The Art of Outdoor Entertaining

Outdoor entertaining: the ultimate guide

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Get all the elements right for your best outdoor entertaining season yet.

There is an art to entertaining, whether you do it indoors or out. While the level of artistry may be the same, there is something different about outdoor entertaining. With the sun warming your skin, the breeze whipping your hair and the scent of freshly mown grass mingling with the aroma of barbecued or woodfired cooking, can you imagine a more relaxing setting? At night it’s a different kind of magic, with ambient lighting creating a fairyland kind of vibe and the stars providing a twinkling canopy.

Most outdoor entertaining involves the cooking and serving of a meal and it really doesn’t matter what you have in mind. It could be a big group gathered around a table sharing food from large platters and bowls; it could be a buffet service or it might be a restaurant-style, sit-down meal. Somehow alfresco food just seems to taste better, and cooking it doesn’t seem such a chore.

Get cooking

The Art of Outdoor Entertaining

It doesn’t matter if it’s a trolley barbecue or slimline model built into a sleek benchtop, it wouldn’t be outdoor entertaining without a barbecue. “One of the most important things to consider when choosing a barbecue is size,” says John McGran of Lifestyle BBQs. “Think about the maximum number of guests you plan on having on a regular basis and make sure you have enough cooking capacity to cater for that crowd. It’s easy to turn on just one burner of your barbecue when you are cooking for two, but you don’t want to be caught out when the whole family is over.”

Gas-fuelled barbecues are a popular option but, says John, charcoal barbecues are now also in high demand. So too are woodfired pizza ovens as “more and more people look to replicate the traditional flavours that are part of their cultural heritage or to offer a broader range of flavours and cuisines when entertaining”. So what makes woodfired cooking so appealing? “Where do I start?” says Ben Guilford of The Melbourne Fire Brick Company “The food! Oh, the mouth-watering creations I have seen coming out of a woodfired oven … slow-roasted lamb legs, suckling pigs, shoulders of pork that are just falling apart after being super-slow cooked for 24 hours, crusty sourdough bread, juicy flame-grilled steaks and roast vegetables to die for — and we can’t forget the pizzas! You will not eat a better pizza than one out of your own woodfired oven.”

In the kitchen

You can take it a step further and integrate your barbecue and/or woodfired oven into an outdoor kitchen. “We are finding that all new homes and major renovations are featuring well-equipped outdoor kitchens,” says John. “Our wonderful weather here in Australia is obviously a big factor in wanting to do most of our entertaining outdoors, and having everything outdoors, including a fridge, sink and dishwasher, means not having to venture inside for anything — and that means the host as well as the guests can relax.”

Budget, space and lifestyle will dictate how large or sophisticated your outdoor kitchen will be, but the first thing to consider is location. The point of having an outdoor cooking area is convenience — it needs to be close to your outdoor dining and living spaces and configured so that the family cook can grill while talking to guests.

When your outdoor kitchen is next to the house, it makes the connection to water, electricity and gas easier and it means less time is taken up with bringing food, plates etc outside. If planning a new home or an extension, including a servery window that connects indoor and outdoor kitchens is a great idea. When indoor and outdoor counterparts are in such close proximity, having a complementary colour palette eases the visual transition. On the minus side, an outdoor kitchen that is house-adjacent can mean smoke and cooking smells may permeate indoor areas.

On the other hand, a freestanding kitchen functions as a destination, drawing guests away from the house and into the backyard. You’ll have to consider utility connections, storage, the provision of shade and the like, but it can enable you to create a little outdoor entertaining oasis in your garden — and it opens up decorating possibilities as the look doesn’t have to draw on your interior decor.

Furnish your outdoor entertaining space

The Art of Outdoor Entertaining

Choosing outdoor furniture isn’t just about finding pieces that will weather the elements (as essential as that is), nor is it about making sure the colours coordinate with your decorating scheme (also important). What really matters is how comfortable it is, whether you enjoying using it, and if it helps create the kind of outdoor lifestyle you want. “When selecting your outdoor furniture pieces, think about the space as an extension of your interior living area — you want to maintain the flow and feel from your interior,” says Mimi Hughes, GlobeWest’s Melbourne showroom manager and interiors specialist. “Choosing a colour palette can be overwhelming, but I am a strong believer that you should keep your base palette neutral and then you can add colour and texture through layering pieces like scatter cushions, outdoor ottomans and rugs with accent pieces like pots for your plants.”

“Modern palettes favour whites and naturals and pieces should be selected with a light footprint in mind,” says landscape designer Beverley Harrison of Mondo Landscapes. “A light footprint means you can see all or part of the floor covering underneath the legs of the furniture. In this way it will not consume the whole space and the area will be more inviting. Also, use spatial awareness when positioning and arranging furniture and choose pieces that can be easily reconfigured. I like to have the option of being able to rearrange furniture depending on the mood, time of year, and how you intend to entertain.

“The outdoor landscape has become a well-curated space,” continues Beverley, “into which we introduce materials and products reflecting the interior of our homes. This is because our houses have become our go-to destination and as a result, we’re spending more time enjoying our outdoor spaces. As a consequence of that, the furniture and decorative elements we use outside draw on interior design for inspiration and functionality. For example, a family may have a casual seating area, a bar and a dining space, all enhanced by outdoor rugs, large pots and great lighting.”

Lounging, dining, lazing

“A modular outdoor system is a great choice when it comes to catering for a family’s outdoor lifestyle needs,” says Susan Tait, creative director of Tait. “Sofa modules are often available in a number of lengths and configurations — daybeds, extension modules, left/right arm modules and so forth. This allows the user to build their own sofa, adapting to the layout of their outdoor space as well as their unique needs. Tait’s Trace modular sofa also includes built-in table elements which add that extra level of luxury to your outdoor lifestyle.”

For a dining area, a degree of flexibility in how the furniture can be used may also be desirable. “Extendable dining tables can be a good idea,” says Mimi. “If you’re limited on space in your outdoor dining area, extendable tables will be the most functional option. Stackable dining chairs are a must with limited outdoor space, and round tables will create a more inclusive dining experience and can be great for a smaller courtyard area. If you’re not short on space, rectangular tables will accommodate a larger group. “Sunbeds are a must when relaxing poolside; you want to make sure you purchase a sunbed that can withstand the elements as well as being comfortable,” she continues. “Look for a Batyline mesh material for durability as well as a Sunbrella fabric and QuickDry foam for cushioned sunbeds. Make sure your sunbed does carry some weight as those really windy days might have it in the pool! Occasional sofa chairs can be all you need by the water to create the perfect peaceful reading nook in a sunny spot, while for those with little ones to supervise, a comfortable higher seat is a good idea. If you have a larger space near your pool, low modular seating can create a relaxing area for entertaining.”

Summer trends

“The outdoor trends for summer are a move towards earthy and natural colours, finishes and textures. Outdoor material palettes are neutral and focused on honest finishes and raw materiality. This summer, Tait’s palette is inspired by Australian terrains, coastlines and flora, with hues including Paperbark, Pale Eucalypt, Ochre and Deep Ocean.

Material palettes include lots of soft and highly textured outdoor fabrics with plenty of warm timber accents,” says Susan Tait of Tait. “For this summer we’ll see low modular seating bringing a cosier and more intimate feel to our outdoor entertaining spaces so we can reconnect and escape our busy schedules. You will see dark timber finishes coming through with refined details that create a subtle contemporary feel,” says GlobeWest’s Mimi Hughes. “Key outdoor furniture pieces for this summer are outdoor ottomans, rounded side tables and coffee tables, as well as a bar trolley for all those delicious drinks by the pool — Slim Aarons style!”

Pots, cushions & more

“Planters are a great way to liven up any outdoor living space,” says Susan Tait. “There are so many ways to introduce greenery to create your own outdoor entertaining sanctuary. Tait has a range of inventive planter options including the Trace planter, which allows climbing plants to grow through a trellis, creating a living artwork.

Tait’s GardenWall planters feature a range of stackable planter boxes, allowing the user to create architecture with their plants. This is great for bringing some greenery to your balcony or even screening off an area.”

Outdoor scatter, bolster and floor cushions are now a designer affair and a great way to add pattern, a colour accent, or just to give a furnished alfresco area an indoor room look. And don’t forget outdoor rugs. A well-chosen outdoor rug or two adds a decorative touch and you can thematically connect indoor and outdoor entertaining areas by using rugs of the same or similar colour and patterning. Then there is the practical benefit. Rugs help to stop heat transfer from paved areas on a hot day and keep feet warmer on colder days.

Lighting can take on the role of decor. For example, a group of lanterns, each a different size, set on a side table in an outdoor lounge area, or a row of votives running down the middle of a dining table — or string lights festooning nearby trees — can have a wonderful effect. And don’t forget heating. Many outdoor heaters are as much a form of decor as a means of warming, and they add the kind of cosiness factor you often only find in an indoor room.

Lap or plunge pool?

Of course, it all depends on the space you have and what you want out of your pool.

The Art of Outdoor Entertaining

Doing laps

A lap pool is a great solution for small garden spaces. Providing an opportunity to exercise and cool down, a lap pool can run along a boundary wall or down the side of a house, making optimum use of the available space. Lap pools are often close to the house, so material selection is critical. This might mean pool coping that matches the trim on the house, or an interior pool colour that picks up a colour used on the home’s facade. A lap pool can incorporate a swim-out or a spa, and it can have a shallow end and a deep end, or two shallow ends with the deepest part in the middle.

Take the plunge

A plunge pool may be all you can fit into your outdoor entertaining space. These small-diameter pools are of course not suitable for exercise or playing pool games, but they provide a refreshing means of cooling down on a hot day or a place to gather with friends and a glass of something chilled. A plunge pool can be heated just like a standard-sized pool for use in winter, or it can be designed to do double duty as a spa. Many plunge pools have a water feature integrated into their design — typically a water wall or sheer-descent water feature. In this way, when the pool is not being used, you can turn on the water feature and the pool functions as a design focal point that can be enjoyed while relaxing nearby. This is the perfect finishing touch for a modern garden.

Get waterwise

Building a new pool requires excavation work, so this is a good time to consider installing an underground water tank. The collected rainwater can be used for pool top-ups and garden irrigation. To reduce water loss due to evaporation, install a pool cover. This also reduces heating costs by keeping the water warmer, makes the pool safer if you have small children and pets, and reduces the amount of chemicals required for sanitising the pool. Place plants immediately around a pool to protect uncovered water from the wind and further reduce evaporation. Place a shade sail or some kind of shade structure over part or all of a swimming pool or spa to keep the sun at bay and minimise water loss by evaporation. And finally, avoid installing pool water features and fountains that spray water into the air. Incorporate trickling or cascading fountains and wet edges, which lose less water to evaporation.

Want to learn more about Outdoor Design? Checkout our Outdoor Designs archive.