For many, hiring an interior designer is a crucial step when remodeling, but with the new trend in outdoor living, you may want to think about hiring an exterior designer. With advice from local pros, you may not step foot into your house until the first frost.
If you’d like to do more cooking, dining, and relaxing outside, one of your first stops should be Hearth & Patio. “We’re a full-service specialty store that carries high-quality patio furniture, grills, and hearth products. Our expert staff will educate you on all the products available and guide you in determining the best products for your needs. We offer delivery, installation, and service of all of our products,” explained owner Tracy Sutherland.

If you’re just starting out, she suggested determining how you ideally want to use your outdoor space. “Do you want somewhere to dine? Or would the space be better for casual conversations? Do you intend to entertain, or are you using the space as a relaxing retreat? Consider fire, food, and seating. Add a fireplace as the central focal point, blend in the cooking station, and add furnishings that call out for people to lounge for an extended period of time.”

The Hearth & Patio design team is equipped to help clients sort through their many options. “We offer consultations in our showroom or your home. We can lay out patio furniture, outdoor kitchens, fireplaces, and accessories on our design board to show you exactly how the space will come together. This is a crucial step in planning your outdoor space. It’s sometimes hard to visualize how furniture and equipment are going to fit. Having it sketched out can ensure the products you purchase will be perfect for your needs,” she said.

Another must-visit in your quest for a phenomenal outdoor space is Green View, which offers everything from initial consultations to full design to the heavy lifting, explained Green View Companies Landscape Designer Johanna James. “Our landscape consultants ask many questions about what you’re looking for in an outdoor living area. They also analyze your site and note the sun/shade conditions, the drainage patterns, the existing elements and circulation, and anything else they feel may impact the design. Then, our landscape designers and landscape architects combine your needs with the site conditions to come up with aesthetically pleasing solutions that fit your lifestyle. Our master construction foreman can then implement your design. Our crews can install paving, seat walls, custom water features, built-in kitchens, firepits, arbors, lighting, and more—letting you just relax and enjoy the results.”

James agreed with Sutherland that people should spend time thinking about their lifestyle when designing a space. “Who will use the space? What activities should the space accommodate? Formal or casual entertaining? Cooking? Reading? Campfires? What time of day—and time of year—will the space be used? How much maintenance are you willing to do? What type of budget do you have for the project? Should it be done in phases or all at once?”

She said the explosive interest in outdoor living is likely linked to our modern lives. “People seem to have fewer opportunities to be outdoors—going straight from a climate-controlled house to an air-conditioned car to an office. Creating areas outside where they can relax, cook, or entertain allows people to reconnect with nature. The fresh air can be both calming and invigorating. Families can spend time interacting together without television or computer interruptions. Outdoor entertaining often is more casual and, therefore, less stressful than formal indoor entertaining. Outdoor living spaces also can solve indoor space issues. By increasing the square footage of your living space by expanding outside, you can make a small house feel more gracious.”

That gracious feeling begins with furniture—which will come as a pleasant surprise if you haven’t seen what’s out there lately. “The days of the green plastic patio chairs are gone,” Sutherland insists. “People are buying outdoor furniture that has the look and feel of indoor furniture. We see people purchasing more casual, deep-seating furniture such as sofas and lounge chairs with ottomans. Manufacturers have perfected fabrics that are as beautiful and comfortable as your favorite sofa, but are durable enough to withstand the elements. People will come into our showroom and say, ‘Oh we can’t use any of this; we’re looking for outdoor furniture.’ I love explaining that the frames are rust-free and the fabrics won’t mold, mildew, or fade in the sun.”

Even the necessary extras have been designed for outdoor living, she said. “People accessorize their outdoor rooms as they would their indoor rooms. We offer a line of rugs and lamps that are 100-percent weatherproof. Like the furniture, they have the look and feel of indoor accessories and can be customized with fabrics that match your set. We’re doing a lot of lampshades with fabrics to match the client’s patio furniture.”

Though central Illinois doesn’t have an ideal climate year-round, new products can lengthen the amount of time spent outdoors, Sutherland said. “Adding gas and wood firepits or fireplaces extends the patio season by several months. We have customers designing them right in their landscaping along with an outdoor kitchen, making their patios the most ideal place for entertaining. Lighting is another way to extend the time people can spend outdoors. Our line of outdoor lamps will work even in the rain.”

James said water is always a popular element in an outdoor living space. “The sound of water soothes and relaxes. Water gardens can be very elaborate and beautiful, with koi and plantings. For those who want the tranquility of water without the time, there are many low-maintenance options. Fountains, pond-less waterfalls, and overflowing urns are all water features that don’t take a lot of your time.”

Practical matters, such as where you’ll cook up your outdoor feast, deserve serious thought as well, Sutherland said. “Because we see our customers spending more time entertaining at home, we’re designing more built-in or island-type BBQ areas using stone or stucco facades with granite or marble countertops as elaborate as indoor kitchens. Our clients usually do just as much—if not more—cooking outside as they do inside. Of course, with today’s hectic pace people are looking for ease and convenience, so we see more gas BBQ sales. However, we have our niche product, the ‘Big Green Egg,’ which is a ceramic charcoal grill that has a cult-like following. Probably the hottest thing in grills right now is the new infrared technology, which uses light to cook food very quickly, leaving food extremely tender and juicy.”

Because there are so many details to consider, James said her best tip for people considering an outdoor space is to hire a professional. “Combining the qualities of the site with your needs for the space is an art, and it can be overwhelming. People often overlook possibilities when they see a space every day; a professional will bring a fresh set of eyes to the project. A professional also can make sure the elements you think you want really meet your needs. For example, a professional may steer someone who wants an elaborate water garden—but no maintenance—towards a pond-less fountain that gives the sound of water but is simple to maintain. A professional also brings experience with site issues, such as drainage or the need for retaining walls, and they may be able to suggest the best style and materials to complement your house. Even if you plan to install the work yourself, hiring a landscape architect or a landscape designer to get you started often will save you time and money in the long run.”

Her final piece of advice: plan ahead. “Start thinking about the big picture, be honest about your lifestyle, and work down to the details. As far as the actual space is concerned, the biggest mistake is making an area too small. The scale of the house and yard should be considered, but if you must err, make it too large. And who knows, the more outside living space you have, the more reasons you may find to spend your time there.” a&s