Senses of Living® Décor

August 2004
© 2004 by Bret S. Beall


If you do not have a porch, balcony, backyard, or other outdoor space, I have two things to say. First, I feel your pain; I didn’t have immediate access to the outdoors at my previous home, and I’ll never take it for granted! Secondly, you can always adopt some of the following décor ideas for a sunroom, bedroom, family room, guest room, or even a home office. Think outside the box, please (and a future column will help you by discussing specific opportunities for sunrooms, as I’m currently re-doing mine … which I pretentiously call my solarium).

Think of a porch or patio or balcony as a transition zone. It is where you can bring the outdoors inside, and move the indoors out. It’s an ambiguous region, the site of fuzzy boundaries that can be defined according to your own personal tastes and needs. It should be functional as well as decorative, so here are some guidelines for blending form and function. Bear in mind that most of these suggestions are designed for porches and balconies of limited size, such as those associated with apartments or condos; if you have a larger area, you have fewer restrictions, so take these guidelines, and expand upon them.

FURNITURE: Furniture is important, because who wants to spend all of their time standing up or sitting on the wood or concrete? I’ll volunteer: “Not me!” When you are starting to consider decorating your porch, think about how you are going to use it: Is it for adults to relax? It is for guests and entertaining? Is it for children to play? Is it for all of the above? Chances are your porch will be a multifunctional space, so remember one thing: it’s about relationships. Think of it as just another “room” of your home, and follow some of the guidelines I have offered in previous columns about indoor décor. In fact, one column that might be of greatest value is “Focal Point, Schmocal Point” at http://www.god-dess.com/services_sensesAugust03.html . Keep this in mind when selecting furniture: you want the space to be attractive, but you also want it to be livable. That means that you don’t need to have designer (read: expensive) products. Rather, remember that your outdoor room will be exposed to the elements, so mere looks and comfort aren’t the only factors to consider. You need to especially consider whether the furniture is washable (I’m still amazed how dirty my porch furniture becomes). You might also consider how “expendable” your furniture is. To illustrate this point, let me give you some examples of furniture from my own porch. I have a semicircular sitting area so that my guests and I can easily converse with one another while enjoying the backyard. Because there is a unit above me that seems to be the source of dirt, especially when it rains, I have decided that easy to wash and wipe down molded plastic chairs are the best bet for me. No, they aren’t gorgeous, but they are quite affordable (either new, or when purchased second-hand as mine are), are relatively comfortable, and are very easy to clean. I have a glass-topped, four-legged metal table ($1 at a yard sale!) that sits in the center of the semicircle; not the most attractive, but this table gives guests an easy place to set down their drinks, or for me to serve snacks and nibblies, or to rest plates when we choose to dine outside (not the best idea, as the table IS small, and guests have to hold their plates while they eat … but it IS pleasant on the porch). I also have a very attractive redwood table that sits between a couple of the chairs in the semicircle; it offers another resting place for glasses and dishes so that the central table doesn’t become overcrowded (and I bought the table at a yard sale for $2, so please don’t accuse me of killing my favorite trees); redwood is particularly resistant to the elements. Yet another furniture option is rattan or wicker; it’s very durable, but it is also difficult to clean, so it won’t work on my porch, but maybe you’ll enjoy it on yours. Clearly, given the low cost of my furnishings, they are “expendable.” One take home message from my discussion of furniture is that porch furniture-selection is not about the “Wow” factor. It’s about cultivating relationships, and creating a relaxing environment.

LIGHTING: Another important functionality factor is lighting. Many porches have built in lights, and these are great no-brainers for bringing illumination to your indoor/outdoor space. If you have electrical outlets, you can install various low cost lamps, but be sure that they are designed for outdoor use, or you will end up with a short-circuit and possibly a fire … you don’t want those! But, unless you are planning to try to read on your porch at night, you really don’t need the intensity of an electric light. In my case, I have no electric outlets on my porch, so that really limits my lighting options. I do so much reading everywhere else in my home that I just use the porch for relaxing and entertaining (not that reading isn’t relaxing). For nighttime illumination, I find that candles are just fine, and lend a rather soft, even romantic mood to the porch (romance hasn’t been a motivator recently, but perhaps someday …). Be sure to use candles with lead-free wicks, and that are on sturdy bases to catch melted wax and to avoid spillovers and blow-overs. Be cautious about using scented candles, as their aromas can impact the enjoyment of wine, or other beverages and food, on your porch. Additionally, scented candles can impact your neighbors, and that isn’t really polite; I have some neighbors who only smoke on their back porch, and while that is good for their children, the air circulation patterns blow the smoke into everyone else’s apartments (the previous inhabitants of that unit smoked marijuana and cigars on their porch, which created their own “aromatic” experiences). One other variable to consider when selecting outdoor lighting is the degree to which the lights will attract insects; that candles don’t attract insects is a great affirmation for their selection. (FYI, while citronella is a good mosquito deterrent, don’t use it indiscriminately, as it also has an aroma will have the same effect as the scented candles I described above; the best way to deal with insects is to allow spiders to make their webs on your porch; if there aren’t insects for the spiders to eat, the spiders will go away!).

REFRESHMENTS: I’ve already discussed the furniture options for serving food and beverages on your porch, but what about preparing food on your porch? Many people like to barbeque on their porches. If you have a concrete patio or deck, that’s cool. If you have plenty of room for such equipment, that’s cool. If you have plenty of water nearby to handle emergencies, that’s cool. But, if you are crowded for space, do NOT try to squeeze in a barbeque, a grill or a food smoker. I’ve just acquired a food smoker, and will not be using it on my porch; I’ll be experimenting with it on the concrete pad of my building’s common area; I’ll certainly report how it works in some future Simple! Sensible! Sensational!® recipe column. I can also vouch from experiencing the smoke from neighbors’ barbeques that grilling on a porch can easily impact people nearby … having my kitchen full of someone else’s grilling fumes and smoke isn’t my idea of a good time.

PLANTS: On the other hand, plants ARE my idea of a good time, though that certainly won’t surprise you if you’ve ready my previous columns. I often use my porch for repotting plants, so I have one corner devoted to storing part of my huge assortment of potting supplies (tubs, pots, potting “bench,” peat moss, potting mix, etc.). I also use the porch for rehabilitating my indoor plants that have had a hard winter; even though I have a northern exposure, the light intensity is adequate compared to indoors (yet not as intense as other exposures, which allows indoor plants to acclimate more easily to their new outdoor home), and when repotted and exposed to the higher summer humidity and temperatures, they thrive, and can better survive a winter indoors. Finally, I use the back porch to experiment with container gardening and kitchen gardening. Over the years, I have created tropical paradises with huge taro and malanga. I have created a colorful patchwork quilt of coleus, ipomoea, various variegated species, and blooming impatiens, fuchsias, begonias and others. I also have created a small water garden where I grow papyrus, other cyperus, water lettuce, and certain water plants; I’d love a fountain or bubbler, but the lack of an electric outlet makes that difficult. C’est la vie.

OTHER DÉCOR ITEMS: Please keep the clutter to a minimum on your porch. Keep a discreet trash bag or other container for any waste you might have, but do not let trash accumulate. You don’t need frilly doilies, or brick-a-brack, or other odds and ends. You might want some large art or decorative items on the wall to break up the space and add texture and color; go for it (but only if they enhance the environment)! If you want other decorations, by all means, add them; just don’t overdo it. If children are using the porch, they certainly need toys or other items to keep their interest, but make sure the children know about putting their toys away so that your porch doesn’t look like a battle zone ... and so that your kids learn that they have to share the porch space. Remember: the porch is to be functional, and clutter interferes with function (and I’m an expert on clutter interfering with function … not that I’m proud of that expertise!).

Have I forgotten any porch functions (either intentionally or unintentionally)? Please write or call to let me know. No one’s perfect, and I always welcome fresh perspectives! Thanks in advance for your input. You can always reach me at 773.508.9208 or email me.