Before Louisiana summer grips the city in its humid embrace, it's time to set up your patio. With the right furniture and accessories, you can enjoy dining al fresco and bougainvillea-scented nights from the comfort of a space you'll begin to think of as an outdoor living room.
First assess what's already there. Screened-in porches and balconies are ideal for outdoor living rooms, as are patio or porch areas with a preexisting or added pergola (a slatted structure intended to provide shade). But even exposed patios can be appropriate spaces for outdoor dining or relaxing. Modern outdoor furnishings have changed quite a bit from flimsy camp chairs and hammocks.
"[Some of today's outdoor furniture] is going to be like the sofa in your den right now, where you can have a nice seat cushion and a nice back cushion," says Mike Comeaux, owner of Comeaux Furniture and Appliance (415 Veterans Memorial Blvd., Metairie, 504-831-1365; www.comeauxfurn.com). "It's very suitable for indoor or outdoor use."
While homeowners in other climates might consider outdoor furnishings for the spring and summer seasons, New Orleanians can construct an outdoor room for year-round use. Manufacturers specifically certify outdoor-friendly furnishings made from several different materials, including woven wicker, wrought iron and cast aluminum. Before you buy a couch for your porch, maximize its lifespan by checking to make sure it's officially rated for outdoor durability.
To combat heat and the effects of water and sunlight, outdoor furniture is often fully welded together, rather than connected with standard bolts, Comeaux says. This means water can't infiltrate furniture joints and create weak spots.
"[Manufacturers are] sealing all the surfaces so they're protected from the elements," Comeaux says. "Almost everything has UV protection built into it ... [but] it's not bulletproof. The more you care for it, the more you take care of it, the more you can keep it away from direct sunlight or saltwater or salt air, the longer it's going to last."
According to Mike Ellington, Comeaux Furniture's general manager, proper maintenance includes washing furniture with mild soap and water to get rid of salt and rain residue and registering for warranties provided by the retailer or manufacturer.
Like outdoor furniture, cushioning and pillows last longer with basic attention. Sunbrella and Outdura, the two manufacturers of outdoor cushions and pillows, design their cushions to be fade-, stain- and mildew-resistant. The cushions can be left outside all the time and withstand summer storms, but if they receive a particularly strong soaking, they'll need some help to dry off.
"Stand them up to where the zipper is facing down and let them drain [outdoors] if they do happen to get wet inside the cushion," says Megan Perino of Perino's Garden Center. "If you have something with really thick cushions, bring the cushions inside."
According to Perino, furnishings and cushions are just the foundation of creating a room-like feel for an outdoor space. Though Comeaux has identified a neutral palette as this season's on-trend color scheme for outdoors, Perino says new colors can be incorporated with rugs and other accessories. Outdoor-rated rugs, often made from a polypropylene material, mimic the weaves and color schemes of indoor rugs and give the "room" a feeling of unity.
"We have some [rugs] we just got in recently that are really colorful and feel almost like a wool rug for indoors," she says. "You wouldn't even know [they were designed for outdoors]. If you want to go with something more timeless with the fabric that you use for your [furniture] set, you can always accent it with fun outdoor throw pillows."
For an outdoor dining arrangement, Perino suggests using candles in votives or sconces and a centerpiece to create a more inviting table. Modern bowl-style planter centerpieces, filled with hardy succulents, allow guests to see one another across the table while still providing a focal point.
Strategic use of plants can also make a patio more like an extension of one's home. Hanging plant baskets can create "walls" or a sense of enclosure for open patios, while climbing vines can be trained over the top of a pergola to provide additional shade. Make sure to take note of your level of sun exposure when selecting plants — a porch on the east or west side of the house will receive more direct sunlight and will require more maintenance, such as extra watering for hanging baskets (a vulnerable plant because of their limited root structure).
To further accessorize an outdoor living area, she suggests resilient potted plants and trees like hibiscus, or citronella plants and candles that fend off mosquitos. If the patio abuts a lawn, spraying the perimeter of the grass with a flea-killing insecticide can keep out common bugs and pests. A landscaping contractor can help attend to these details and show you how to make the best use of your space.