The upcoming warmer months naturally mean more time spent outdoors, with longer days, dinners al fresco, and the return of entertaining. And for those lucky enough to have outdoor spaces, you probably know the rules have changed — gone are the days of a few flimsy aluminum chairs and plastic side tables. Indoor / outdoor living is big business, with new technologies, trends, and even materials changing the game every season.

We asked 11 designers and architects how to go about crafting the ideal indoor / outdoor living space that truly unifies a home. Whether you’re looking for a big project or even some small tweaks to your current spaces, there’s an idea for every homeowner.

Lead photo: Blaze Makoid Architecture. Photo: Trevor Tondro

The outdoor seating area at this sleek, modern house features light whicker outdoor seating.

Connect Your Spaces

Before even starting a project, step back and think about the site and how you want to connect the indoors and out. “To create beautiful and enjoyable indoor outdoor spaces, we start with the site, landscape, and views. What are we connecting our interior space to?” says Stephen Verner of Verner Architects. “We consider the sun and wind exposure and of course privacy. And what is the purpose of this space — entertaining, play, or simply creating a visual connection? Copious amounts of natural light are always key, resulting in larger window and door openings. Carrying materials through — say, a stone floor with a minimal threshold or wood ceiling — further enhance the connection.”

This indoor-outdoor seating area features futuristic modular couches in blue and green.

An Open Door Policy

Forget cheap sliding doors or the need to keep furniture clear of opening bifolds. Technology advancements haven’t just meant that there are more glass skyscrapers in the world — glass walls have come home, too. Cass Smith, founding principal of CCS Architecture, uses many large, sliding pieces in his firm’s work. “The most direct way to create indoor / outdoor spaces is to have very large glass doors that fold open or slide,” says Smith. “I am a fan of the sliding doors, and the really nice ones pocket into the walls for a wide open look and feel. As Americans become more appreciative and knowledgeable about design, I see more of them wanting to work with architects and designers to create these kinds of outdoor masterpieces.”

The large windows in this living room with geometric coffee table make it feel outdoors.

Embrace Technology

There are always new developments in interior design, and our exterior spaces are no exception. Even entryways have gotten upgrades over the last few years, as Erik Peterson of PHX Architecture can attest. “One of the best ways to create true indoor / outdoor living is to incorporate multi-slide or bi-fold doors. An element that we have started to incorporate into our recent projects is to design corners so that they open to the exterior. It’s stunning,” he says. “Also, what would indoor / outdoor living be without a great A/V system with TVs and surround sound speakers? Many homeowners are interested in heating and cooling options for outdoor areas, as well. All of these aspects create the perfect aesthetic for entertaining.”

The upholstered lounge chairs on this balcony match the bed in this beach bedroom.
Photo: Everett Dennison

Material Matters

In addition to the importance of technology in making indoor / outdoor living more seamless, the advancement of new fabrics and other textiles have been vital. Alene Workman uses both methods in her work. “Here in Florida, we’ve been actively combining indoor / outdoor spaces for years,” says Workman. “One of the best ways to blend the indoor and outdoor is of course to open one to the other, like we did for this project, using retractable sliding doors with wrap-around fully screened decks. This allows the fresh water breezes to come right into the bedroom, making it feel like you are waking up right on the water.

Another clever way is to carry the materials from the interior to the exterior, creating continuity from one space to another. This often includes flooring material and color tones but also fabrics. The latest introduction of soft and chenille-like indoor/outdoor fabrics has been a game changer. You can have a smooth, soft feel in so many fabrics along with silk-like area rugs that also clean easily. This advancement and explosion in these fabrics and rug materials has allowed designers to bring beautiful, durable materials, like those used on an interior, to the exterior.”

This minimalist living room moves seamlessly into the balcony seating area overlooking the ocean.
Photo: Steve Passmore – Provo Pictures

Fab Fabrics

As designers know, performance fabrics get better and better every season, with many pros choosing to even use outdoor-specific fabrics inside. “An enduring trend is the broad range and availability of indoor / outdoor fabrics and rugs,” says Lisa Kanning of LKID. “The quality, texture, and tones of many outdoor-rated products are equal or superior to the luxurious materials that are offered for interiors. In fact, we often specify outdoor-rated materials for indoor spaces to ensure maximum durability, without compromising on design aesthetic.”

This bright covered porch features metal dining chairs and matching seating area with industrial-style globe pendants.
Photo: Nickolas Sargent Photography

Find the Flow

It’s important to keep a natural transition between indoor and outdoor spaces, so that they feel like a unified part of the home. “Whether it’s as dramatic as opening the side of your home with floor-to-ceiling glass doors or it’s as minimal as a private entrance to your backyard, the flow between the indoors and the outdoors is of utmost importance,” says designer Scott Sanders. “Even though you’re outdoors, it’s important to adhere to several of the rules you’d follow for decorating an indoor space. Most importantly, you want to define zones so that every area of your porch or patio has a purpose. Separate areas for activities such as cooking, conversation, and relaxation. Treating an outdoor space like an indoor area means adding not only furniture but also pillows, rugs, accessories; giving it those special details that makes it feel like a home.”

This bright bedroom features an entirely retractable wall, allowing full access to a balcony overlooking the water.

Pick Your Palettes

Finding a uniform palette can help create cohesion between indoor and outdoor spaces of the home. As Charlotte Dunagan of Dunagan Diverio explains, this can extend the feeling of the interiors outside. “We always make sure the interiors and exteriors are seamless,” says Dunagan. “We use matching color palettes and similar if not the same materials. The exterior elements are sometimes a bit rougher than the ones used inside, but we always incorporate the elements, even if it’s just a stone wall. Creatively, we have used the same flooring in and out. We have also used the same outdoor wood for the interiors, whether it be a ceiling inset or a stone wall inside that matches the outdoor elements. We also use lots of floor to ceiling windows and sliders to fully bring the outdoors in.”

This yellow, maximalist bedroom features glass doors leading out to a covered balcony.
Photo: Matthew Millman

Let There Be Light

Designers often point out that light is not the same in different places — a New York apartment gets different light than an LA home or a London townhouse, for instance. This is true for outdoor spaces as well, and it’s important to think of light — as well as the overall environment nearby — when you work, regardless of whether you’re inside or out. “Treating outdoor spaces as an extension of the interior space establishes a lovely relationship even if that ‘room’ beyond is a small balcony. Carefully consider the views, the colors beyond, the direction of the light and which way a room faces,” says Suzanne Tucker of Tucker & Marks. “When the climate allows, there is something so romantic and sensual about sleeping ‘al fresco,’ or at least have a bedroom with a seamless transition to an outdoor space where one can fling open the doors or windows. The covered balcony off the garden bedroom in this image opens up and overlooks the rear garden of the house with fountains and a view up through the sculptural oaks. The lighting at night, the sounds of the fountain and the garden fragrances create a wonderfully seductive experience.”

This modern backyard features a fire pit and covered seating area that leads right back into the main house.
Photo: Eric Zepeda

Access is Everything

When planning an outdoor space, one of the prime things you need to do is determine exactly where in the house it will be. “The key to creating an indoor / outdoor space is access,” says Pamela Pennington. “Typically the family room would be a natural access point and makes sense for the flow of entertaining. Also the kitchen, so food can easily be taken out to an outdoor area. Once you’ve determined that, you need to create the feeling of an outdoor room. Several ways to do this include an extension of the ceiling inside to marry both spaces together, or a wooden trellis structure that encompasses seating or dining that creates the sense of enclosure. Fabric sails and indoor / outdoor draperies can also create a feeling of enclosure and can be easy to install.”

The fully retractable glass wall in this modern home brings the kitchen and living room area outdoors.
Photo: John Lee + Jake Stangel

Use Your Surroundings

Naturally, the main point of an indoor / outdoor space is to enjoy a home’s surroundings. Don’t let them go to waste. Victor Mezhvinsky of Forma Construction says, “For this setback home in [San Francisco’s] Glen Park, bringing the outside in was paramount, to create added living space and take advantage of the views and sunnier Bernal Heights weather. By creating so many outdoor areas, the house really lives larger than its 1900 square feet, and by cladding it in cedar, it slips into its surroundings.”

Retractable glass doors turn this family kitchen into a functioning bar area with pool access.
Photo: Thomas Kuoh

Windows, Meet Doors

Ultimately, of course, the kinds of changes you can make to your indoor/outdoor living situation depend on budget. “If construction isn’t in your budget, a common ways to create an indoor/outdoor space is naturally to add interior plants and trees. Bring the outside in and use natural materials and natural light as possible,” says Jennifer Patton Wundrow of Nest Design Company. “If construction is in the cards, exchange a wall of windows and drywall for a set of bifold doors that can fully open and connect the interior to the exterior. This kitchen was originally an interior room. We moved it and created a space that opened to the outdoors by using NanaWall bifold doors and windows. The outdoors then becomes an extension of the home.”

June 11, 2020

Dennis Sarlo is the executive editor of Chairish and a lover of all things design-related. Prior to joining the team, he served as the executive editor of Dering Hall and was the first site director of Architectural Digest. He was also part of the founding team of travel startup Jetsetter. He lives in New York.