How to Create a Stylish Outdoor Living Space

June 10, 2021

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Text by Kristin Amico

Temperatures are heating up across New England and alfresco living season (some might say the best season) has arrived. Now’s the time to turn your backyard or patio into a cozy, comfortable retreat that enhances every moment of summer and adds a touch of luxury to your home.

Diana James, designer and proprietor of the Marblehead, Massachusetts, shop Living Swell, provides a blueprint for exceptional outdoor living and entertaining. What’s her number one tip? “Treat your outdoor space as you would a living or dining room, and bring all the comforts and style that you have inside your home, outside.”

Here’s how to do that.

Create a Floor Plan

One of the first steps is determining how you want to use the space. An area built for entertaining should have seating and table arrangements that foster intimate conversations. Alternatively, a relaxation space may have lounges and lots of greenery, while an area for kids will likely be a mix of zones.

Then, create a floor plan that makes the best use of your available space. Here’s where professional design guidance is priceless.

“Use a designer to create a plan that incorporates your lifestyle and design style. They will map out furniture arrangements, traffic flow, and create a sense of scale that matches the proportion of the surrounding outdoor area,” notes James.

There are other benefits of using a professional during the planning stage. As part of the floor plan, a designer will create a natural progression from interior to exterior, making your outdoor living space feel like an extension of your home. In addition, they’ll create color and furniture schemes that match your design vision.

Choose Comfortable and Stylish Furniture

Whether you’re entertaining guests, soaking in the afternoon sunshine, or star gazing with a cocktail, the right pieces will enhance the experience. “Today’s outdoor furniture choices are exceptional, and you don’t have to sacrifice style for durability,” says James.

That’s because there’s a wide range of furnishings featuring soft textiles as well as of-the-moment patterns and colors that look and feel elegant enough for a living or dining room while being rain and UV-resistant.

James’s tip for picking furniture you love: “Look for pieces that complement your style and are also are comfortable enough to make you want to linger outdoors with friends and family.”

Design the Landscape and Hardscape

In addition to floor plans and furniture selections, think about other natural and manmade elements that can be used to dial up design and make the space more inviting. James recommends choosing a designer who will factor in landscape and hardscape planning as part of the overall vision.

“You’ll want to consider how a garden, row of shrubs, or trees that double as a canopy play into the design, too,” James advises. Likewise, large plants or other natural materials can be used to define spaces and act like living walls.

Homeowners can also add architectural beauty and function with hardscaping. That includes everything from patio stones, deck design, and retaining walls to water features. She’s also a big fan of fire pits and stone fireplaces as they add a bold design element while also extending the outdoor living season from spring into late fall. 

Light Up Your Space

Lighting should be part of the initial planning stage. “It creates visual depth and can be used to emphasize objects ranging from trees to outdoor sculptures,” notes James.

She also explains that lights, like strategic plant placement, help to create boundaries in the absence of walls or a ceiling. Together, the right lighting and floor plan makes a space feel like a well-planned room.

When choosing lighting, think about layering both the type of fixtures and their brightness levels. Combine fixtures that sit at eye level and others that hang above you with ground-level lights that illuminate paths and the floor.


Accessories might seem like an afterthought, but the right objects pull a look together. Layer on pillows, consider stylish stools to kick up your feet, use candles for decoration and light, and line hard flooring with rugs for a touch of softness. Don’t forget dining accessories, either. For those who prefer to eat outside when the weather allows, there is a wide range of flatware, dishes, and serving tools that add whimsy to an outdoor table.

Her tips for accessorizing follow design rules in general—use objects that feel like they belong. For example, opt for sleek, shiny pieces to add character to a modern home and patio, while organic or rustic accessories are a better complement for a traditional or classic seaside residence.

Lastly, James wants you to have fun in the process of transforming the outdoors into a functional and beautiful sanctuary for friends and family.

Living Swell, Marblehead, Mass.,

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