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A Midsummer Night's Dream

By Rose Bennett Gilbert | Photography By Phillip Ennis

When dusk casts its glamorous spell, the family moves outside to where the night is breezy and the cooking is easy (whether it’s the ancient way, by fire, or on a state-of-the-art appliance)

Posh amenities that once graced the interiors of well-endowed homes have migrated out of the house and into the patio or back garden. Think giant-screen TVs, deep-seated sofas, and everything in the kitchen, including the kitchen sink. Some have gone really far out, like the intimate dining area that landscape architect Daniel Sherman has tucked into the center of an orchard on a Greenwich estate. Getting there means a hike beyond the tennis court, down an allée past a stone wall, and through a garden planted, appropriately enough, with edibles only. The dining “room” itself is in a pergola, its table centered under an antique iron chandelier. It’s just like back home, with one big difference in this über-deluxe case: There’s no kitchen out there. “The owners’ resident chef delivers the food,” Sherman explains.

It’s the rare exception. As the urge to Get Out has swept up from the Sun Belt and east from California in the past two decades or so, it was the kitchen that led the way. First came the iconic outdoor grill. Next, real refrigerators that muscled ice chests aside. Now the entire kitchen has moved out, taking along an array of specialized appliances precisely engineered in stainless steel to be water- and weather proof. Dual-fuel hybrid grills that work on wood, charcoal, and gas—simultaneously, if you want both speed and smoky flavor—rival the most powerful indoor cooktops. Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, for example, packs its new grills with up to l76,000 BTUs.
Accessory appliances for the great outdoors include pizza ovens, warming drawers, wine chillers, ice makers, even lobster-boil pots (Maine may have eye-blink summers but is nonetheless “a big growth area for outdoor living,” reports Kalamazoo’s Russ Faulk. He says the Michigan-based company routinely installs deluxe outdoor kitchens in cold zones like New England and Chicago’s North Shore.)

“In the past five or six years, the outdoor kitchen has just exploded,” says Faulk, who’s seen Kalamazoo’s outdoor equipment sales leap from 5 percent to 40 percent of the century-old company’s total business in a scant three years. “Even for homes in the mid-price range, buyers expect some kind of outdoor cooking and living space,” he reports.

When it comes to high-end luxury homes, all stops are out, outdoors. For landscape architects, this means a new perspective on their art—designing the view from the inside out. “We go inside and look out so we can decide what will go out there, and where,” explains Matt Horn, of Matterhorn Nursery, in Spring Valley, New York. “We weren’t even thinking this way just a few years ago, but now the idea is to extend the home and its activities from the inside to the outside.”

The architecture of the house and the lifestyle of the homeowners are key factors in plein air planning, Horn says. For a Rockland County estate with what he calls “medieval” overtones—a property overlooking the Hudson River—Horn added a folly he designed to seem a century old and an outdoor kitchen in a gazebo that has a totally drop-dead river view over the kitchen sink. Other luxuries include everything from dishwasher to trash compactor … all this a scant 50 feet from the fully fitted-out indoor kitchen and 15 feet from another food service center that includes a grill, a refrigerator, and a sink.

There’s also an outdoor fireplace, a real wood-burner. But like many of today’s freestanding outdoor fireplaces, it’s not for cooking. Warming posh patios across the country, fireplaces have become the really hot thing in alfresco living, and never mind the five-figure construction cost. Sociologists see a benefit that’s priceless for today’s frenetic households: Like the central TV console in the early days of television, an old-fashioned fireplace can draw the whole family in to relax together, they say.

Fire pits have the same effect, warming both soul and body, whether they are mere holes in the ground or carefully sculpted into the outdoor landscape. For example, Glenn Ticehurst, principal of the landscape-architecture firm Benedek & Ticehurst, in Bedford Village, New York, worked a fire pit into the stony setting he created for an upstate New York estate. The idea was to extend the outdoor season, letting family members and guests “sit around on the rocks and get warmed.”

You can get warm, inside and out, visiting the famed gardens at the Bedford, New York, estate owned by philanthropists Judy and Michael Steinhardt and developed during the past 20 years by horticulturalists Gayatri Carole Rocherolle and her husband, Jerome. The 54-acre private garden, which is occasionally open to the public, includes a two-sided fireplace. One side is open to the garden, which has its own outdoor kitchen; the other side is part of the living room in the Steinhardts’ private home. (The Rocherolles’ book about the garden, The Landscape Diaries: Garden of Obsession, was published in April by Ruder Finn Press.)

Rich Rosano also admits to a bit of an obsession about the new live-in garden he and Gregory Maroun, who owns Steck’s Nursery, in Bethel, Connecticut, have created around the Rosanos’ new “old” Shingle Style Colonial house in New Canaan. Multiple living spaces surround the 20-room house that Rosano, who owns R.R. Builders, in New Canaan, constructed after knocking down what he calls a “physically obsolescent” house on the site.

Newly planted with pear trees, Japanese maples, and close to 100 l6-foot evergreens—not to mention the 30-foot copper beech Rosano and Maroun relocated to save it—the 2.1-acre garden has been sculpted to include such features as two eating areas with state-of-the-art kitchens, a covered terrace off the indoor kitchen, a swimming pool, and a double waterfall that cascades into an elevated stone spa. Oh, there are also an outdoor fireplace and a sunken fire pit. “I like to extend the seasons,” Rich says. Wrapping the fire pit, a wall of stone offers seats varying from grown-up to preschool levels—the Rosanos’ daughters are 3 and 4 years old.

Throw in a sound system that brings music to every part of the garden and a blend of lighting especially designed to romance each area and you have what Gregory Maroun calls “all the luxuries of a country club.” The image is apt: Many of his other clients are also young couples who “want all the bells and whistles so their kids will stay at home to play as they grow up,” he observes. “It’s a nesting trend that started with 9/11 and is still influencing family life and the way that we design our great outdoors,” notes Maroun.

Interior designers are also into designing exteriors. Anne Tarasoff, half of the mother-daughter team at Tarasoff Interiors, of Port Washington, New York, says. “We arrange a living room for outdoors, just as we would indoors.” Usually, that means an area rug—sisal or a manmade weatherproof fiber like olefin—“to define the seating area” with upholstered pieces gathered around a comfortable conversation center. The emphasis is on “comfortable”: The word for outdoor furniture is “deep seating,” as in cushions that may be more than six inches deep and are as posh as any in your living room.

They’re as pretty, too, thanks to fabrics and trimmings, even decorative tassels, that are soft to the hand, sophisticated to the eye, and oblivious to the weather. “Luscious” is the word, says Jaclyn Hirschhaut, who speaks for the Summer & Casual Furniture Manufacturers Association. “New outdoor fabrics defy logic. They look and feel living-room elegant, yet can withstand sun, moisture, and mildew,” she says. No wonder that top designer and HGTV star Joe Ruggiero routinely uses outdoor fabrics on the furniture he designs for indoor rooms.

Made into lampshades, the new fabrics are also lighting the way to new outdoor nightlife. Now you can read or play cards by the light of a Shady Lady lamp on the patio, the porch, or anywhere else the electricity reaches. Shady Lady was among the first to offer table and floor lamps that look living room–worthy but have heavy-duty cords and shatterproof light bulbs that can cope with nature’s nastiest moods year-round.

Other products that once led sheltered indoor lives are racing to be outed—among them, leading-edge A/V systems. New technologies and new technicians, dubbed “technology integrators,” make it easy to take it all with you when you leave home for the backyard. A professional setup will let you enjoy your own CD collection outdoors (even if it’s on your iPod) while you check the monitor to see who’s at your front door and keep tabs on the TV game at the same time, using the same remote.

Just tell Alex Sulpizi what you want and he “will make it happen,” says Sulpizi, president and CEO of Amnet Systems, in Stamford, CT and The Modern Estate’s senior technology consultant.

Want to see your garden by moonlight, even on a cloudy night? Sulpizi can design outdoor lighting to conjure any mood, any mode, from “midnight swim” to full-floodlight alert.

Want your own backyard drive-in movie? Sulpizi can create it with a projection TV and an inflatable screen—some, like those from the AIRSCREEN Company, almost as large as the real old thing (AIRSCREEN’s largest so far measures l00 by 45 feet). Stewart Filmscreen, headquartered in Torrance, California, and a screen star for 60-plus years, offers a retractable version, including one that can be secreted between showings in a double-duty, weatherproof teak bench.

You can watch the game while floating in your pool. Or watch it while you’re building a snowman: A company called SunBrite makes outdoor TVs that promise to work under all kinds of weather conditions, from bright daylight to deep, dark winters, in temperatures down to minus-24 degrees.

Which brings us back to relaxing by those outdoor fireplaces—a phenomenon that, according to architect William E. Poole, who designed a line of outdoor fireplaces for the Laneventure furniture company, has been observed even at homes in frigid latitudes. Now, La-Z-Boy is out to make zoning-out outdoors even more of an in thing: The Michigan-based company recently introduced an outdoor recliner, the Whitley.

Made of synthetic wicker and deep-seated in weather-disdaining fabric, the Whitley just may offer the penultimate in laid-back outdoor living. TME

Rose Bennett Gilbert writes a weekly column on lifestyle and design, “Décor Score,” that appears in some 250 U.S. newspapers. The author of seven books on design, she is a member of the board of the International Furnishings & Design Association (IFDA). 212.674.5108;

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