Eliminate clutter and with the right furniture and accessories, you can make even the smallest patch of urban jungle look wild. Dorothy Veich reports.
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While our interiors may be cutting-edge or at the very least super comfortable, we tend to furnish outdoor spaces with much less panache. Yet there is no real reason why a balcony or terrace cannot be approached as creatively as a room within the home. Initially you will probably be faced with a lot of unsightly concrete cladding and your first task is to set up a strong, carefully considered backdrop.
THE BLANK CANVAS
Start by bringing the outdoor area into your living room – blurring the boundaries between indoors and out will make both areas look bigger. You may want to install sliding or French doors that open onto the balcony. Floor-length windows fool the eye, turning an outdoor area into an extension of the living space, letting in more light and expanding the view.
The simplest, though not necessarily the cheapest, way to connect outdoor and indoor areas is to link the materials underfoot. Here, most designers agree that tiles are the only way to go. Relatively inexpensive, natural looking and non-slip, both slate and terracotta tiles age well and, as they don’t absorb heat, the surface remains cool long into the afternoon.
Chances are your interior is white-washed, so stick with complementary white paint for the exterior. As with any small room, a fresh coat of white paint stretches the space, and you’re well advised to choose a textured, weather-resistant masonry paint, which introduces a interesting stippled effect, while putting paid to mouldy walls. In a sun-filled space, it’s tempting to let loose with brilliant tropical hues but you run the risk of making it looked cramped. If you are heart-set on a splash of colour, paint the back wall of the balcony – the one that is not visible from the living room.
You’ll want to create shade in your outdoor space and in many cases a classic umbrella will do the job just fine. Traditional parasols, which blew over at the first hint of a breeze, have been replaced by compact, lightweight models with sturdy, concrete bases. Some umbrellas are now even built into task-specific, al-fresco furniture. If you’d like something more permanent, however, consider installing a retractable or folding-arm awning, which can be assembled in minutes and tilted to provide protection even when the sun is at a low angle. Normal canvas will fade and rot surprisingly quickly, so go for something that’s been properly treated like Teflon or colourfast, waterproof woven acrylic. The best awning systems feature sun and wind sensors that extend and retract the shade automatically according to the weather conditions.
On a sheltered balcony or terrace, if you want to keep things really simple, bamboo blinds or lengths of translucent netting will create shade and provide an element of privacy. Alternatively, a well-placed trellis, covered in trailing foliage, will ward off nosy neighbours, while filtering the sunlight.
LIGHT, HEAT AND THE BBQ
Light will spill outside from whatever room the balcony is accessed, but if you’re planning on spending a lot of time outdoors, you’ll need to put in additional al fresco lights, and find a way to heat and cool the space. A licensed electrician can rig a power source to run a small fan or space heater, helping you out in the dog days of summer and dead of winter. As to light retailers, you can unearth understated wall-mounted lights inexpensively from IKEA or a local hardware store.
Chance are you’ll want a (gas) barbecue, and the first thing to consider is whether you want it inbuilt or freestanding and/ or portable. Think about the size of your outdoor space, and factor in how many people you will be regularly entertaining. Your best bet is to go for as big a barbecue as you can afford (and as space allows), not least because meat needs to have space around it as it grills. You don’t want your hamburgers and kebabs crammed up against each other, or against the sides of the cooker while they are cooking.
If barbecues now come in all shapes and sizes, they also vary widely in style, so you can plump for a modest nofrills model that does the job, or something hi-tech with all mod cons. Maybe your grilling experience would be transformed if you had a barbecue with stainless-steel side shelves, integrated utensil holders and a cart to push it around on. Illuminated control knobs that allow you to grill after dark could well be a godsend, as could a charcoal tray add-on to your gas grill.
FILLING IN THE DETAILS
Before you even think about splashing out on outdoor furnishings, consider what you will actually be using the space for. The idea is to set up clearly defined areas for specific activities. Fold-up seating and collapsible tables help keep a space flexible but there are also a host of streamlined (ideally inbuilt) pieces to choose from.
If you want a small terrace to serve as an alternative dining room, do without additional seating and make room for a storage unit in which to keep outdoor tableware. On a narrow balcony, if all you need is a suntrap, pair two deck chairs with a small, oval table.
When you furnish outdoors, nothing beats plastic in terms of durability and it has come a long way from the cheap, white variety you may remember from childhood. Check out Hularo, a hardwearing, UV-resistant formula that looks a lot like woven wicker.
Wrought-iron and glass is a chic alternative but iron rusts over time and pieces will need to be moved indoors during typhoon season. Likewise, wooden furniture is a classic choice but you have to be prepared for it to ‘weather.’ Even high-grade teak wrinkles and bleaches in the sun, which means that it will need to be sanded down and re-oiled every couple of years.
Hong Kong has a harsh environment (a deadly cocktail of heat, sun, humidity and pollution), so you’re best advised to choose long-lasting, easy-to-clean, man-made fabrics for your soft furnishings. Quick-dry foams, Sunbrella fabrics and synthetic weaves make maintaining outdoor furniture a breeze – you simply take a hose to it.
With accessories, stick to the bare necessities – lights and lanterns for outdoor use and scented torches to ward off mosquitoes. Anything more elaborate is superfluous and impractical – wall hangings or scatter cushions rot if they are left outdoors, mirrors and paintings look out of place, stone sculptures gather dust.
A SPLASH OF GREEN
Of course, no outdoor area is complete without plants and, in a small space, multi-layered displays work particularly well. The linchpin of the decor might be an old cabinet or desk with plants spilling out of the drawers, or simply a couple of hanging baskets. Trellises now come in all shapes and sizes but the standard, rectangular, bamboo variety, with pull-out ledges, remains the most practical.
Exotic, inexpensive planters look better in clusters rather than in rows, so group them in the corners to save space. If you pair plants of different types and heights, you only need a few pots to create a year-round splash of green. Ferns, juniper, hibiscus and bougainvillaea do well on most DB balconies, as do herbs of all varieties.Tags: outdoor spaces