Entertaining has always required organizational finesse. Accommodating guests, finalizing a menu, and even figuring out a playlist takes planning, and that’s probably why at a gathering, the host often resembles an orchestra conductor, pulling together various facets. During a global pandemic some of those stresses are less relevant, but even hosting the tiniest gathering takes effort—for differing reasons.
In the summer, people could gather in small and socially-distant groups in outdoor spaces that were either as comfortable—or for those of us without air conditioning—more comfortable than an indoor setting. But now that temperatures have considerably cooled, a new challenge has presented itself: hosting your pod or family outdoors without turning guests into walking coat racks. We spoke to two designers to ask how they would host an open-air gathering so that it’s both fun and budget-friendly—but most crucially, safe.
“I may live in L.A. now, but my Canadian roots and lifelong love for skiing have led me to quite enjoy cooler outdoor social scenarios,” interior designer Patrick Maziarski says. “As we continue to gather safely with our friends and family, I envision accessible exterior design playing a key role in our winter coming-togethers. The purpose of design is to create warm, inviting, and functional spaces, and this should be no different for your exterior space.”
Maziarski and designer William Brian Smith have teamed up to lend us their ideas for transforming your patio, backyard, even a driveway, into a potential winter wonderland for your smaller-than-usual guest-list to enjoy. Read on to start planning.
Know what you want
Smith, a founding partner at Studio Tack, thinks that those entertaining outside should be specific about what they hope to achieve with their design. “Are you wanting a gathering to be more about lounging or eating?” he asks. “Determining the main goal of the gathering should help maximize space and ensure safety.”
Assess every outdoor option
For those who don’t have a dedicated outdoor space but want to host at home, make sure you note every option at your disposal—even a driveway. Sure, a driveway may not be a conventional place to host a gathering, but Maziarski welcomes the opportunity. “It's literally a blank slate,” he says. Maziarski would start the design process by noting if the driveway is either wide or narrow. “If you're fortunate enough to have a larger driveway, consider more substantial seating, like adirondacks, rather than fold-out chairs,” he says. “If your driveway is on the narrow side, line each side with benches.”
Speaking of which, get creative with seating
The days of worrying if each chair matches for a party are on pause, and it’s time to embrace a Snoopy way of seating. Those who don’t have outdoor furniture should consider bringing sturdy indoor furniture into the fresh air, or dusting off folding chairs that might be in storage. Maziarski also recommends “perusing Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace for seating” if you need extra spots.
Those who quarantine together, sit together
Smith recommends creating distinct seating arrangements for those who are quarantining together, and depending on the weather, investing in outdoor rugs to define the space. “I’d suggest buying thin, flat-weave rugs in washable material and layering them on top of each other to give your space an extra cozy look,” Smith adds. This works especially well on a patio, he notes, but could also soften the feel of a driveway.
Artfully separate groups of people
To ensure that there’s social distancing between guests who aren’t quarantining together, Maziarski and Smith both note that plants can do the trick. “Those who are lucky enough to reside in milder climates can redistribute potted plants around separate seating areas,” Maziarski says. But those without plants aren’t out of luck. “Use cedar or teak screens instead to provide that extra layer of warmth and protection,” Smith adds.
Seats should come with blankets
While most guests will likely come bundled in jackets and scarves, sitting will make them cold. Smith would either place heating pads inside or under seat cushions, or drape hoodies on to chairs, for extra warmth on a budget. Maziarski jokes that there are probably neglected blankets around your home that could make an appearance. “Pull out that old trunk of musky blankets and throw them in the wash,” he says. “And, again, if you're in need of some extra wool blankets, check out thrift shops.”
A fire pit is a welcome sight
“The obvious suggestion for an outdoor winter room is a firepit,” Maziarski says. “If you can procure a safe and contained vessel, then gather some wood and kindling and warm your guests with a classic touch.” Fire pits aren’t necessary, though. Space heaters can also create a comfortable glow with must-have heat, as Smith notes, and can easily move around the area depending on guests’ comfort levels.
But lighting of any kind is of utmost importance
To make a patio, driveway, or backyard truly transform into a gathering space, Smith says that it’s all about the lighting. “Try to avoid the harsh, cold, and bright lights you typically see installed in outdoor lighting,” he notes. Instead, string lights overhead or place lanterns around the chairs. Flameless candles can also set a comfy mood, as well as direct guests to designated areas. “One thing I’ve loved recently are Philips Hue lights, particularly the LED strips, which can be placed behind plants or furniture to create soft glows of warm light. They can be hooked up to your iPhone, which means you and your guests will be handling physical switches less.”
What are you doing to make the most of the outdoors this fall? Tell us in the comments.