Front and Center

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A Laguna Beach FrontYard designed by Michael Wilkes_credit Michael Wilkes
Part of a Laguna Beach front yard designed by Michael Wilkes | Photo by Michael Wilkes

More than just an entryway to a home, the front yard has emerged as a central sanctuary worthy of its own design.

By Elizabeth Nutt


While hunkering down due to the COVID-19 pandemic certainly brought unforeseen challenges, silver linings on the homefront also abounded. For many, extra time—or newfound motivation—led to home improvement projects. For others, time spent at home meant more opportunities to get to know neighbors. Perhaps this is why a new trend has emerged over the past year or so: Whether used specifically for casual, socially distanced outdoor gatherings or simply for enjoying a change of scenery, front yards are being reworked to bring fresh energy to a home and even expand its square footage of usable living space. And, when it comes to setting up your front-of-house alfresco area to reflect your lifestyle, the opportunities are endless.


Make an Entrance

Local interior designer Tania Cassill has observed this trend firsthand on her morning walks around Laguna as well as through her own client base. “The front yard has become the gathering area. Backyards are still used, but people are really treating front yards as a new outdoor space, and creating places to sit and have a glass of wine or come outside in the morning and have a cup of tea,” Cassill says. According to the designer, who owns huit, the Laguna-based home store and full-service interior design studio, many people reevaluated their living space during COVID, finding creative ways to expand their spaces—especially outdoors. “It’s just become part of the process; we’re doing a lot of complete remodels or new builds, and front yard living spaces are now included—where before it wasn’t as much of a focus. … Now, there’s actually an entertaining place in the front yard.”

To help her clients with a design plan, whether in a new or existing home, Cassill first tasks them with deciding how they’ll use it, be it intimate gatherings for two or full-on dinner parties. With a focus on creating enough seating to reflect the type of entertaining clients plan to do, she’ll build the space from there. “I’ve seen everything from Adirondack chairs around a fire pit to, depending on the size of the yard, a small bistro table and a couple chairs,” Cassill says. If space allows, you may even consider a larger seating arrangement like a sofa with additional chairs, or even a dining table.

Emerald Bay home_Tania Cassill created the seating arrangement and supplied the furniture and accents but patio and fireplace were existing credit Chad Mellon
Local designer Tania Cassill, who added the furniture and decor to this front patio with an existing fireplace, has noticed more homeowners turning their front yards and courtyards into usable space like this. | Photo by Chad Mellon

Next, Cassill suggests finding ways to surround and define the space, whether it’s your front porch, a gravel or stone area or walkway, or the grass on your front yard; giving the designated outdoor entertaining area a border will help it feel more inviting (think: an arrangement of potted plants or a garden sculpture or two).

Of course, size plays a critical role in a front yard’s usability, and many Lagunans may not have the option of adding furniture due to lack of available square footage. This is an issue with which local landscape architect Michael Wilkes is familiar, but he’s found many creative ways to expand front yard living spaces in town. “Imagine just enlarging the walkway that goes from the street to your door, and creating perimeter seating opportunities where people can socialize in an informal way without actually having to sit on furniture that might be cluttering that space,” Wilkes offers. Take, for example, built-in seating; Wilkes recommends an 18-inch widened cap on an existing wall, and then either stone or poured concrete to expand the path that leads to your home. “If you can change the traditional, single walkway up to the house into more of a courtyard, you’ll create a sense of pause between the street and your front door,” Wilkes says.


A Warm Welcome

Once you’ve designated your front yard living space, it’s time to personalize and accessorize the area. “I always incorporate some sort of lighting,” says Cassill, who suggests adding outdoor hurricane lamps, lanterns or a string of outdoor cafe lights. In the winter months, thinking about ways to stay warm and keep the area well lit while socializing outdoors is key as well.

“Fire pits have been big in the front yard, too, which is interesting because I feel like I’ve always put them in the backyard. But now that the front yard has become a gathering place, there are little fire pits going in everywhere,” Cassill observes. Wilkes agrees that this trend is hot, but suggests opting for a portable iteration. “Keep it versatile so you don’t end up with a fixed feature in a space that’s only used for part of the day or part of the year,” he advises, adding that homeowners should check with the city on required clearances from combustible materials on their property.

Meanwhile, thanks to a plethora of outdoor-specific materials, it’s easier than ever to give your outdoor space a true living room feel. “They’ve really developed such great synthetics, like synthetic wood or synthetic rattan, where now you can’t tell the difference,” Cassill says. “There’s so much more available now than there used to be.”

The designer points to rattan, for example. “Where before, you couldn’t really use a rattan chair outside—it wouldn’t last, it wouldn’t weather [well]—now you can have a synthetic rattan chair that literally looks like an actual rattan chair,” she says. As a finishing touch, throwing in some outdoor-specific cushions or pillows made with materials that are waterproof and fade-, mold- and mildew-resistant has an immediate impact on upping the cozy factor of the space.

front yard:courtyard design by Michael Wilkes_credit Sharon Stello
The front area was remodeled by designer Michael Wilkes and includes an outdoor kitchen. | Photo by Sharon Stello

Of course, no front yard would be complete without some greenery. Ironically, Wilkes says front yards aren’t about the actual yard these days—that is, to say, grass lawns are almost becoming obsolete with new construction being impacted by stricter water-efficient landscape ordinances enforced by the city. But eliminating your lawn means increased capacity for more robust landscaping elsewhere. “One of the big water hogs is lawn, so it’s kind of a trade-off. … Reducing or eliminating lawn altogether allows you to have a little bit more lusciousness in the [other] plant material, while still using less water,” Wilkes says.

Another element to consider is how much direct sunlight your front yard gets, and Wilkes suggests studying how the sun moves around your home. To create more shade where it’s needed so that you can comfortably use the space during the day, Wilkes will add in drought-tolerant trees, such as the fruitless olive tree, which offers an ideal filtered shade, he says.

More importantly, trees and other plants in your front yard can also help you achieve the amount of privacy or openness you seek around your home. “Prospect and refuge are the two words that are often used. So, the prospect of being able to see out from the space that you’re in so you can kind of … survey what’s happening, but refuge in that it’s still protected enough,” Wilkes explains. He says tall hedges that intentionally completely screen in a front yard are trending out, while many people are choosing shorter hedges or a simple low wall or fence to immediately make the front yard more inviting.

Both Wilkes and Cassill have found inspiration simply by walking around Laguna and noting what neighbors are doing to better enjoy their front yard living spaces, whether it’s a conversation under a tree in a courtyard or a cup of coffee on a front porch at sunrise. As they become increasingly more welcoming and conducive to conversation, we may find that our front yards make us—and our neighbors—feel more at home.


Front Yard Finds

Embellish your entryway for outdoor entertaining with these home decor accessories.


SD-E182-NU Monet Chair Exterior Natural primary
The eye-catching MONET HIGH BACK CHAIR by Sika Design is constructed of a new material called AluRattan; a strong aluminum frame woven with a layer of ArtFibre makes it maintenance-free, ultra-durable, and ideal for outdoor use, $980, at huit. (949-715-5617;
Hourglass pot_100129-629_2
The chic and modern HOURGLASS POTS by Ferm Living come in an array of sizes that will help you define your outdoor living space and decorate it with plants, from $135, at Vertigo Home. (949-494-7547;
LED light_blomus_4705_FAROL_STAY
Keep your front yard living space cozy and well lit during evenings or winter months with the help of the FAROL MOBILE RECHAREABLE LED LAMP by Blomus. At just over 13 inches high and made of aluminum, this portable lamp offers three different levels of brightness to let you achieve the perfect ambiance for your alfresco gatherings, $170, at Nuance Home & Lifestyle Boutique. (949-494-8833;
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