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Inside Out

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

I hear this phrase all the time, “bringing the outdoors in”. Today, I’m bringing the indoors … out. Design is about space, scale, balance, form, and function no matter the location. So when a long-time client asked me to design the backyard of her new house, I couldn’t wait to get my hands dirty - so to speak.

A design begins with a spark of inspiration. Mine came quickly. As I waited for Bev to answer her front door, I noticed that I could see a slice of her backyard through the glass sidelight. As it turns out, the entrance, the foyer, and the dining room’s French doors leading to the backyard were in perfect alignment. What better place for a focal point than at the end of that line. Not only would it be the center of attraction in the back, but it would also stir a little curiosity in the front.

Focal points come in a variety of forms - from structures such as arbors, pergolas, and columns to garden art and bird feeders. Given the Mediterranean architecture of Bev’s house, and the 100 degree temperature that day, a fountain came to mind. As I doodled Roman arched fountains, my mind wandered back to the beginnings of classical architecture in Egypt, Greece, and Italy. Symmetry, the foundation of classical architecture, would be the driving force of the fountain’s design - and the guide to the rest of the landscape.

The fountain would be both the focal point and the symmetry’s center point. A flagstone path from the dining room’s French doors to the fountain would emphasize this visual destination. Seating areas on each side of the path would start a repetitive, symmetric rhythm. Borders of flowers, plants, and trees in ascending vertical order would complete it.

Symmetry is a beautiful thing. It sets a harmonious and peaceful tone – so apropos for a garden. A balanced placement of color is one way to create symmetry. Blue is Bev’s favorite. I’d learned this while designing blue and green draperies for her French doors – the same French doors leading to the fountain. Things were falling into place. I could unite the exterior and interior with a blue tiled fountain and surround it with greenery.

Still doodling and daydreaming of classical architecture in far off lands, I called a friend who travels the world in search of artifacts and collectibles. Within days, I was knee deep in his crates of 200-year-old reclaimed tile from Tunisia. Hallelujah! There were just enough blue ones for the face of the fountain.

To reinforce the symmetry of the landscape, I’d use a strategic lighting plan. Uplights at the fountain, low lights along the path, and scrolled lanterns at the French doors. I’d even incorporate a philosophy of noted Bay Area landscaper, Thomas Church - gardens should have elements of surprise. An additional scattering of lights within the plantings would achieve this. Surprise. Drama. Sparkle.

Like interior design, exterior design includes furniture and accessories. Iron tables and chairs with blue cushions would maintain the color palette and Mediterranean style. Terracotta pots filled with cheery blue perennials would accessorize the final design.

My award-winning construction company allayed my concerns about the maintenance and cost of running a fountain. I’d forego a basin and use rocks at the base instead. The plumbing system would guide the cascading water into a small pool under the rocks and recycle back up. Clever!

I started this column with a phrase and now end it with quotes. Mark Twain is thought to have once said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco”, I say, “One of the best interiors I ever designed was an exterior north of San Francisco”.

Inside Out Tips:

1) Approach your backyard as you would a room in your house

2) Determine a focal point and maintain its importance

3) Create repetition for interesting impacts

4) Use color with intention

5) Accentuate the design, texture and color with lighting

6) Add points of surprise and drama

7) Invite movement with water, chimes, bird feeders

8) Keep elements in scale with your house

9) Determine your maintenance comfort level

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