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Outdoor Rooms

Source: Martha Stewart Living, May 2003



Three interpretations of a classic California style.

For many southern Californians, living well outdoors is second nature. In a place where sunshine is as plentiful as air, a garden is like another room of the house, with sheltering walls and pillowy seats. True, not all so climatically blessed. But during the warm season in any region, this sort of room makes sense: If your garden is comfortable and thoughtfully furnished -- with places to nap, eat, and rest your feet -- you can learn to live in it quite happily, doing most of what you would otherwise do indoors.

This idea is hardly new. Ancient Greeks and Romans lounged in garden rooms. But Californians have taken the concept further than most. In Los Angeles, where architecture runs the gamut from Craftsman-style cottages to Spanish bungalows to modern cubes, people put up pergolas, construct courtyards, and train vines to create alfresco rooms. They relax, work, and cook outside. In fact, the modern outdoor room was California's invention, designed for a postwar 1950s culture in which homeowners prized their leisure and wanted to loaf outdoors instead of weed.

Two mid-century California garden books -- Garrett Eckbo's Landscape for Living (1950) and Thomas Church's Gardens Are for People (1955) -- laid out the model. In response to new, simple homes with open plans and glass walls, the designers proposed a streamlined yet stylish yard. Eckbo described it as "an arena, volume, background, and shelter for human life and activity; Church, as adjunct to the functions of the house." Contrasting an earlier style -- descended from Victorian landscapes where nature was shown off and admired -- these "new gardens," Church wrote, stressed "peace and ease." They were practical and functional, providing shelter, seating, and storage.

These gardens were often set right behind the house, with wings wrapping around them and sliding glass doors blurring the line between indoors and out. Such flowing space can be seductive. It encourages party guests to drift outside with drinks. And it visually draws the garden inside, shaping interior rooms with leafy motifs and sunny color schemes. Interiors affect the garden room, as well. Outdoor furnishings are visible from within, so it makes sense to extend indoor decorating themes, to dress garden rooms in similar styles, materials, and forms.

A garden that's almost part of the house may be seen and used more than other areas in a landscape, but there can also be something enticing about a distant "room" that you actually have to stroll to. Once there, you find yourself surrounded by foliage, looking back at your house rather than out from it. Of course, this arrangement is not as convenient, especially if serving drinks or food. For that, you must plan ahead, or outfit your room to include necessities from the house: tables that can store glasses and trays, candles for after dark, and perhaps an outdoor fireplace to take the chill off the night.

There's a magic to dining under the stars or having breakfast beside a pond. The three settings on these pages demonstrate some of the possibilities of garden rooms. The first is a casual-modern interpretation. The second harks back to the 1930s, when the movies inspired a glamorous style called Hollywood Regency. The last, and smallest, has a Pacific Rim look that shows what you can do with a few spare, Asian-inspired details.

In each, we have incorporated elements that make it comfortable to be outside: Awnings provide sun protection; wheeled furnishings add flexibility to tight spaces; broad chair arms create perches for drinks; solution-dyed acrylic cloth is fade-resistant and cotton-soft to the touch. Just because in the garden, you don.t have to rough it. Relaxing is key. Enjoying the breeze. Smelling the flowers. Living -- really living -- outdoors.


Casual Modern
Under a vine-clad pergola in a Los Angeles garden designed by landscape architect Rob Steiner, a low table is surrounded by Japanese-style cushions. Remove the table's top and it converts to a daybed, the cushions becoming a mattress. A scrim of Westringia fruticosa, Melianthus major, and Eugenia creates the room's walls; succulents soften the bricked terrace.

With the tabletop stowed, the dining room becomes a lounge. The wide arms of low-slung chairs hold drinks; the Asian ceramic garden stool can be a footrest or a table. An acrylic awning screens out many ultraviolet rays. Latex paint shields the daybed from bad weather; an oil-based lacquer protects plantation-grown-mahogany chairs. A sideboard made from cinder blocks and concrete provides prep space. A rolling box stores cushions. The fabric harmonizes with the green-on-green color scheme.


Hollywood Regency
Three walls of glass wrap around this outdoor room in a Beverly Hills canyon. Built in 1937, the house has a modernist feel, but its furnishings -- a thirties Grecian garden chair designed by actor-turned-decorator Billy Haines, a vintage footed urn, and a neoclassical stool -- add silver-screen-style glamour. The striped awning, of canvas-weight solution-dyed acrylic, serves as a movable roof. The unbacked fiber floor mat and teak-and-metal furnishings can stay outside, rain or shine. A wheeled table of galvanized metal stores supplies for entertaining. At the room's edge, a Regency-style urn holds orchids.

When evening falls, an added table transforms the room for dining. Inexpensive (and easy to stow) director's chairs don stripes for company, while hurricane lamps and a roaring fire warm the canyon night. Lighted indoor rooms cast an added glow; whimsical table decor -- a giant-clam shell full of mangoes and a slew of silver-dipped shells and coral "fronds" -- makes light of the formal theme. Plants in containers bring the feel of the garden to an essentially paved space. The table is assembled from a fabric-covered, hollow-core door and painted trestles.


Pacific Rim
A plywood wall panel that incorporates a foldout table and bench turns even the tiny terrace of a hillside house into a garden room. The table and bench are three-quarter-inch plywood attached with piano hinges and supported by hinged triangles of wood. The panel is screwed into the wall's wood studs; its individual elements have been sponge-painted various colors. Potted plants, including the bamboo at far right, provide living accents; enhancing the sense of indoor-outdoor flow, the greens and golds of the interior are echoed outside. The brackets are flush with the panel when not in use; finger holes make them easy to pull out.


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