Great outdoors - make the most of your outdoor space
Make the most of our summers with sheltered spaces and durable furniture
It's that time of year again. All over Ireland, people are thumbing through 'outdoor living' catalogues as the rain pours down the window and we edge towards another summer monsoon season.
Traditionally, now is the time to buy all that outdoor stuff, but did anyone ever notice that the phrase 'al fresco' is Italian? It's of a country where you can dine outside without catching your death of cold or sideways blown rain in your ear.
"You need to change your way of thinking!" says Sarah Kelley. She's a designer for Neptune, one of the companies whose catalogue shows beautiful outdoor furniture in sunlit gardens. "Once you start thinking of your garden as an outdoor room, you'll actually start using it more. And you'll want to furnish it with coffee tables and consoles and fairy lights."
Yes, but Irish summers?
Kelley's not having any of it. Just tough up and get out there! "Take a blanket and a cup of tea. Take a hot water bottle. But just get out of the house and enjoy the outdoors. You'll feel so much better if you take the time to listen to the birds in your garden." I can't help feeling that she's right about this. Sort of.
Among the things that make outdoor living more feasible are technological advances in furniture design. I grew up with rotting rattan chairs that lived in the garage under a pile of mouldy cushions. We pulled them out a couple of times a year.
The first time you sat on one after the winter, you did so very carefully. They were inclined to collapse in a cloud of green spores. But those early rattan chairs were made of woven willow and, just like baskets, they decayed over time.
Contemporary rattan-style furniture from Neptune is woven from what they call "all-weather wicker", a resin fibre that looks natural but can withstand anything the Irish climate can throw its way. The pieces can be left out all winter and you don't need to cover them.
"Just sponge them down with cold water in the spring, or clean them off with a power-hose," says Kelley. (Sometimes I'm convinced that the trend for outdoor living was invented by power-hose manufacturers.)
As it turns out, the furniture from Neptune is relatively expensive, so you'd want it to last. The Harrington sofa armchair costs €720 and the Harrington three-seat sofa is €1,520.
"All our cushions are weather-proof too," says Kelley. While you wouldn't want to slosh red wine on them, they're designed to withstand a summer shower.
While we're on the topic of outdoor cushions, my favourite lounging solution is the witty Forest collection from Mero Wings (pictured). These indoor and outdoor cushions are shaped like tree trunks and tree stumps. They're realistic enough to make you double-take and, although they look like real trees, are basically comfy poufs.
The outdoor version of the Forest tree trunk costs €299 and the Forest tree seat costs €159. If you buy one, five per cent of the proceeds of the sale goes towards real-life reforestation.
"Everyone's inspired by the Californian and Australian outdoor kitchens they see on sites like Pinterest and Houzz," says the interior architect Denise O'Connor. "We're getting a lot of requests for outdoor cooking areas from our clients."
This sounds like sheer lunacy, but apparently it can work surprisingly well.
"At its simplest it's just a space to house a standard gas barbecue. You have a preparation area beside it. It makes it easier to use, and that means you're more likely to use it."
The biggest mistake people make, she feels, is not considering the outdoor area when they're having work done on the house. "Outdoor living works much better if the space connects with the interior," she says.
"If you can, give yourself the option of a covered space, like a porch or a place where the roof is designed to overhang a sheltered part of the garden."
O'Connor finds that paving works better than decking in an Irish climate. "It's more durable and you can look after it more easily, but even paving can get a bit green if you don't power-hose it every now and then." (Power-hose guys have it wrapped up).
If you like the look of decking but don't want to break your neck on slime, there's now a synthetic version that is much less slippery and lasts longer. For an all-over faux wood look, you could combine it with the Forest log seating from Mero Wings.
The one thing that everyone seems to agree on is that lighting makes a huge difference to the look of an outdoor space, even if you're staring out at the rain. Outdoor lighting can be as cheap or as expensive as you like. At the economic end of the spectrum, a blue glass lantern from Heatons costs €12.
At the other end of the scale is the gorgeous (but massively expensive) Giant Outdoor Anglepoise (€4,920) from Lost Weekend. It's available in 10 colours and can be either placed on the ground, like a floor lamp, or wall-mounted.
Like any Anglepoise, it's almost infinitely adjustable. Even better, it was designed for The BFG. The children's writer Roald Dahl used the classic 1930s table lamp in his writing hut.
In 2005, the Roald Dahl Museum & Story Centre commissioned a triple-scale version of the lamp for their display of one of Dahl's favourite characters, the Big Friendly Giant (BFG).
It wasn't intended as a commercially viable product, but so many people wanted one that Anglepoise decided to make it one of their staples.
See merowings.com, neptune.com, optimise-design.com, heatonsstores.com, lostweekend.ie, anglepoise.com.