How to create a cool outdoor seating area

6/07/2016 06:30:00 am HELEN STILES 2 Comments

Well, last week was the half term holiday and we've enjoyed an amazing dose of British sunshine, so it seems like a good time to talk about outside space.  I have been craving a fabulous outdoor seating area for years – something laid-back and loungey, comfortable but cool.  Sourcing anything stylish for your outside space seems to be incredibly difficult, so I thought I’d share the key rules I’ll be following to create my own cool outdoor seating area, as well as some fabulous ‘patio porn’ I’ve collected along the way!

I’m no garden designer, but I’m treating this space like any other room – because that’s how I want it to feel. My starting point is always to work out the pros and cons and take it from there. In the case of our patio, the pros are simple:-
>> It gets plenty of sun (it faces south west)
>> It’s accessed directly from the open-plan kitchen (via wide folding doors) so feels connected to the inside.

The list of cons is a bit longer…and trickier to deal with!
>> It's small (the main seating area is 3 metres square)
>> There is a huge drop down from the inside floor level to patio level
>> It's sunken – the garden is at shoulder height when standing on the patio, which can make it feel like you're sitting in a bunker!
>> It's awkward, with several steps and a narrow walkway along the back of the house leading to steps up to the garden.
>> On a sunny day it's too hot to enjoy sitting out on and it's difficult to shade due to the fact it is sunken!

Our first step therefore is to deck the whole area. I know that decking is not to everyone’s taste, but it really is the best solution here as it will allow us to hide some of the awkward steps and the higgledy-piggledy levels, and bring the floor height up so that it’s almost in line with the indoors. Luckily hubby is pretty handy with some wood and a drill, not to mention a total perfectionist, so this job is well underway. And once the decking is down, then I get to start on the fun stuff…and here are the rules I'm following:

Rule 1. Work out whether to dine or not to dine.

Often the default is to buy a garden table and chairs, plonk it in the middle of your seating area and add a parasol – which maybe works if you eat outside a lot, but frankly just isn't very exciting.  Our patio leads straight off our open-plan dining area, so after much debate, we've decided against having another dining table outside. With the doors open we decided it would just look odd to have one large dining table leading straight onto another! Instead we're going to go for a casual lounge seating instead, with coffee-height-tables; the type of space where you can eat your BBQ pork from a plate on your knee, or enjoy drinks and nibbles from some smaller, interesting side-tables.

Rule 2. Don’t match all the seating

Whether you're having a dining table or not, I would definitely avoid matching all of your seating. As with interiors, having everything match is a little passe – I want seating that feels relaxed and casual, a little mismatched but intentionally so! It's not that every chair needs to be different, but a couple of different styles should mix things up a bit. As our space is sunken, we have the option of building in a sectional bench or sofa. There are some cool looking options, but for most of the year (in this country at least) there won’t be any cushions on it – so it has to look good both with and without. All the boxy wicker sectional sofas on the market just look so predictable and lacking in personality, so I’m on the hunt for something cooler…I love the combination on the rooftop of the Ace Hotel, LA (designed by Commune of course). The concrete walls mixed with built-in benches, vintage kilim cushions and leather Mexican chairs looks casual yet tailored – fabulous.

Rule 3. Light the area

Outdoor lighting really makes a patio feel special at night. If you have room for an overhead pendant then go for it (we don’t unfortunately) but you can also bring in lighting elsewhere. I love the way the fairy lights used on the walls of this outdoor bar area create a cosy atmosphere – this would be easy to do on a fence or wall in the garden. You can also go with uplighters in plant pots and under trees; wall lights; lights strung underneath your parasol or even festoon lights strung zig-zag style overhead.

Rule 4. Soften it with planting


Plants are great for adding drama – so I’m definitely thinking about larger standard shrubs or trees in pots, as well as interesting containers on the decking to plant up and add colour. eBay is great for old zinc tubs, industrial containers or even dolly tubs which can be planted up (but line with plastic first or they’ll rust!)  I am desperate to grow things up the fences too to hide the boundaries (and the ugliness). I’m not the most green-fingered gardener, but there are plenty of great websites that help you choose the right plants for your soil type and aspect to maximise the charges of success. I’m going for a vigorous clematis and honeysuckle on the fence next to our outdoor seating area.

Rule 5. Add some shade

We might all crave the sunshine, but there’s nothing more annoying than trying to enjoy a conversation with the low afternoon sun glaring straight in your eyes. Whether it’s a simple parasol or a lovely wooden gazebo with trailing plants, make sure there’s some shade (unless of course your outdoor seating area is completely shaded anyway!) Shade sails are a contemporary option and come in lots of shapes, sizes and colours. Our sunken patio set up makes this probably the most challenging aspect our design, but I’ll let you know what we decide on.

So there you have it – plenty of outdoor seating inspiration, now just to finish the project! I can't wait until the decking is complete and we can sort out the rest. I envisage eating casual breakfasts outside at weekends; curling up in a comfy outdoor chair to read the Sunday papers or enjoying a glass of wine on summer evenings with friends.  In reality it'll more likely be Dave and me trying to snatch a quick beer and conversation whilst being shot at by water-pistols and asked to push the swing for the 1000th time that day. But hey, I can dream...

Anyway, I thought I'd give you a sneak peak of the 'before' photos below – sorry for the wonky iPhone pictures, but you can at least see our decking base starting to take shape. It may not be pretty yet, but stay tuned and hopefully the after will be more impressive!

 I've done so much research on outdoor seating, table and lighting options that I'll schedule some more detailed posts on the best I've found. Let me know what you’d most like to hear about in the comments!


  1. Really love this post Helen. I am guilty of the patio with a table in the middle, but as you say we don't eat outside that often and the seats are not overly comfortable. Some friends of ours had a great seating area with lots of scatter cushions and patchwork quilts to sit on (looked better that sounds) and a fire pit. Would live some ideas on where you can get good outdoor seating that is hardy to being left outside, or maybe make some.

  2. It sounds great, exactly the sort of thing I'm after! Cool furniture is very difficult to find. We're going to go down the bespoke (or DIY) route with benches I think. There are some expensive brands that do great things, but at the reasonable end it gets more tricky. I'm putting a post together on the best i've found...