As city-dwellers continue to decamp to more verdant pastures, backyard patio ideas are increasingly becoming a matter of concern. While most longtime apartment-dwellers have sofas and bar stools to transfer to their new pads, patio furniture often requires starting from scratch (unless of course, you were bequeathed with one roomy fire escape). Those who haven’t possessed outdoor space for a stint can often find themselves perplexed by what’s needed, as well as style. What to bookmark—vintage patio decor ideas or retro patio ideas? Or none of the above. To help, we’ve asked a group of outdoor-savvy designers to give us their best tips. From basic rules of thumb to lesser considered topics like lighting and climate control, here’s everything you need to perfect your patio.

Maximalist outdoor patio combines brown shingling with gray textiles, floor pillows, and woven coffee table.
Photo courtesy of Holly A. Kopman Interior Design / Photo by Christopher Stark

Setting the Ground Work

When formulating backyard patio ideas, keep in mind that just like when you’re dressing your interiors, your home’s architecture can’t completely be ignored. “The architecture sets the tone for what will work outdoors,” says Los Angeles designer Woody Argall, who specializes in fusing Southern California’s inherent Spanish style with a classic Beverly Hills aesthetic. Craftsman homes, for instance, naturally invite unruly plots of wildflowers and foraged flagstone patios, while brownstones call for more orderly, European-inspired plantings and pavers. 

Just like indoors, however, the rules are meant to be broken outdoors, and if your outdoor patio isn’t visible from the inside of the house, there’s an opportunity to make a stylistic sidestep. For a Bay Area home where the patio is annexed behind the house, designer Holly A. Kopman elected to take it in a different style direction from the interiors. Rather than pander to the home’s craftsman aesthetic, she trimmed the patio in elaborate Moroccan style. “It makes a great surprise when you open the door,” she says of the space bedecked with a pavement-grazing daybed piled high with a passel of durable kilim pillows.

Traditional backyard with brass fire pit and wood lounge chairs with gray cushions.
Photo courtesy of Mariani Landscape

Section Out Areas

Because of their size, outdoor patios should be broken into sections. Designate areas for features like a fire pit, for instance, or a grill, or a dining table. San Francisco designer Amanda Teal recommends mapping out outdoor seating areas explicitly. She encourages not just one block of seating, but multiple, comfortable conversation areas. “Look to provide a variety of different seating options that allow people to sit in larger groups or perhaps break away for a more intimate conversation,” she says. 

Garden structures, whether they be a pergola, sitting wall, or raised planters can also help lend definition to a patio. Tammy Randall Wood, founder of Interior Archaeology in Agoura Hills, California, is an advocate of all of the above, but notes that structure can also be created with trees, large-scale planters filled with trees, or pots packed with a combo of thrillers, fillers, and spillers. “Just use furniture to fill in the empty holes in the footprint,” she advises. Some structures lend themselves better to vintage patio ideas or retro patio ideas better than modern or contemporary ones, so keep that in mind as you plot. For instance, pergolas can easily be tailored to fit a Mid-Century aesthetic, while rock walls are most easily partnered with vintage or classic-inspired garden settings.

Los Angeles designer Jamie Bush favors hedges and landscape to create structure, or what he calls, outdoor “rooms.” Just like with indoor rooms, Jamie recommends layering outdoor decor. “By just building the layers that you would normally find in an indoor space, such as rugs, side tables, accessories, potted plantings, upholstered furnishings, lamps, etc., you can create this environment without the confines of an actual room,” he says.

farmhouse table and chairs under outdoor structure with white hanging birdcage chairs.
Photo courtesy of Jeff Schlarb Design Studio

Regulate the Climate

Whether you’re endowed with year-round sunshine or swing from sweltering summers to iced-over winters, climate control is a pertinent element of a usable patio. To stave off the sun’s relentless rays, designers recommend a myriad of outdoor decor ideas, including umbrellas, pergolas, and shades. “At the moment I am in love with sail shades,” says SF designer Amanda Teal. “They are available in great shapes and styles, and can add drama to an otherwise flat space.” Summer-proofing your yard isn’t just a matter of shade structures, of course. “Mixing plants with usable hardscaping is a good way to help with temperature control,” says Linda Hayslett of Los Angele’s L.H. Designs. “The greenery balances out the temperature on those hot days when they become lush.” 

There’s no shortage of outdoor decor ideas to winter-prep your patio, either. When temperatures first start to dip, blankets can provide an effective first line of defense. “A simple hack is to gather an array of Mexican serape-style yoga blankets—you can find some great ones online—and roll them up in a cute basket that can be used at the pool and at night,” says Sarah Chavez of Chimera Interiors headquartered West Hollywood. As autumn chills deepen into winter freezes, less lo-fi tactics like heat lamps, camouflage ceiling heaters, fire pits, and gas fireplaces are perhaps best suited to take the edge off. 

For the even more tech-inclined, designer Jamie Bush offers a next-gen solution: heated seating. “For one of our upcoming Taoe projects, we’re experimenting with heated concrete benches.” While these literal “hot seats” are available ready-made, Jamie is experimenting with custom poured.  “Around the fire pit, we’re pouring custom concrete benches, which will be heated,” he explains. “A material of that mass radiates a consistent warmth which makes it ideal for locations where it snows.”

Outdoor area with glass-topped table, striped dining chairs and metal outdoor couches.
Photo courtesy of Atelier Davis

Light Up the Night

You might not be afraid of the dark, but that doesn’t mean your backyard should go dim when the sun sinks. Designers across the board recommend that when it comes to backyard patio ideas, investing in outdoor illumination just like you would indoor is key. “Lighting is so important,” says  L.H. Design’s Linda Hayslett. “When you think about it, once the sun goes down, there’s no other light than the moonlight and stars. Outdoor lighting makes entertaining at night both magical and fun.” If you’re not ready to splurge on spotlights galore, consider starting with a gateway lighting: a simple string of Edison bulb lights. Learn how to swag them and secure them here. Lanterns, either outfitted with solar batteries or candles, can also be strategically placed around your patio to provide ambiance. 

Those looking to level up their outdoor lighting game even more will want to consider more permanent fixtures that can be layered at high, mid-range, and foot levels. As Levi Wilson, founder and vice president of design at the artisan lighting company Hammerton points out, not all outdoor lighting is created equal. “The reality is that UV, salt spray, humidity, and other corrosive factors can cause outdoor fixtures to fail in just a few months,” says Levi. “Make sure yours are pretreated and finished with coatings that are specifically formulated to withstand harsh climates.” While you might pay no mind to an indoor table lamp’s finish, it’s worth investigating how an outdoor sconce’s finish might fare after a few years of being pummeled by the elements. 

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Lead design by James Duncan / Photo by Mark Roskams

August 23, 2021

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