The most common outdoor design gaffes.

April 27, 2021

WSJ recently asked designers and architects for antidotes to the most common outdoor-décor gaffes. Penny pinching your outdoor décor isn’t the only backyard folly decorating pros dread. Some big-ticket installations also flummox them.

Designers don’t understand why people want to use marble on their patios or porches of flooring in an outdoor space in the opulent stone. It’s porous and stains. If you want Pompeian luxury, opt for an ultra-durable flooring alternative that mimics natural stone. Read more, ‘How to Create An Outdoor Room.’

Below, five more decorating goofs you’ll want to avoid as you kit out your patio this spring, plus professional remedies.

Design: Bob White of ForestStudio; Decor M.Elle Design; Landscape: Molly Wood Garden Design: Photography: William Abranowicz for Elle Decor

1. Unfinished Business

Without washable rugs or weather-resistant throw cushions, the space feels flat and lacks character. Read more, ‘How To Improve Your Outdoor Space.’

Even Barbie’s Malibu Dreamhouse had an assortment of accessories on its deck.

Instead: Lay the space out exactly as you would a comfortable den. Find a focal point like an outdoor fireplace. Then add finishing touches. Fill ceramic vases with flowering branches and convincingly candle-like LED lights inside glass lanterns. Arrange weatherproof objéts onto an aluminum tray as you would in your living room.

2. Fake Plants in Real Gardens

Even worse than synthetic greenery indoors? Filling outdoor planters with silk flowers and plastic plants. Against a backdrop of trees and grass, their phoniness is even more flagrant.

Poorly cared-for live plants can be just as bad. Don’t have some long trailing vine coming out of an otherwise dead-looking pot.

Instead: Confess your black thumb to a pro at a local nursery, and ask for surefire species in your area. Pick one that has great architecture and is easy to care for, and make a statement with it. Leafy hosta plants and flowering succulents like creeping sedum are particularly resilient. Read more, ‘Landscaping Don’ts: 10 Design Mistakes To Avoid.’

The owners worked with architect Bob White of Forest Studio and mother-daugther design team Mary Lynn Turner and Marie Turner Carson of M. Elle Design to create a beautiful home that reflects the gorgeous cliff-side location of the property. Photography: William Abranowicz for Elle Decor

3. Soulless Seating

While most homeowners know not to purchase a living-room set so coordinated it looks like a prize on a TV game show,  you often sees outdoor spaces that seemed to have moved—fully intact—from a catalog onto a porch or terrace. Read more, ‘Your Outdoor Furniture: 5 Mistakes To Avoid.’

Instead: Mix materials and styles to add texture and personality. Use weather-resistant fabrics, outdoor upholstery, natural stone and cast concrete as well as powder-coated metals. Choose your furniture from multiple sources and manufacturers, and throw in a vintage piece or unexpected element—wrought iron, perhaps—for a collected look. Combine a vintage wrought iron and marble table with contemporary chairs.

4. Planning for Half the Day

Outdoor spaces sometimes get overlooked after the sun goes down.  Nobody wants to drink their evening drink by floodlight. Yet many homeowners rely on security lights for their nighttime illumination, which can be harsh, or they forget about outdoor lighting altogether. Beyond a wish to enjoy your private plot at night, homeowners light landscapes so that when you’re inside the house you can see the garden and not just a black hole. 

Conversely, a lovely patio space can be rendered useless by blazing overhead midday sun.


Opt for in-ground fixtures to wash a subtle glow onto stone walls and pathways; string lights on poles for overhead radiance; and tree-mounted solar lanterns for ambience. During the day, patterned umbrellas, awnings and shade-giving trees and hedges will protect you from a blazing sun. And, the best way to banish murky shadows is to borrow the sort of layered lighting scheme found in professionally designed living rooms. In simplest terms, you want three tiers. Start with the highest level, next fill in the midrange and don’t forget low-level illumination—path, and steps. The overall effect should be soft and subtle not stark. 

Design: Bob White of ForestStudio; Decor M.Elle Design; Landscape: Molly Wood Garden Design: Photography: William Abranowicz for Elle Decor

5. Single-Season Furniture

Cheap furniture tends to fade and bleach immediately. You wind up having to replace it after one summer. Read more, ‘Architect’s Top Outdoor Furniture Picks.’

Instead: Buy a few high-quality pieces in teak or powder-coated aluminum, and top them off with well-fitting, waterproof covers and look for a good warranty. Concrete or stone tables are a great outdoor option since they are low maintenance, durable and look great.

Design: Bob White of ForestStudio; Decor M.Elle Design; Landscape: Molly Wood Garden Design: Photography: William Abranowicz for Elle Decor

The Patio Party Tip 

To create instant atmosphere on your terrace, professional party planners swear by long-burning sticks of sophisticated scents like cedar, clove and jasmine.

Outdoor incense has come a long way since those hardware-store coils everyone picked up along with their barbecue charcoal. While the jury is still out on whether citronella significantly repels mosquitoes, new versions of al fresco scent aim higher—bringing instant atmosphere and more sophisticated fragrances (like clove, cedarwood and clary sage) to the party. Some outdoor incense sticks are nearly 2 feet long, able to burn for 2-3 hours.

Tobacco scents conjure a romantic, cosy vibe in winter, and floral-focused incense complements the warmer months. 

Despite the seeming futility of trying to scent an unbound space, incense works better outside. Inside it can become a little too much. Outdoors, you get subtle wafts of the smell. Of course, for ease, you can just poke one of the incense sticks in the soil of a potted plant.

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