For decades, "outdoor decorating" meant arranging a few nice chairs and a table near a barbecue grill, then adding an umbrella to block the summer sun. But as patios and decks have morphed into "outdoor living rooms," the bar has risen for outdoor style and comfort.
"HGTV Design Star" judge Vern Yip says he knew we'd reached a new level of outdoor decorating this year when he discovered a fully upholstered, tufted, Chesterfield-style sofa designed for outdoor use. It's not a less comfortable, backyard version of a classic piece of furniture; it's a classic piece of furniture that happens to be weatherproof.
Technology has come so far, Yip says, that we can now have anything outdoors that we like indoors.
As warm weather returns, we've asked Yip and two other experts -- interior designer Betsy Burnham of Burnham Design in Los Angeles, and Sarah Fishburne, director of trend and design for The Home Depot -- for the furnishings, color palettes and accessories they are using this year to make outdoor spaces even more luxurious and inviting.
Mix and match
It's been decades since people looked for a "suite of furniture" for their bedroom or living room. But until recently, Burnham says, that's been a common approach to outdoor space. She says that's slowly changing, as people want a more interesting look that doesn't seem lifted directly from a single catalog page.
Designers are encouraging their clients to mix and match, creating outdoor spaces that feel as personal and layered as interiors.
Fishburne says retailers have noticed this trend. At Home Depot, her design team selects a few popular shades and makes sure they stay consistent throughout the furniture offered in a given season. So "chili red," for example, will be the same shade if you buy a rug from one brand and pillows from another.
And rather than having to buy a group of four or six identical dining chairs, Fishburne says many chairs are now available in sets of two that can be paired with a contrasting style.
There are also more outdoor styles available than ever, offering more to mix and match.
Aluminum-frame furniture is back, with updated details. "It's the sort of stuff your grandparents used to have, but the 2.0 version," Yip says. "The proportions are what we like today, deeper and bigger and more comfortable."
If you're worried about how to mix and match successfully, try one of these approaches: You can mix furniture frames, perhaps using a few teak pieces alongside metal or woven resin pieces, and then keep all the cushions or pillows the same. Or you can use all metal or all resin frames from different brands, and mix up the pillows and cushions.
Either way, you have consistency, but also a unique look that isn't exactly the same as your neighbor's.
"If you had put an outdoor sofa and in indoor sofa side by side in front of a consumer a year ago or two years ago," Yip says, no one would have had trouble picking out which was which. Today, he says, "you really can't tell the difference."
So take time to shop for what you love, rather than settling for the typical outdoor furniture you see everywhere.
There are outdoor fabrics that feel as soft as what you'd expect indoors, and cushions that are just as soft and deep. Yip says the newest outdoor cushions offer two layers of foam and then a top layer made of a down alternative.
Seek "that super-plush feeling with your outdoor furniture that you're used to feeling with your indoor furniture," he says.
And start with your favorite interior design retailers. They're likely to offer outdoor options.
"It's not just at the patio store anymore," says Burnham. For example, she says, Design Within Reach and Restoration Hardware both offer wide selections of outdoor furnishings.
Seek next-level details
Outdoor storage has become even more inventive: You'll find "console tables that have built-in coolers, or daybeds that have built-in coolers," Yip says.
And outdoor accessories have "detailing and embellishments that used to be reserved for indoor stuff," Yip says, including hurricane lanterns with mother-of-pearl detailing, and pillows with feathers, beading or embroidery.
"We've figured out how to have all this detailing, all this embellishment," he says, and "how to have it on the outside, so it does endure and it does last."
To define your outdoor space and bring in plants and flowers, Fishburne recommends large "statement planters." They come pre-planted with a mix of plants that look stylish and grow well together.
Most important: Go for a look you love, rather than one that's perfectly coordinated.
"All the rules have kind of been broken," says Fishburne. "No one says you have to have a matching cocktail table in front of your chairs."