To the fortunate person who owns one, a porch can be many things: a pleasant retreat for meditation or conversation, an old-fashioned refuge from air-conditioning and MTV, a handy perch for keeping an eye on the kids or the doings of one's neighbors. It lets us breathe the fresh air of the outside world, while enjoying the comfortable pleasures of home.
Proud porch owners, however, ask not only what their porches can do for them, but what they can do for their porches.
With some creativity, the porch can be turned into the nicest kind of "outdoor room" -- a first impression that shows us at our easygoing best.
"A porch is where we welcome people, where everyone can relax and gather around," says Arlene Claiborne, who designed a cozy porch for Discovery Farm, last year's Historic Ellicott City show house.
For Ms. Claiborne, owner of Shagreen, a design studio and gallery in Savage Mill, effective porch design is warm, welcoming, durable, comfortable and accessible to children and pets.
As the porch is the gateway to the house, she says, it should also reflect the tastes of its owners and the furnishings of their home, whether period, country or contemporary.
Before the decorating can begin, though, two challenges peculiar to porches must be faced.
The first is the elements. Whatever you put on a porch will be exposed to moisture, wind and dirt. Save Granny's beloved Wakefield fainting couch for the conservatory, and keep your porch furnishings inexpensive and informal. Fabrics should be washable, and a dirt- and water-shedding finish is a plus.
The second challenge is, of course, security. Face it: There are some neighborhoods where front-porch furnishing can't be kept safe from pilferage. In these areas, choose smallish, lightweight chairs that can be brought inside at night and when you are away.
The most pilfer-proof way to perk up a porch is with paint. Lucky owners of Victorian beauties in such gingerbread-happy locales
as San Francisco and Cape May, N.J., use three colors to show off the intricate tracery of their trim.
Paint can give a lift to plainer porches, too. A simple stencil design on the vertical risers of the steps is an easy and cheerful way to lead the eye up to your front door. An expert at the paint or hardware store can brief you on the paints, techniques and finishes to use.
Another way to make a porch outstanding is to add a porch swing. Long favored for courting, conversation and soothing fussy babies, swings can also be a design focus, especially when gussied up with cushions and pillows, either store-bought or made up from your own fabrics.
And don't forget the spirit-lifting power of a flag snapping in the breeze. Flags have had a banner year, so to speak, and are sold in their own boutiques and in garden centers. The Stars and Stripes will give a traditional flavor to your porch, but scores of more fanciful ready-made designs are also available. Some businesses will stitch up a customized design or family crest.
When furnishing a porch, home decorators understandably favor Victoriana, but there's more to creative indoor-outdoor living than a couple of white rockers and a potted fern.
Eleanor Oster, whose Roland Park firm, Whitin and Oster, specializes in floral design and outdoor furnishings, advocates a sensual jumble of colors, textures and styles.
"I like funk. I like to mix things," says Ms. Oster, who has designed a terrace area for this year's Baltimore Symphony show house.
She would use antique-styled wrought-iron pieces -- good for porches, she says, because they are more durable than wicker and too heavy to steal easily -- perhaps custom-colored to match the house's trim. Throw on plenty of pillows, and add lots and lots of terra-cotta pots and urns, "all different kinds, at all different levels," spilling over with flowers and herbs. To give the pots a fashionable antiqued patina, wash them with beer or yogurt and leave them outside to "age."
Another of Ms. Oster's favored looks is reminiscent of one of those rustic Italian retreats under a grape arbor, perfect for alfresco feasting. An old wooden table and chairs, painted and left outside for a while to weather, is the centerpiece. Add color with a rag rug or Mexican serape. There should be lots of candles on hand, too, from tiny votives to tall pillars. Hang a wire bird cage, and fill with still more candles.
No grapes overhead? Then set up a trellis and twine it with roses, clematis, wisteria, morning glory or fragrant night bloomers.
Below are a few more suggestions for making a porch a room you will want to live in for three seasons of the year.