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a cozy moment in a garden that echoes the living room inside. Is this too much?

Holy Sissinghurst, Batman!!!

There is a way of making gardens that I feel has run its course. It has reached its zenith, its apex, its apotheosis. It can go no further. It has gone far enough. Too far.

I speak of the Outdoor Room.

Let me be clear. I love the original intent of having “outdoor rooms”. It is a smart way to develop space. If you want something more organized than a wild, untamed expanse, having your exterior spaces unfold via a series of paths that mimic corridors and enclosed or semi-enclosed areas that resemble rooms makes good sense. These rooms are usually deployed with restraint and ease, not literally, and they make a welcome addition to the ways one can experience their outdoor living.

Until now.

It is my opinion that the inside has come outside with such vehemence, with such overly designed force that nature cowers in the distance, wondering where its place is.

I live and design gardens in Los Angeles, California, a city (or an idea) that might be considered ground zero for the outdoor living movement. We do everything outside, all year long. We eat outside, we read outside, we do our office hours outside. On Xmas eve you may find yourself watching Its A Wonderful Life outside on a pull-down screen at your neighbor’s house – the one who hosts “Movie and Wine Night.” We love being outside. ALL. THE. TIME.

But the downside of living in this kind of paradise is that our gardens look less like gardens than they do a room that happens to have bamboo instead of walls and arbors instead of ceilings. There are couches and daybeds, full of pillows and cushions and throws (because it can get a little chilly at night, outside, and god forbid your back or behind touches something hard). There are not just grills but kitchens with sinks and refrigerators and wine chillers and built-in panini presses. There are chandeliers hanging from the trees and speakers disguised as rocks and showers and bathtubs. Shelter magazines love these tricked out garden spaces that are basically just wishing they were interior spaces. At first, it was charming. Now – less so. It seems decadent.

Where do we stop? Is there a point where we say, THIS is good, this is enough, but more than this and we are defeating the purpose of being outside!

I imagine the purpose of spending time outdoors varies, as most things – but isn’t it to connect to something simpler, more straightforward? To step away from the things that surround and trap us in our workaday lives? When we bring all the “things” outside with us, what are we saying about our ability to just BE? Outside. Just us, with our plants, and our pets, and the soil and the sky.

I love finding the edge of that place – where just enough is enough. I wonder if even that is too much sometimes. My heart is wanting the garden that is simple – that has a place to sit, a place to eat with my friends, a place for me to settle in and enjoy a book. No chandelier, no throw over my lap in case of a chill – let the chill come. I want to go outside and feel outside.

Am I crazy?


Posted by

Ivette Soler
on January 28, 2015 at 10:33 am, in the category But is it Art?, Everybody’s a Critic.


  1. I’m so with you Elizabeth – I love a double duty piece of furniture. I designed the seating in the picture so it functioned as couch and table, and I was very happy with how it works. And a screened in porch is my DREAM! We had one in my grandmother’s house in San Antonio Tx, and that is where I spent all my time coloring and listening to the cicadas. I want one!

  2. The outdoor-room excess that gets to me (as a former Angeleno, I know it’s particularly prevalent there) is the outdoor kitchen. I had friends with a terrace that contained not just a full table and chairs for twelve, not just a fire pit nearby, not just a built-in high end barbecue, but an under-counter refrigerator and a cook-top. Oh, and of course a prep sink, can’t do without a prep sink. Their “real” indoor kitchen? About 15 paces away. I kept looking around discreetly for a dishwasher. When I moved away they were contemplating a pizza oven. To their credit, they did use the space all the time.

  3. That’s an important thing to note, Chris – that they did use it all. I know people like that too – who fully use all of their outdoor gear. But for everyone of those, I guarantee you there are 2 who rarely use their jacked-up outdoor spaces, but they really like having them for that one time a year crank up all the gizmos. But maybe that’s ok – it just strikes me as very different than a classic garden experience.

  4. I have often felt just as you do when I see the people camping who seem to have brought everything from home with them: TV, music players, the big RV, etc, etc. Why even leave home if you have to bring it all with you?

  5. Isn’t that so funny? To go out to nature and bring it all with you? I get the change of scenery thing and all – but sometimes too much is just that – too much!

  6. Susan that is SO true! I just saw a report on what people are missing because we are on our phones, etc. so much. Just get outside and enjoy it for what it is. Kids don’t even know how to play outside anymore, or use their imagination for that matter:( Great article!

  7. So in Los Angeles at least there is the hope of using some of these “outdoor rooms” relatively often. Imagine how home shows and landscape design magazines have sold this idea to the whole country! So many places have scorching summer weather, bugs and snowy winters. Up here in the Pacific Northwest, we have at most about two and a half months of warmish dry weather, yet the outdoor kitchen/fireplace/pizza oven and all the associated hardscape uses up most of the increasingly small back yard. It may have something to do with landscape design and installation firms making way more money on hardscape than on plants and lawn.

  8. Ding ding ding!!!! Nancy for the win! YES – these extra features mean MONEY for landscape designers and contractors. I know well I’m implicated in this, I’m building a fairly tricked-out space right now. My pricing structure is independent of the projects budget, for the very reason that I didn’t want to be incentivized to build over-the-top gardens just to make an extra few (thousand) dollars. But I do harrumph when I see my colleagues raking it in – and I console myself with the knowledge that my gardens are more streamlined and appropriate. But people really want these things, and it is often very hard to advocate for a simpler garden experience when someone wants the whole kit and caboodle. I struggle with it!

  9. Went to the Home Show in Sacramento last weekend to get some ideas for our backyard . (To make it more dog friendly, we removed my rose museum and most everything else.) The majority of the exhibits were big clunky concrete structures with out door kitchens. My kitchen is only a few steps from outdoor and I pass by a large refrig to get there. I want grass and shade.

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