Laguna’s top tastemakers reveal tips and tricks for creating the ideal backyard oasis.
By Somer Tejwani
There’s something about stepping outside to greet the day with a cup of coffee and returning to toast its close with a glass of wine that make for perfect bookends. This spring, take advantage of the year-round outdoor living that Laguna Beach affords and bring the indoors out with backyard spaces that double as intimate spots for relaxing and entertaining. We tapped the masterminds behind some of Laguna’s best-designed spaces, including Sheldon Harte, Natasha Harris, Lisa McDennon and Michael Fullen, to share their advice for making sure all of the creature comforts of your home’s interior remain blissfully at your fingertips, even as you enjoy nature’s elements.
When Sheldon, a Laguna-based designer and owner of Harte Brownlee & Associates, sets out to design an outdoor space, he first starts by looking through an interior window toward the yard. “We’re indoors more often than out, and we’re programmed to look outdoors,” he explains. “I like to be sure that the indoor and outdoor spaces have a relationship, a design feature that connects them, whether it’s style, color or direction.”
Natasha, who operates local decor boutique and consulting service Seaside Interiors with her mother, Gina Harris, agrees, adding that a well-designed coastal property treats the outdoor space with just as much respect as it does the interior of the home. “Select furniture and accessories that will make the outdoor space feel like a seamless extension of your interior space,” she advises.
Laying the Groundwork
Today almost anything goes when creating the backyard of your dreams, from full-service designer kitchens and high-tech entertainment centers to fire features and luxury swimming pools. Lisa, whose new decor shop, Nuance, opened this April, notes that the most important aspect of designing an outdoor space involves maintaining balance.
“Remember to soften all of those structural items with softness,” she says. “Adding a billowing canopy over your sitting area, framing a dining pavilion with diaphanous draperies and layering seating with sumptuous pillows will complete the space and provide a welcoming place to relax and enjoy for hours on end.” Another way to create an inviting outdoor space, she adds, is to update the home’s existing loggia or any other covered area already in place with new outdoor seating and drapes that can be placed on a rod to shield the area from the routine dampness that occurs after the sun sets.
For Lisa and many other designers, this concept of balance extends to furnishings as well. To avoid overkill, Lisa, who has designed spaces in Laguna, Thailand, New Zealand and Fiji for more than 16 years, encourages clients to toss away the idea of buying a multipiece patio set. “We avoid purchasing matching sets for indoors,” she says. “[So] take your time to mix and match your outdoor furnishings for a layered look. Don’t be afraid to mix a teak sofa with woven side chairs [or] a stone coffee table, and complete your vignette with one-of-a-kind side tables and accents.”
Chic outdoor spaces are stylish and functional areas to entertain and, in a coastal community, it’s nearly impossible to resist the pull of an evening spent on the patio. “Go with modular outdoor furniture that can be moved around and into a variety of configurations,” Natasha advises. “The key is to have versatile seating that can accommodate your entertaining needs.”
When working with larger outdoor spaces, treat them just as you would the rooms inside your home. Lisa does this by using planters, other containers and even faux walls to create drama, structure and balance. “Think of the yard as another room,” says Michael, owner and principal designer of Michael Fullen Design Group in Laguna. “Create a comfortable seating group for socializing or just lounging in the open air.”
No matter which pieces you choose, be sure to select furnishings whose fabrics and materials will withstand the wind, rain and seawater. “Choose durable outdoor furniture and hardy outdoor fabrics that can stand up to the elements while still creating a warm and inviting vibe,” says Natasha, whose design projects have included outfitting spaces in coastal cities like Laguna, Santa Monica and San Francisco.
“Just like the elements are hard on the skin, they’re [also] hard on appliances and furniture,” Sheldon adds. “Even resin fades.”
Adding in Accents
Selecting color swatches for a space isn’t just an aspect of designing a bedroom or living room. When choosing your outdoor color palette, put just as much thought into the hues as you would when making decisions for the interior of your home. Natasha advocates sourcing inspiration from your natural surroundings; for instance, muted blue and gray fabrics might reflect the colors of the surf and wet sand while deep orange umbrellas are reminiscent of a vibrant sunset.
Most importantly, don’t fear experimenting with color. “With the strong California sun, colors can be easily washed out,” Michael says. “Be brave and use saturated colors and bold patterns.”
Furniture doesn’t have to live on concrete or grass, and boldly colored textiles can infuse a space with personality and charm. Just as you would for the interior of your home, choose an area rug that ties the space together and adds dimension to your backyard. In recent years, the indoor-outdoor rug selection has expanded dramatically, and the choices currently available are extensive, according to Lisa. “For something subtle, try a sisal look or, for a pop of color, check out Dash & Albert or Jaipur rugs,” she shares. “Not only are they easy to care for, but they inexpensively add a cozy feel to any outdoor space.”
Likewise, one of the most often overlooked aspects of outdoor design is lighting, which can be just as stylish as it is functional. “There are many options for outdoor lighting, including table and floor lamps, lanterns and hanging fixtures, to make your space unique,” Michael says.
“I always say lighting will make or break your space,” Lisa adds. “There’s something magical about landscape lighting—sitting under a twinkling chandelier above, while the foliage of the surrounding landscape is dappled with gentle uplighting.” Complete the ambience with strategically placed candlelight, she says, and you’ll be able to create a warm and welcoming space—even outdoors.
Experimenting With Entertaining
You’ll no doubt want to share your revamped space with friends and family; luckily, high-tech tools and installations have made backyard soirees increasingly easy to plan and execute. No good party is without music, but don’t worry if you’re unable to afford built-in speakers. “With today’s mobile platforms, it’s easy to bring your favorite music along with you,” Sheldon says of streaming services like Spotify and Pandora. And leave the television to the indoors—not only will a TV-free setting induce conversation among guests, but, according to Sheldon, outdoor systems rarely hold up well in Laguna due to the constant moisture and sea salt in the air.
When designing a space for entertaining, don’t forget to include places for storing beverages and areas for preparing and cooking food.
“Barbecues and outdoor kitchens are usually sited near the kitchen in the main house so that you have access to what you need from the indoors,” Sheldon says. “Outdoor refrigerators are mostly for drinks. Food is usually kept inside because if you keep it outside, you’ll forget about it and it will rot.” When selecting outdoor countertops, he adds, stay away from dark stones because they tend to spot and calcify. Instead, opt for materials like quartzite, limestone and travertine, which all weather the elements remarkably well.
Even if you don’t have the luxury of starting with an entirely bare canvas when designing your outdoor retreat, consider making gradual updates to the space or adding understated accessories. Simple additions like patterned throw pillows or found objects like a driftwood sculpture on an antique coffee table can transform a space without breaking the bank. Or, spruce the space up with fresh flowers or potted herbs from the garden set on tabletops. When the weather allows, add a stack of design, travel or other coffee-table-style books to make the space feel lived in.
But consider yourself warned: If you succeed in making your outdoor space as enticing as the interior of your home, you may just never want to leave. Sheldon adds, “I’ve had clients specifically ask if the outdoor living room I’m designing for them could be warm enough to sleep in at night.” LBM