Five Steps to a Dream Outdoor Living Room

Vintage interior decoration in building with white pillars but no walls cordoned off by black rails from a forest garden.

Nothing says cozy like a double-sided fireplace. Tabletop accessories on the mantel and coffee table are like those you find in most indoor spaces. Design by landscape architect Christina Reeves of Gasper Design & Construction in Rochboro, Pa.

It used to be that unless you lived far south of the Mason-Dixon line, you had less than a handful of months — at best — to enjoy your outdoor areas.

Then came HGTV and Pinterest and we all became inspired to create ahhh-worthy homes and landscapes of our own. The retail market responded with a symphony of innovative products that help us stretch out the seasons, making it more worthwhile than ever to create a backyard oasis that’s as cozy and comfy as any well-designed family room.

At the same time, the recession forced many of us to look at our homes in new ways, as both a source for entertainment as well as shelter. The result was a rise in staycations, where sticking close to the nest has become more the norm than the exception.

Cue the rebirth of outdoor living. “People are nesting more, so they naturally want to extend their home life outdoors,” says Steve Elton, chief brand officer for Brown & Jordan, a 78-year-old company that has long designed award-winning outdoor furnishings. “It used to be you had a Weber grill, a table and chairs and that was it. Now you’ve got whole kitchens outdoors, fireplaces, even waterproof electronics to extend the season. 
The outdoor experience has evolved.”

Outdoor spaces are second only to kitchens as far as priority renovations go, according to the Propane Education and Research Council. Of the 5,000 homeowners interviewed for a survey by HGTV and Casual Living magazine, a whopping 87 percent said an outdoor living room was important or very important and more than half said they already had one. Clearly more and more of us — especially those in the new home market — are looking right outside our windows for spots to both relax and entertain. 
It used to be you had a Weber grill, a table and chairs and that was it. Now you’ve got whole kitchens outdoors, fireplaces, even waterproof electronics to extend the season. The outdoor experience has certainly evolved.

Unlike decks or 
courtyards, an outdoor living room is sheltered from the elements only by a roof for rain runoff, which means it’s a far less expensive way to add an extra room.

What sets it apart from other outdoor dining or lounge areas is that it’s attached to the home, facilitating the connection between indoors and out. “Think of it as yet another room, a continuation, but without traditional air conditioning or heat sources,” says Austin, Texas-based interior designer Laura Britt, whose eponymous firm has worked on several prominent show homes.

Most outdoor spaces now have traditional and ambient lighting opportunities as well as the ability to hook up special outdoor television sets, such as those from SunBrite, which means Monday Night Football just went al fresco. For the full effect of an intimate space wrapped in nature, there’s nothing like a living room in the great outdoors. Here, the steps to creating your perfect open-air lounge.

1. Put down roots.
One of the first things to distinguish a bona fide living room from other outdoor areas is something most homeowners often forget: a rug. “It anchors and defines the area as a space to lounge right away,” says Britt. Rugs also provide warmth and intimacy by creating a boundary between the room itself and the rest of the elements. The soft touch to bare feet is a plus and the myriad of colors and patterns allow your design aesthetic to carry over from inside the house.

Weather-resistant rugs made with polypropylene are most like their indoor counterparts, but offer the easy care of being hosed off and hung to dry. (If you’ve got kids, it’s the perfect weekend activity.) You can also look for durable, natural textiles like jute; anything made from synthetic fibers will work as they can be shaken or vacuumed easily. Rug pads underneath are a must. They help air circulate through the fibers, which makes the rug last longer and keeps it firmly in place.

2. Have a seat.
Once your area is clearly marked, look for furniture you want to sink into, not the hard, 90-degree angle stuff that will more or less keep you in an upright position. What will make this space feel as cozy as an indoor family room is the comfort level, so look for wide chairs that allow ample room to curl up your legs. Dedon’s Mu collection is a great example. Thick, lightweight cushions with weather- and fade-resistant fabrics — those from Sunbrella are always solid investments. These dry faster and resist mildew. But don’t judge a book (or in this case, a chair) by its cover. Several high-end manufacturers have made an art of designing with sturdy-yet-comfortable straps that can feel just as inviting (check out the Marin collection from Brown and Jordan). With the right cushions and accessories, these can fit nicely in an outdoor lounge.

3. Light it up.
Forget tiki torches and solar posts stuck in the ground. To truly mirror the intimacy of a regular living room, nothing sets the mood like the overhead and tabletop lighting we opt for indoors. “Lots of chandeliers and candelabras are now grated for outside use,” says Britt.

Look for those made with weather-resistant iron, like the part chandelier, part hurricane lamp known as the Brunswick from Home Depot. It’s the perfect marriage of outdoor form and function (and a charming surprise to see outside). The flushmount ceiling light from Murray Feiss’ Dakota collection at Lamps Plus is made of die-cast aluminum, so it can withstand the elements, but it looks like a typical indoor fixture — both beautiful and affordable.

The explosion of firepits and outdoor fireplaces in recent years provides double-duty performance by helping set both mood and temperature, which means you can enjoy your living room even when it’s chilly.

4. Go for garnish.
If shoes make an outfit, tabletop treasures and other accessories complete an outdoor living room. Drapes made of fade- and weather-resistant fabrics help set off the space from the rest of the backyard and allow your design aesthetic to carry through from indoors. “They soften the hard surfaces of the building materials too,” adds Britt.

Large planters and divider screens made of weather-resistant materials further define the space, but “make sure plants are placed according to the size they’ll reach at maturity,” says Jennifer Slaton, who served as executive editor for Coastal Living’s Outdoor Spaces. Easy-to-move garden stools and bar carts as well as consoles and coffee tables made of woods like teak and bamboo are smart choices if you like to entertain. The more surfaces for guests to rest their bums — or a drink — the better!

5. Surprise folks.
The outdoor surroundings provide a fun opportunity to do something unexpected, like, say, hang furniture from the ceiling. Wide, comfortable swings the size of sofas, like those from SwingBeds, or even twin beds are becoming much more affordable and they can work perfectly in an outdoor living room. It’s the type of thing most homeowners wouldn’t do indoors, but take it outside and it’s a whole other story. “People aren’t nearly as daring inside as they are outside,” Elton says.

Whatever you choose to do with your outdoor space, a fresh-air living room is an easy and much less expensive way to extend your home, your time spent outdoors and perhaps even provide the feeling of a mini vacation — just steps from home.

Ana Connery is the former content director for the Parenting Group and has edited several magazines, including Florida Travel & Life and Cooking Light, where she oversaw the construction of the FitHouse program. She lives and writes from her Florida bungalow.

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