Q&A: Laura Wilson of West Elm on setting up an outdoor living room

As corporate manager of West Elm's Design Crew, Laura Wilson trains and inspires crew members. She holds a bachelor's degree in Interior Design and a master's in Sustainable Design from Philadelphia University. She joined staff writer Jura Koncius for The Washington Post's Home Front online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.

Q: I have an antique wicker love seat and two chairs in my newly renovated screened porch. I would love ideas on what to add to make the space more inviting. I used ferns in tall pots last summer, but it looked just OK. A friend gave me a used Martha Stewart synthetic wicker coffee table and side table. They look just OK, too. What can I do to make the space look more than just OK?

A: Add some color, texture and accenting materials. Introduce pillows, an outdoor rug and an accent side table to pull the ensemble together while giving it a cozy vibe. You can also update your planters or layer them with complementing new ones that add different silhouettes, textures or colors.

Q: How do you protect outdoor rugs and furniture against bad weather?

A: This ultimately depends on the climate you are located in. For example, a windy apartment terrace may need heavier furniture; deep-freeze winters may mean you'll need to move tiled tables indoors. You'll also want to consider whether you have a dry, protected place to store furniture in the winter or if you'll need to invest in furniture covers. Ultimately, furniture covers are always a smart investment regardless of the climate. Covering outdoor furniture when not in use will enhance its longevity.

Q: Any tips for how to cheaply decorate a small, narrow balcony in a high-rise apartment?

A: The two most impactful things on a low budget for your balcony space are going to be seating, whether a bistro table or lounge chairs, and greenery. Adding planters can create some warmth with greenery, especially in the city. Try a great wall planter if space is an issue.

Q: I have a large uncovered outdoor patio that I'd like to make more inviting, but I dislike outdoor furniture with cushions and pillows. I'm not diligent enough to keep them clean and I end up with stained and musty-smelling perches that nobody would want to sit on. How can I make my area a destination without loading it up with upholstery?

A: For outdoor furniture items that will be easier to maintain, look for synthetic woven material, like wicker or corded weave. If you like the feel and comfort of upholstered outdoor pieces, we recommend Sunbrella textiles for a high-quality, durable option without the stress. This fabric is one of the industry standards for low-maintenance, outdoor fabric. If you have mildew, you'll want to spray the cushions with white distilled vinegar and let it sit for an hour or so to absorb the mold and then rinse it off. If you need to scrub, try mixing some baking soda and water as a nonabrasive cleaning agent.

Q: If your house is by the water, should you avoid upholstered furniture for the outside deck?

A: Living by the water may require more maintenance for your outdoor elements, but you don't need to sacrifice comfort. I recommend investing in pieces that you'll want to lounge in and enjoy, however you'll want to be sure to bring those cushions indoors at night or during inclement weather to get the longest wear out of them. Plus, for outdoor areas near salt water, rust is always a concern for metal pieces. You'll want something durable. Investing in outdoor covers is a guaranteed way to make your pieces stand the test of time (and weather).

Q: I'd love to be outside on my patio or in my yard more, but mosquitoes attack me. I have kids and pets, so some forms of pest control may not be right for me. What can I do? My patio furniture is calling me, outdoor dining beckons, but I just can't handle being covered in bites.

A: If you're looking for a more natural way to combat bugs, I'd recommend strategically placing hurricanes and lanterns with citronella candles to keep those pesky mosquitoes away in style. You can also plant lemongrass, citronella, lavender or basil plants in a statement planter that also serves as a centerpiece for your table.

Q: I'm going to be moving within the next year to a place with a tiny backyard area, basically just a small patio. I'd like to have a small grill out there plus a comfortable seating area for a few friends. Any suggestions of what to get to make this work without feeling like we're right on top of each other?

A: Start with your core, larger pieces like lounge seating and dining areas, then build from there. Smaller details and furniture items can be layered as secondary elements to complete the environment. Functionality is priority when it comes to smaller spaces. I would recommend anchoring the space with an outdoor sofa to maximize lounge seating. You can also invest in flexible pieces to maintain an open, spacious layout. For example, West Elm's Portside Outdoor Folding Bistro Table and chairs can be stowed and pulled out when needed. Or try pulling over dining chairs to the sofa area to extend the lounge seating area when needed.

Q: What are some ways to set up a perfect table for evening dinners with friends?

A: I recommend working your way inside out, starting with the centerpiece. Decorative lanterns, tealights and hurricanes are all dual-function pieces. They look amazing clustered in the center of a table with some added greenery while also providing more intimate lighting levels, perfect for evening entertaining. Depending on your serving space and storage, the centerpiece can be more minimal to allow room for serveware. Serveware and dinnerware can play an impactful role in the overall look and feel of your party. Try introducing some fun, patterned melamine dishes.




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