18 Favorite Outdoor Rooms
Move the party outside with these gorgeous, livable outdoor spaces
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This chic low-water yard feels like the perfect place to end the day with a cold drink. A step up to a platform, complete with a hanging macramé chair, makes the most of a small space. The shade sail, cut into a triangle, provides much needed protection from hot sun.
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Room with a view
After long days of working in the Test Garden, all we wanted was a spot to put down our shovels and put up our feet. So when we saw the outdoor retreats designed by father-daughter duo Eric and Leslie McKenna—spots that practically demand you sit down with a cold drink—we invited the team to Sunset headquarters. The team built a structure in a plot measuring just 18 square feet, planting the area with herbs, citrus, and golden grasses. Once the furnishings went in, the area became our favorite refuge on hot days.
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With this urban oasis' color palate of neutral grays and natural wood, it’s easy to imagine the inviting outdoor living room as a city rooftop garden or modern backyard.
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The jungle book
Designer Di Zock let a ceramic fountain (far right) serve as the inspiration for her outdoor room. She had no idea how she was going to use the ceramic elephants (to left of fountain) when she saw them at a thrift shop. “But I knew they were just the right touch of whimsy.” Between discarded pots and “wainscoting” a terra-cotta pot in blue, Di coughed up only $10. The turquoise-and-brown rug, made from recycled plastics, dresses up the garden.
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Bring out the striped cushions and colorful umbrellas, and let the garden take care of itself, as this one does. The deck is made of sustainable ipe wood that has weathered to a soft gray. Drought-tolerant plants need only yearly trimming and occasional watering—which leaves plenty of time to kick back on a lounge chair and bask in the sun.
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- Orbit planters, $89 each; Geo pot (on table), $135; in store only; pottedstore.com.
Above a coffee table, Annette Gutierrez dangled three echeveria from a wooden arbor at various heights. “Staggering things is a great way to create texture,” she says.
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Twin shutters, each about 8 feet tall, bring a roomlike appeal to designer Baylor Chapman’s San Francisco deck. Tiny succulent rosettes peek out from openings between the slats. To hold the rootballs in place, Chapman (lilabdesign.com) stapled weed-cloth pockets behind each shutter.
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Try a modern take on traditional hanging baskets with a wall of these Woolly Pockets (woollypocket.com). Since they're lined with moisture barriers, you don't have to worry about any leaking. It turns what was just a wall or fence into a gorgeous outdoor room in no time.
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Baylor Chapman loves living and working in San Francisco’s Mission District. But at the end of the day, she wants a retreat from the surrounding busy-ness, so she transformed her deck into a plant-filled outdoor room. “My garden softens some of the urbanness of my neighborhood—it’s a little natural oasis off the street.” And the outfitted patio almost doubles the living space of Baylor’s 800-square-foot loft, so she’s got even more room to cook, dine, and entertain. The overall look is artistically eclectic and highly personal, as she acquired and then personalized much of her furniture and pots, which primarily came from salvage yards, flea markets, friends, and even neighborhood streets.
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Al fresco fun
Dress up your outdoor dining room for a season of fun. Neutral patio furniture gets a lift when you add chairs in the of-the-moment metallic, copper. These wire chairs from Los Angeles–based Bend Goods will look just as good inside when the season ends. Repurpose a console table from inside to give your spirits setup a sense of permanence—and have a drawer to stash bar tools. When you’re entertaining, cop the color of the night’s cocktail and incorporate it in the centerpiece: instant theme. The hot pink of pincushion flowers (Leucospermum) look right at home with a Campari punch.
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A garden should help you relax and reboot. That’s its proper purpose, according to the Japanese aesthetic called shibui. “We all need a peaceful place away from the craziness, and there’s no better spot for that than in nature,” says designer André Price Jackson (jackpricedesign.com), who embraces this philosophy—with a very West Coast spin on landscaping ideas—in his own Venice, California, garden. The plantings are spare, paving is natural. The artwork is easy and inventive. But you don’t need to create a garden that looks Japanese to achieve shibui’s effect. Just make its underlying design ideas your own.
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Covered with decomposed granite and sloping awkwardly toward the rear of the property, this San Francisco backyard was no place for a party. Owners Susan and Warren Byrne love to entertain, though, so landscape architect Jude Hellewell and landscape designer Laura White (outerspacela.com) replaced the gravel with two levels of colored concrete. The Byrnes use the upper terrace mostly for dining and hanging out; three steps down, a built-in bench invites guests to lounge around the firepit. A gappy ipe fence gives a sense of spaciousness while preserving privacy. Low-care plants, such as autumn moor grass, Mexican weeping bamboo, and yucca, soften the angular design.
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It’s hard to imagine sleeping indoors when you’ve got a bed in a spot like this. At Celia Tejada’s country retreat in Northern California’s Lake County, which she co-owns with her brother, Ibo, and his wife, Nina, she has tried to recapture the rural lifestyle of their tiny home village in Spain near Basque Country. An especially dreamy feature is this opulent iron-framed bed and chair. Shaded by apple trees, they’re kept outside year-round and covered when not in use.
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A playhouse for all ages
The truth is, you never outgrow a playhouse. But you do deserve an upgrade. Blake Mycoskie, founder of Toms shoes, and his conservationist wife, Heather, had a tipi built for their wedding. Later, they hired landscape architect Nicholas Walker (campionwalker.com) to put it on a foundation and made it a permanent part of their backyard in California’s Topanga Canyon.
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Then the team at Hammer and Spear (hammerandspear.com) outfitted the interior of the tipi as a guest room and play space for the couple’s son, Summit. The tipi’s oddball dimensions—a 26-foot-wide room with a dramatically sloped “ceiling”—make it tricky to furnish. Designers Kristan Cunningham, Scott Jarrell, and Lynsay Brice’s solve was a do-it-all custom sofa with several “swing pieces” that easily pull out of the way for Summit or sidle up to the sofa to serve as nightstands for guests. A table built around the back perimeter of the sofa offers a spot for a drink or book. A storage ottoman slides into the sofa’s U to turn it into a bed. The designers nixed indoor-outdoor fabrics in favor of pulling from the Mycoskies’ textile collection. “Layering and mixing was their goal,” Cunningham says. Her team covered the sofa in slate blue poncho fabric from Zak + Fox as the starting point and filled in with pillows in teal, aubergine, and orange to match the tipi’s exterior.
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An entertainer's dream
It’s all about working with you have. Mullins, of Growsgreen Landscape Design, mixed old brick with new, added horizontal fencing and a patch of grass, and used a muted planting palette to create an updated entertainer’s garden. She started by implementing a series of slight grade changes. The decision was both functional (it saves hauling tons of dirt) and design oriented (visitors feel that they’re stepping into a series of rooms). An existing canopy of a pepper tree and a palm were somewhat overwhelming, so Mullins strung cafe lights to create a lower, more intimate ceiling—much more inviting to visitors.
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A spot to linger
A fireplace keeps guests cozy in this intimate outdoor living room. The room is sunken—you have to walk down a few steps to get there—so it feels like a den once you’ve arrived. The patio is on the same plane as the house’s basement, and the long-term goal is to install French doors and connect the inside with the outdoors. Eckley loves this space. “This is usually where we end up at the end of the night,” he says. Lush plantings also help enclose the area: Boston ivy climbs on either side of the fireplace, a climbing hydrangea scales the house, Sacracoca is hedged beneath the fireplace, and two boulevard cypresses frame the stairs.
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For before-dinner drinks or after-dinner s’mores, this well-designed space
offered two connected—but distinct—sitting areas. This lower one is centered on a firepit built of paving stones. Indoor-outdoor cushions softened the built-in curved benches, made of decking that was heat-molded on-site into the right shape.