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  • Writer's pictureMarni Jameson

They’re Coming! Part One: Designing an Outdoor Getaway

Buy it and they will come. That was our thought, anyway, when DC and I bought our new house, which had a few extra bedrooms, so our blended family of five grown and far-flung kids – and their kids -- could come and stay.

And now, well, they are.

The Happier Yellow House is about to be stress tested. In a few short weeks, we are going to have – deep breath -- eleven human beings here for a week. That’s right: Seven grownups, three youngsters ages 8, 5 and 2, and one baby. Holy Legos and diaper pails.

Now here’s where I must pause and give my infinite gratitude to whoever came up with the best home feature of all time: The Downstairs Master. That’s where DC and I will escape when the gang’s all here.

In anticipation of the relative onslaught, I set to work making sure the upstairs, where they all would stay, was as accommodating and -- self-contained -- as possible, so the nine people not sharing the Downstairs Master, would not feel like a clutter of wet cats in a box.

I survey the upstairs: three bedrooms (one still needs decorating), a landing with a rollout sofa, and, what’s this? My attention lights on the forgotten -- until this moment – unfurnished outdoor terrace just off the landing. If I’m living up here with two kids, a toddler and a baby, I know where I’d be.

The covered porch overlooks the backyard and a treelined canopy of open green space, a view that has the same effect on blood pressure as a strong dose of lisinopril or a soft puppy.

Despite the relaxing vista, DC and I never come up here because it’s not “done.” But what if it were? What if it were an oasis in the treetops?

I grab a measuring tape, some quarter-inch graph paper and a pencil, and sit down on the terrace to dream on paper.

I sketch the footprint (a 19 x 9-foot rectangle), the open railing along the far side, and the French doors, which open onto terracotta pavers. I try to envision how to make this the go-to place. I picture the kiddos up at 6 a.m., wanting what kids always want, food and attention. I think of their sleep-deprived parents, not yet ready to come downstairs and make conversation, preferring to sit quietly on the terrace with a cup of coffee.

To make that happen – I start drawing -- I need a small kitchen and some comfy furniture.

I pencil in a wall of outdoor cabinets on the right side along one nine-foot wall, which conveniently has a weather-protected electrical outlet. I sketch upper and lower cupboards and drawers for non-breakable dishes, glassware, cups and utensils; a small frig for beverages, simple breakfast foods and snacks; and a coffee station.

To the left of the doors, I rough in two comfortable lounge chairs with ottomans, creating a place to put your feet up and send your cares off to the nearest cloud. I add a small table. All the while I feel like the little boy in “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” the most important book of all time. Draw it and it will be.

“What are you doing?” DC comes looking for me.


“That sounds expensive.”

“I’m investing in our family.” I show him the plan. “See, the kids wake up, have a small breakfast, while their parents get the coffee going – all without – and here’s the beauty -- ever coming downstairs.”

“I’m in,” he says.

“The hardest part of designing an outdoor space is visualizing how the space will function, and layout,” said TK Wismer, spokeswoman for Casual Living Brands, an outdoor furniture company based in Simpsonville, Kent. I share my drawing with her and get her green light.

Then I ask what other suggestions she has for furnishing a great outdoor escape.

  • Think function, function, function. Don’t just copy a design you’ve seen online or in a magazine. Think through what activities you want the outdoor space to support. Some people want an area to relax poolside, others want a place for family dinners. I wanted an upstairs retreat to serve guests rolling out of bed, who wanted a little time to themselves before mixing with others. I also wanted a place where, maybe, after they’re gone, I could go relax with a good book.

  • Draw it out. Use graph paper to make a scaled drawing to see how traffic will flow and furniture will fit. Have furniture measurements handy to be sure pieces won’t block site lines, doors or walkways. Factor in windows, door and gate swings, and other clearances. The standard clearance to walk around furniture is 30 inches, said Wismer.

  • Give furniture air. “Don’t put furniture against a wall,” she adds. Map out the furniture layout with masking tape.

  • Create zones. Group furnishings around activities, such as visiting, dining or lounging. A chair off by itself feels disconnected. Put every seat in reach of a table.

  • Arrange around a view. If you don’t have a nice view, at least look away from a bad view, said Wismer. You can create a focal point by adding a small water feature, fire pit or even a wall decorated with outdoor art.

  • Make room for storage. An outdoor space is only as useful as it is convenient. Outdoor cabinetry, which has gotten a lot better in both looks and function, will keep you from running into the house every five minutes for stuff you can store outside.

Join me next week as we shop for outdoor cabinetry and then the next week when we pick furniture.

CAPTION: Outdoor Getaway – When designing an outdoor escape, think function first, then group furnishings around activities, such as visiting, dining or lounging. Photo courtesy of Yardbird.

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