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Exterior design: it’s what’s outside that counts

“To think of a garden last is a mistake,” says Selina McCabe, partner at Winch Design, a London-based, multi-disciplinary design studio creating visionary projects on land, in the air and at sea. “Outdoor spaces are additional rooms and should be considered with the same level of importance as interior space.”

Creating synergy between inside and out has been at the heart of Winch Design’s approach ever since the company first launched back in 1980, but it has never been more relevant than today as the rising value of real estate and an increased focus on the wellness benefits of green spaces make designers, developers and consumers alike reconsider what lies on the other side of a property’s interior walls.

Outdoor spaces are additional rooms and should be considered with the same level of importance as interior space – Selina McCabe, partner at Winch Design

“A terrace used to be a nice bonus, but now – at least from an urban mindset – any building that has an exterior space is hot property,” McCabe says. “We have a few live projects in London at the moment and in each one, the focus is on almost doubling the footprint by embracing the terrace and creating another room.”

Of course, you can give your outdoor space an indoor vibe simply by putting out a chair or two, adding a scattering of decorative accessories and perhaps an outdoor rug (currently trending after one appeared on TV screens around the world luxe-ing up the floor of the outdoor room where Oprah interviewed Prince Harry and Meghan), but creating a full-on open-air room is different. It requires careful planning and a skilled eye.

An example of exterior design by Winch Design
Winch Design shows that there’s more to exterior design than garden furniture

Kim Levell adopted the title ‘Exterior Designer’ to describe her outdoor work 25 years ago as a way of differentiating herself from landscape and garden designers. “My drive is that I want my homeowner to say that I’ve created their favourite room,” she explains. “And to do that, I need to combine the modalities of garden design with interior design and construction design build knowledge. You can’t just go in and say, ‘I want this there’. You have to know where to source furniture and pots, understand how people use the space, and you also have to understand drainage and how materials react to the elements.”

The weather is the chief challenge facing exterior designers wherever they are in the world and, if outdoor rooms are to be lasting and liveable, then the people designing them need to work with the elements. “Salt air is extremely damaging,” says Levell who has offices in Tampa, Florida and North Carolina, “so if your house is by the sea, you need marine grade materials and finishes. Ski areas are windy and cold so the furniture needs to be heavy and made from a warm material like high-quality, kiln-dried teak. And in a hot climate, you need light fabric because dark fabric will burn the hell out of your legs.”

“It is really important that aesthetic is always pared with functionality,” agrees McCabe, “and that can extend to the interior too. Visually, you want a seamless transition between inside and out, but you also have to think about how the furniture that spills out onto the exterior will be affected by the sun and how it will be used too. If people are going to come in and sit on an interior sofa wearing sunscreen – which they probably will – it’s best to use an exterior grade fabric.”

Fortunately, hi-tech yarns have transformed exterior fabrics in recent years. Specialist companies such as Perennials and Sunbrella have mastered the art of creating gorgeous, textured fabrics robust enough to withstand both rain and the fading effects of the sun, and many leading international fabric design houses have followed suit. Italian brand Romo, the US’s Schumacher and Andrew Martin in the UK, to name a few, all now produce collections that are every bit as beautiful and tactile as their interior ranges. And that means designers like Levell and McCabe can create practical outdoor pieces that look and feel exactly like their interior cousins.

“We’ve recently completed a project on Lake Geneva where the doors around the pool area open right out so that it can be indoor or out,” says McCabe. “We did custom exterior seating that looked exactly like the interior furniture which means it can be used in both spaces.”

An example of exterior design by Winch Design
Custom exterior seating transformed the garden of this Lake Geneva by Winch Design

Another challenge facing those working in exterior design is making the space work for the people who will use it. Space planning is something interior designers are well used to, but outdoor rooms bring additional issues. They are multi-functional for a start – kitchens, dining rooms, living rooms and playrooms all rolled into one; and then there’s nature too. People still want their gardens to be gardens.

“I like to keep the planting easy and repetitive and I never put in a pot that doesn’t have irrigation,” says Levell. “When it comes to cooking, I need to think about where the smoke from the grill goes – I often see people place grills right next to the doors and windows – and if there’s a pool, I have to consider the safety of the materials I use on the ground.”

Both McCabe and Levell are interested in creating outdoor spaces that will endure, not just the elements but passing trends too, both believing that those at the sharp end of the design world have a platform to promote sustainability. But they also want to encourage more of us to embrace our outdoor spaces, whatever their size, so here are their must-haves for this summer: an outdoor rug, an umbrella (if it’s big enough, Levell points out, it will keep you dry in light rain too), some lights and an accent wall. “If you have a wall, try painting it Yves Klein blue,” says McCabe.

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