of your landscape. Flannery likes to add corners and screening to create a sense of privacy that also draws you in. Wood screens with lattice inset or large tropical plants provide structure without closing off nature.

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A solid roofed, open structure welcomes the outdoors. Photo by Anne Flannery.

Adding a ceiling-like element will make your space feel more room-like with the added bonus of shade. Flannery says it can be as simple as a portable canopy or oversized umbrella, or a more permanent feature such as a pergola or roofed structure. Add outdoor curtains and you’re adding color and texture while extending your seasonal use.

Furnish for comfort and style

Thanks to advances in fabric technology, there are endless options for cushions, pillows, upholstery, rugs and curtains. Add to that outdoor-ready lamps and decorative elements, and all the design principles you apply indoors can be carried outside.


For one client, Vicki Lidstrom and Carol Carani from Leggy Bird Designs created an outdoor living room with an upholstered mink velvet sofa, slipcovered white swivel chair and upholstered ottomans—all in fabrics intended to weather the elements. Rattan chairs were added for texture, and ceramic stools for fade-proof punches of color and a convenient spot to set a drink.

Flannery encourages clients to choose the most comfortable furniture they can afford, with firm, deep cushions and light colors for hot and sunny spots. And if you plan to entertain, allow for a variety of room vignettes with different types of furniture and various seating and standing arrangements, so it’s equally fabulous for 2 or 20.

Feed your senses

The sights and sounds of nature are the perfect backdrop for relaxation and entertaining. Our experts like to enhance the natural elements with the sound of water and the warmth of fire. Even the smallest fountains offer the benefits of recirculation and require little more than water from a hose.

And while firepits are always a draw, typically they generate too much heat for a lounging area, not to mention sparks and smoke. Other options like chimneas and gas fireplaces offer portability, adjustability and eco-friendly advantages without all the sooty mess.


And don’t forget fragrant and flowering plants to delight and entice the senses. With the careful placement of an elm shade tree, a weeping flowering crabapple or fragrant lilies, your landscape can go beyond the visual to a sensory experience as well.

Have a lighting plan

Because you will want to use your space day and night, you need a lighting plan. Flannery recommends working with an electrician to install lights further out in the landscape to make the area feel more spacious. Down lighting on specimen trees or flowerbeds creates a romantic backdrop, while strings of patio lights can add a whimsical, continental touch.


Supplement electrical lighting with candlelight. The gals at Leggy Bird Designs recommend candles in lanterns or hurricanes for a safe but fanciful play of light. Think beyond the table and group large lanterns in a corner or on your steps. For added color and texture, throw in marbles or stones around the candles.

Make it fun

There’s no place like the great outdoors to have some fun with your design. While you don’t want to veer too drastically from your home style, take some liberties. Introduce bright pops of color even if your interior decor is neutral. Or go the reverse. Create your own Moroccan oasis or a hip modern hangout. And always, always have a plan to beat the bugs.

A terraced patio creates distinct areas for entertaining and relaxation.Second and third photos by Anne Flannery, All other photos courtesy of Leggy Bird Designs.