Outdoor Living Spaces as an Extension of the Home

Our home was more of a museum when we first saw it seven years ago, and not in the friendly sense of the term. Everywhere you looked, there was stuff piled on top of stuff. Even the tennis court had become a refuge for kids’ toys of all shapes and sizes. So, seeing the beauty of the place required looking through all of that to find (imagine, really) what was hidden beneath. And while the home would be years in the making—we’ve still got a couple of bathrooms that are begging to be renovated—the surrounding property, we could start shaping straightaway because it was pretty much a blank canvas.

I set out to design three unique outdoor living spaces, each meant to be its own private oasis. In doing so, they’d also enhance the tranquil, green surroundings in their own ways. Inside or outside, a living area is defined not by the physical parameters but by the means through which you express your lifestyle. Here, the pool allows us to bask in the privacy of the thick foliage that lines the outskirts of the yard. The koi pond and waterfall plays up the seclusion. And the dining area is positioned with a sweeping view of everything.

Inside, I’m tempted at times to test whether a design can ever be too loud. But I’m very sensitive to an outdoor living space being overpowering. The most elaborate element among our three is these tomato-red umbrellas that I erected on the terrace. They have an interesting shape to them that reminds me of Southeast Asia. Everything else trends minimalist or organic. The pool is a classic rectangle with bleachers in place of steps to encourage soaking over swimming. And the four-foot pond, complete with a treading waterfall, is free-form. We started out with five koi. I wanted more, but they said no, they’ll mate fast. Four years later, we’re north of 20. Our French bulldogs are split on the pond. One loves diving in, chasing after frogs. The other wants nothing to do with it.

There’s another part to consider when you’re plotting an outdoor living space, or any form of landscape design: the maintenance. You don’t want to be anchored to it all summer long. Another reason to aim for simplicity. Even the shrubs I planted, after the first year, they pretty much hold their own. Now it’s just a matter of matter of maintaining their pots. After all, much as I love hanging out in our backyard, I never want to pass on a weekend escape, especially because I have to water and weed.

Inside a Pair of Bold, New Philly Interior Design Projects

Welcome to my new blog. I thought I’d take this opportunity to share a bit more about myself and some of my favorite projects, both present and past, to try to better explain how I do what I do and, hopefully, pass along some inspiration and useful advice in the process. So check back every couple of weeks for my next installment.

I began branching out my Bucks County interior design firm a couple years back when my partner and I started renting a weekend apartment in Center City. It became a more concerted effort last year after we bought one at The Residences at The Ritz-Carlton. It’s there that I’m also at work on a couple of provocative makeovers, one nearing fruition, the other just beginning to take shape. The apartments, coincidentally, have the same layout and the clients—a couple and a single guy—are all in their late-twenties, early-thirties. Both projects also began with a single point of inspiration. But their similarities end there.

A funky door I had just installed started the conversation with the couple. He came across it, contacted me through Facebook and said he was seeking a Philadelphia interior designer who could help them turn their apartment into an “outrageous” showpiece. His wife, once we all convened in November, confided that she was thinking more along the lines of “sexy.” This is going to be fun, I thought.

The wallpaper became our canvas. Every wall’s covered with it. Throughout the apartment, we liberally mix black, silver, and gold. In their bedroom, large black-and-white ink blots face black flock velvet wallpaper. (There’s a leopard-print rug, too.) Behind a mirrored bar, the wallpaper bears a striking likeness in look and texture to alligator skin. From there, we layered on a few large portraits of women in various states of undress.

What complements black and metallic surfaces especially well? Crystal. Accordingly, the chandeliers are over the top. One in particular extends five feet across the kitchen island and looks like a tangled diamond necklace. We punctuated the bedroom with a handful of black Venetian crystal, somewhat more subdued, but no less seductive.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have a masculine haven at the other apartment. When we met, he showed me his favorite piece of furniture, the one part of the apartment he didn’t want to change. It’s an art deco design, all black with chrome accents. So my idea was to riff on that and mimic the sharp, clean lines and minimalist nature of it. The palette’s going to be black and gray with a single accent hue, maybe cerulean blue. The fabrics, men’s suit fabrics and patterns—herringbone, plaid. We’ll keep the spaces fairly spare, aside from a fashionable sculpture or two.

There’s rarely much crossover between interior design in Philly and Bucks County, but throughout my work, and our own homes, an objet d’art usually illuminates the overall design, because it’s in those uncommon pieces that we choose to bare our souls.

The Veteran Landscape Designer Turned Late Bloomer

I got a late start on our vegetable garden. After a few weather delays and a too-short trip to Cuba (more on that later), we finally got it planted a couple weeks ago, about a month behind schedule. Which means that we missed the lettuces, one of my favorites.

I’m still fairly new to all of this. I’ve been fashioning gardens for years—everywhere we’ve lived in Bucks County, I’ve tried to create a seamless indoor-outdoor living environment—but last year was my first run at a vegetable garden. I was guided largely by a new friend whose horticulture knowledge turned out to be as deep as my wonder bean harvest. She told me what worked well and what didn’t in her own potted garden, but, naturally, there was still plenty I ended up learning by trial and error, like not to plant cucumbers and tomatoes next to each other.

This summer, we’re growing heirloom and cherry tomatoes, arugula, eggplant, Italian squash, lots of beets, and banana peppers, because I heard they can be frozen, and I’m game for anything that can carry us through the winter.

The setup is pretty traditional. Four L-shaped, raised beds form a rectangle. A large birdbath sits in the center, surrounded by all kinds of herbs. The classic aesthetic goes out the window with the fencing. It’s a temporary, eight-foot-tall mesh fence that’s a burden of necessity. The garden sits on top of an ancient water tank that we’re pretty sure is clay. So any digging around there needs to be done by hand. But I’ve still made it my mission this summer to erect a permanent fence, daunting as the prospect of it feels right now. It’s more to calm the designer in me than to fortify the garden against intruders. Mr. Gopher and Mr. Bunny were frequent visitors last summer. They were so cute, though, I didn’t really care.

Also on the agenda: A new shade garden by the entrance to the driveway. When we moved in seven years ago, the home—the entire property, really—was in total disarray. It wasn’t even that the landscaping was all wrong. It was buried under too much overgrowth and clutter to even know. The inside we cleared out and renovated in relative short order. The landscape design, though, has been more of a gradual undertaking, a new installation or two each summer, the upgrading of another. (I’ll get into how our outdoor living spaces came together next month.) But once I plant the ferns and Hostas for this shade garden, I think we may finally have arrived at our destination. On second thought, I just remembered the three bathrooms that need to be stripped down to their studs.