California's benign climate, especially the warm, dry winter season found in Palm Springs, allows for gracious outdoor living. For the mid-century modern home, well-furnished patio and garden areas can effectively expand its scope of living space and at the same time bring a heightened level of outdoor enjoyment to its owners and house guests.
By design, California's mid-century modern homes have a special relationship to the garden. Prominent early modern architects such as Richard Nuetra, Rudolph Schindler, and John Lautner found this to be true. In fact, they went so far as to design homes that were quite literally open to the landscape, with only rollaway panels of plastic or curtains of air separating the interior of the home from nature.
The atriums found in many Eichler homes, the pool decks, and the patios adjacent to Palm Springs' Alexander homes are quite literally outdoor rooms that build on this innovative tradition of design. "I absolutely believe that we are inspired by the designs of the great mid-century architects," says Ron Radziner, a principal of the Los Angeles-based architectural firm of Marmol Radziner + Associates. "Our work is in many ways a continuation of that work. It's not a direct influence—more like an abstraction—but it is definitely there."
The expansive walls of glass and uninterrupted sight lines characteristic of California modern architecture bring the garden and all of its elements into the home. To complement this seamless transition, choices for outdoor furniture and accessories deserve to be made with the same care and attention given to the selection of a living room sofa or the table in the dining room.
"The garden, landscape, and approach to the house are all just as important as the interior," points out Radziner, whose firm has extended its modern-oriented design services to include its own line of indoor and outdoor furnishings. "Furniture for a house or garden should be a genuine response to the site, to the location. Proportion, materiality, how the piece sits in the home or the garden—working all of that out is what makes for a complete environment."
Scale, function, and anticipated use are important factors to consider when making patio furniture decisions. An assessment of the garden and outdoor spaces to be furnished is a good place to begin. What sorts of activities are envisioned for the garden or patio? How much space is available for the planned functions?
Outdoor areas may be used for a variety of purposes—from serene contemplation to a spirited cocktail party. If your patio functions primarily as a quiet place to enjoy the sunshine and read the Sunday paper, and only occasionally hosts a social gathering of 20, then you may prefer to orient the quantity and scale of its furnishings toward smaller, tranquil use. And then when it's party time, the existing furniture can be moved around and additional pieces brought in.
This idea of scale comes into play when selecting individual pieces of furniture and also when making decisions about how much furniture can be accommodated in a given space. Typically it is a good idea to design enough space around individual pieces and furniture groupings to allow for circulation through the garden or patio. Because many pieces of modern outdoor furniture have an almost sculptural quality, the space around them allows them to be appreciated from all angles.
Also, consider how a piece of furniture or a grouping relates to the house or other important elements in the garden. Pieces large enough to stand on their own away from the house can seem overwhelming if placed in a small seating area or intimate patio. Conversely, small chairs that invite guests to pause and come together on a small entry patio can get lost in the larger scale of the landscape.
Durability, ease of cleaning and maintenance, and resistance to the elements (particularly water and ultraviolet light) are all-important factors to consider when choosing outdoor furniture. The emerging outdoor-oriented lifestyle that fascinated mid-century architects and designers 60 years ago encouraged them to explore new materials that could function equally well indoors and out.