The Great Indoors

Patio furniture and other outdoor favorites are now welcome inside as garden style takes root.

May 30, 1999|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

It seems possible that turn-of-the-century style -- the one design historians in the next millennium will look back on -- will be something no one would have guessed a decade ago. Call it nature-inspired design, or eco-decorating. Call it interiorscaping.

Call it garden style. It's so pervasive that people are using it to decorate their houses without even thinking about it as a distinct style. "Simple touches such as a kitchen window filled with plants or flowers from your garden make a difference in how your home feels," says Linda Hallam in her book "Garden Style" (Better Homes and Garden Books, 1999).

You're not just bringing in some flowers to look good, in other words; you're bringing in the warmth and ease of outdoors. But, of course, there's a lot more to it than that.

Since the early '90s, nature-inspired decorating -- which seemed at first as if it might be just a flash in the pan -- has gotten more and more popular. It's gone beyond house plants, floral fabrics and botanical prints. In many homes, the boundaries between indoors and outdoors have blurred.

People want their porches and patios and even their gardens to have the same comforts as their inside rooms, and they are so in love with their gardens they're decorating their living rooms with everything from old tools to wrought-iron furniture -- at least in design books and magazines. "In the '80s, bringing such things in was a shock," says Carol Helms, design and furnishings editor of Garden Design magazine. "Now everyone takes it for granted."

Mainstream furniture companies like Ethan Allen have introduced lines of teak and woven furniture that can be used indoors or out, while outdoor furniture manufacturers like Lloyd/Flanders have weather-resistant wicker and rattan pieces that look equally good on the porch or in the living room. One of garden design's great selling points is that it's practical and versatile.

Those future historians may argue that this is the first truly new decorating style to come along for years (even though its elements aren't new), and one that seems exactly right for today's lifestyle.

Besides the fact that everything has gotten a bit more casual, in the late '90s a sort of New Age sensibility has crept into our lives, making it possible for mainstream America to talk about nature as something that soothes the body and soul. If cocooning is truly what's happening, the garden is one of the things we want in our homes-as-sanctuaries. "People are yearning to include the garden in our internal lives," says Helms. "We want the magic of the garden for all four seasons. We want it as a metaphor in our lives whenever possible, at least in our minds and imagination."

Bringing nature indoors -- and the indoors out -- couldn't happen so pervasively until gardening became a passion for Americans, their most popular leisure time activity. And a couple of design trends had to come first.

We had to get comfortable with eclectic decorating before we could arrange a wrought-iron chair next to an upholstered sofa. And only when shabby chic became high style could a garden bench with peeling paint be considered the perfect coffee table. "People are mixing so much that garden appointments look right in today's interiors," says Annapolis designer Darryl Savage, whose rooms including such elements have been featured in Interior Design, House Beautiful and other national magazines. "It's the trickle-down effect," he adds. "The more we see it in shelter magazines, the more we realize how appealing it is."

True, many of the ideas in the books and magazines are too extreme for ordinary homes. Linda Hallam suggests beginning with small touches to bring the relaxed feel of the outdoors in. "Start in the informal rooms of the house like the kitchen," she says, "And see how you like it. Add a French bistro chair in the breakfast nook or a decorative watering can. It's a very personal and affordable way to decorate."

The style is also versatile. As Hallam says, "There's not one way to garden, and there's not one way to decorate garden-style."

If whimsy is your thing, it can be light-hearted and fun. Use a Victorian gazing globe, say, or a birdhouse as a decorative object. If you're a romantic, fill your rooms with flowers and flowery fabrics. Natured-inspired style can even have a sophisticated, almost Zen-like minimalism -- the curve of one beautiful branch displayed to encourage contemplation. "Look at your indoors through a gardener's eyes," suggests Bonnie Trust Dahan, author of "Gardenhouse: Bringing the Outdoors In" (Chronicle Books, 1999). "The ideas don't have to be outlandish. They can be appropriate for your lifestyle." "But whatever you do," she goes on to say, "Have fun and break some rules."

Five books to get you started

"The Garden Room: Bringing Nature Indoors" by Timothy Mawson (Clarkson Potter, 1998)

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