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Simple design ideas add pizzazz to outdoor spaces

Decor Demon designer Brian Patrick Flynn recovered patio furniture found at a flea market with soft indoor-outdoor fabrics to create an inexpensive outdoor living room. 

SARAH DORIO/Decor Demon | Associated Press

Decor Demon designer Brian Patrick Flynn recovered patio furniture found at a flea market with soft indoor-outdoor fabrics to create an inexpensive outdoor living room. 

Homeowners with sprawling back yards often put at least a bit of effort into decorating their outdoor entertaining space. Maybe they splurge on some high-end outdoor furniture and an elaborate grill, plus a few accessories to give the space style.

But what about the rest of us? When a home has more modest outdoor space — perhaps a porch or patio, or a balcony off the master bedroom — these limited spaces are often ignored.

Genevieve Gorder often sees clients who paid top dollar for an apartment with a balcony ignore the space because they don't know what to do with it. Gorder, host of HGTV's Battle on the Block and a judge on HGTV Design Star, says these small and mid-sized spaces can seem tough to tackle.

"Any outdoor spaces can be kind of intimidating," agrees designer Brian Patrick Flynn, founder of "When you design a room, you have four walls and it's easy to conceptualize what will fill it. Outside, the possibilities are endless and you don't really have a sense of scale. The sky goes on forever."

But there are great design strategies for turning even the most unexceptional deck or patio into an inviting space for outdoor entertaining this summer:

Look down

"The biggest impact for your buck is to focus on the floor," says Flynn. Paint a concrete slab or old decking with a worn finish using porch and deck paint, he says. "It's fantastic on a pretty spring day. A lot of bold sunlight will dry that paint and you'll be walking on it within hours."

Gorder suggests shopping online for marine paint, designed for the hulls of boats. It's impervious to weather and comes in great bold colors.

Choose a solid color or paint stripes to extend the look of the space. Then add some warmth. "I love the idea of layering little area rugs outside, in an ethnic, Moroccan-y way," says Los Angeles interior designer Betsy Burnham. "We did it in sort of an American way on a porch in northern Michigan," she says, "with striped kilim rugs. It made it so intimate out there, and you can sit down on them because it's not just a cold outdoor surface."

No need to spend a lot, she says: "Pull them from in front of your sink. Be creative with what you already have in your house."

No need to commit

Rather than decorating your outdoor space and keeping everything out there all summer, consider mixing and matching indoor pieces for occasional parties.

Flynn uses masonry nails to hang art on concrete or brick exterior walls during outdoor parties, then brings the art in when he's done entertaining.

These designers also like using colorful, oversized floor pillows (either ones made for outside or ones you already use indoors) and clustering a few together. "The best size is a 30-inch by 30-inch," Flynn says. "It fits any size person's butt sitting down, but little kids can also curl up on it."


Many people assume that adding lights requires elaborate, expensive wiring, Gorder says. But there are tons of low-tech options for creating the mood.

"Candeliers are gorgeous," she says, referring to metal racks hung with lots of candles. So are hurricane lamps, paper lanterns and artificial LED candles.

Another can't-lose choice: Burnham says little white Christmas lights never lose their charm. She wraps a few strands around an olive tree just off her patio to add a soft glow.

Living things

Burnham and Gorder both advise selecting plants to create the perfect backdrop. "You want the height, so that when you're sitting you still have green behind you, not just down at the ground," Burnham says.

"Use some potted boxwoods," she says, or small potted citrus trees, "and you'll all of a sudden have this sort of manicured greenery outside."

Adds Gorder: "Anytime you can use the vertical, you can trick the eye" into thinking a space is larger than it is. She loves potted sea grass, which is low maintenance and grows tall.

Also, think color. "Flowers and plants are your paint outside," says Gorder.

Custom creation

"The key to making things look designer," Flynn says, "is making them look custom." He uses Trina Turk's line of outdoor fabrics from Schumacher (think bold, Palm Beach-inspired patterns) to cover pillows and outdoor upholstery. If you're saving elsewhere, like using flea market furniture instead of new pieces, it's worth splurging on a bit of custom upholstery, he says.

And if seating space is limited, Gorder suggests creating a long bench that runs the length of one side of your balcony or patio. "Even if you have to custom-make it out of an old door or plywood, do it," she say. "You will use it."

Simple design ideas add pizzazz to outdoor spaces 04/09/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 8, 2010 4:28pm]
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