The Great Outdoors

by Ashley Lapin Olian

When it comes to entertaining, people are asking themselves, “Why stay inside?” With full outdoor kitchen setups becoming increasingly popular, more social events are moving outside.

“Homeowners are extending the heart of the home to the outdoors,” says Ramsay Hawfield, v.p./marketing and product development at Eldorado Stone in San Marcos, CA. “By elevating their outdoor kitchen area, homeowners can eliminate the back and forth and have a full-service kitchen outside.”

The demand for these outdoor spaces means designers must be thoughtful and deliberate in their approach to the space, ensuring that the design suits the homeowners’ needs in terms of both functionality and appearance. “The rise of the outdoor kitchen as a central entertaining space is changing the amount of thought that both designers and homeowners are putting into creating them,” says Lorenzo Marquez, v.p./marketing for Cosentino North America in Stafford, TX. “Outdoor kitchens have gone from a simple stand-alone grill and picnic table to sophisticated spaces with curtained areas for privacy from neighbors and warming apparatuses to ensure a longer season for use in colder climates,” he explains.

Top trends in outdoor kitchens include smooth transitions from indoors to out, creating spots where guests can gather together easily, and a desire for specialized equipment that speaks to how the homeowner likes to cook and entertain. Also important are sheltered areas that allow for enjoying the space in any weather, versatile appliances and inviting visuals that tie in with both the landscape and the overall style of the house. So say manufacturers recently surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News.

Having the right outdoor space for entertaining is like adding a room onto the house, with the advantages of fresh air and less restrictive boundaries. “Outdoor entertaining is always at the top of the list for potential homeowners, existing owners looking to update and even those who only have a roof top bar,” says Emily Holle, trend & design specialist at MS International, Inc. in Austell, GA. “The outside space is an extension of someone’s home,” she adds.

Hawfield agrees: “The best outdoor kitchens provide an extension of the home, designed to be a separate space for relaxing with friends and family. All products and features make this goal as convenient and comfortable as possible, encourage conversation and seamlessly blend the indoors with the outdoors.”

Outdoor kitchens have matured into a standard, rather than an exception, in luxury homes according to John Ruloph, regional sales manager West for Greenwood, MS-based Viking Range LLC. The look and feel of the outdoor kitchen has also matured, leaving straight and L-shaped stucco BBQ islands a thing of the past, he adds.

Marquez notes that flexibility is important, especially when thinking about the outdoor entertaining space as a transitional area. “The natural flow from indoor to outdoor spaces is crucial when designing an outdoor living area. Creating seamless physical and visual transitions between indoors and out is one of the best ways to ensure an outdoor space will be used to its full potential,” he says.
Fabrics can provide a link between the inside space and the outdoor kitchen area. “Designers can carry the fabrics used inside out to the outdoor kitchen and dining spaces, creating a transitional, cohesive space,” says Greg Voorhis, design director for Glen Raven Custom

Fabrics in Glen Raven, NC, which manufactures Sunbrella fabrics. Sunbrella’s shade collection can be used on awnings and other shade structures, while fabrics in the firm’s upholstery collection can be used for upholstered items like cushions, draperies and decorative pillows.

Outdoor kitchens are as varied as their indoor counterparts, and what a designer incorporates into the space is highly dependent on how the homeowner entertains.

“People want to design their outdoor kitchen with a suite of appliances that suits how they entertain and use their space, and the more flexible their space is, the better,” says Diana Franklin, brand manager for U-Line Corp. in Laguna Beach, CA. “People are choosing setups of all sizes for their outdoor kitchens, but one thing remains the same: It’s all about creating a space that suits their individual needs,” she adds.

Outdoor set ups also must take the needs of families into consideration, Holle says. “Many people need the space to be perfect for an outdoor soiree with friends or fun for their five-year-old’s Ninja Turtle Birthday party.” She has seen added details like Parisian string lights strung over patios, terraced outdoor spaces that encourage guests to spread throughout the yard, portable fire pits to open up the space and sitting walls surrounding the patio. “Multipurpose is the biggest trend we see where the spaces are flexible and adaptable to the type of outdoor entertaining planned.”

When planning an outdoor entertaining area, designers should consider how the homeowners will most use the space and plan a design that meets both their functional needs and aesthetic tastes, says Marquez. “Taking those considerations into mind will ensure the final result is a space that is inviting, relaxing and a place where they will want to spend a lot of time. If basic functions aren’t met, and the space doesn’t perform the way intended, it’s not worth the investment,” he believes.

“Just as we are seeing cooking and food preparation zones trending more and more in indoor kitchens, we are also seeing the thoughtful zone approach when designing outdoor kitchens,” adds Franklin. “Thinking about the types of food and beverages you preserve, and how you tend to entertain outdoors, can allow you to organize your client’s outdoor kitchen with the right appliances in the right place, offering the ultimate in convenience and functionality.”

The addition of specialized equipment adds to the personalization of an outdoor room. A grill is a must, but the other elements selected are as diverse as the people using them.

Russ Faulk, v.p./marketing and product development for Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, headquartered in Chicago, IL, says the trend toward specialty items began a couple of years ago and continues to hold strong. For instance, he explains, instead of a basic grill, refrigerator and sink configuration, people are choosing keg tappers, pizza ovens or wok cooking to suit their needs.

“Customers love to grill, but most want to do other styles of outdoor cooking,” says Ruloph. Customers are creating cooking stations, he says, each with a countertop and undercounter stainless accessory to support the particular type of cooking. Multi-use high-power burners have also been coming on strong, he adds, allowing for a wide range of specialty cooking.

Andrew Shead, marketing specialist at True Manufacturing in O’Fallon, MO says outdoor kitchens continue to mirror those inside. “Our customers are installing refrigerator drawers, clear ice machines and beverage centers to support and complement their multiple cooking appliances – including smokers, grills and pizza ovens.” Material choices also mimic indoor kitchens, and he says many of the company’s partners and designers are incorporating outdoor cabinetry and creating overlay doors for their refrigerators.

Mitch Slater, president of Danver Stainless Outdoor Kitchens in Wallingford, CT is seeing a larger selection of cooking products that offer the flexibility for a cross-section of cooking styles, rather than all-in-one, single appliances. There is also interest, he says, in the company’s cooking/bar/refreshment modules that can be moved on wheels to adapt to different events.

When a social event takes place outside, hosts have many considerations. Two of the most important are how they can stay with their guests, rather than bouncing between inside and out, and how they can create enticing spaces for guests to gather and socialize. As outdoor kitchens become more comprehensive, interruptions become fewer, allowing homeowners to enjoy the event and help their guests feel at home.

“The ability to cook and entertain in the same outdoor space where your guests are socializing is incredibly attractive to homeowners,” says Marquez. “No longer does the summer chef have to be isolated away from the fun in a hot kitchen while preparing food.” One growing trend, he notes, is to incorporate an island around the grill, with countertops for prep space and drawers for storage. “Adding an extended bar area where guests can grab a drink, pull up a stool and watch the cook at work is always an appreciated feature,” he says.

Getting one’s food and beverage from where it is stored to where it will be enjoyed is an important aspect to consider as well, says Shead. “An outdoor kitchen has to have some key elements such as outdoor refrigeration and a beverage station, as well as prep and serving spaces. Otherwise the homeowner is stuck running back and forth all day long,” he notes.

But as important as the cooking is, the way the space is configured for socializing is equally so. “The more outdoor kitchens we do, the more we see cooking becoming less important than entertaining as the goal of the space,” says Slater. One of the most asked-for features, he adds, is an island to gather around, similar to those found indoors.

Designers are also incorporating features that enhance the entertainment experience, like a fire pit or outdoor television, giving guests a place to gather.

“Outdoor kitchens that have a fireplace give more variety to the type of entertaining homeowners can do. The element of fire helps extend the outdoor season due to its warmth, and offers a fun twist like a camp fire atmosphere where guests can roast marshmallows to create gourmet s’mores,” says Holle. Outdoor televisions are also important, she adds. “Many gatherings revolve around sporting events, and being able to have the game on while preparing a meal and entertaining guests is a must!”

“With the full culinary experience transformed for the outdoors, homeowners are creating conversation areas that incorporate seating and encourage togetherness,” says Hawfield. “Permanent fixtures in the design of the outdoor area – such as fire tables or bowls – are used cross-functionally with accessories,” he adds.

As an extension of the home, the outdoor entertaining hubs shouldn’t have a vastly different feel than the rest of the house, nor should they stand out too much against the natural landscape. There isn’t one style that takes precedence over the rest, as homeowners work to express their own personal vision outside as they do throughout their homes.

Faulk says, “We see a much wider range of aesthetics being embraced.” Just a few years ago, he adds, the classical rustic look dominated outdoor kitchen design. But a more modern aesthetic has been coming on strong lately. “People are finding more freedom in expression when they are doing these outdoor designs,” he says.

A common theme for MS International is that clients have a focus on incorporating a certain level of hospitality into their spaces, says Holle. “Whether they prefer a sleek kitchen with LED lighting accents or a more rustic space, they all want to make sure the space is inviting and comfortable for friends and family,” she states.

“We are seeing finishes and styles that blend and flow with the landscape, not a big stucco mausoleum stuck in the middle of the backyard,” adds Ruloph. One current trend, he says, is to have elements that match the wood deck. While the cooking area is stainless, he notes that the undercounter cabinets in the work area are made from matching deck material, giving the whole deck a seamless feel.

Franklin adds, “Stainless steel is the classic outdoor finish that we’ve consistently seen through the years, and I don’t think that will ever go away. However, we are now seeing more weather-resistant panels that resemble wood finishes in a variety of colors, bringing the look and feel of custom interior cabinetry to the outdoor kitchen.”

Slater says that people are opting for color via powder coat finishes rather than bare stainless steel. “This provides more of a designer look to the space, and provides a finish requiring minimal maintenance,” he notes, adding that the firm is seeing more color and door styles for outdoor cabinetry, and less interest in stone or stucco surrounds.

When entertaining outdoors, weather is an important factor. These open-air spaces need to be comfortable, rain or shine, making it important to include some type of overhead cover, manufacturers agree.

Faulk sees a move toward making these outside entertaining areas more cozy and sheltered. “They are getting defined more and more as a room and less and less as part of the garden,” he says. Overhead structures attract people, even on the nicest day, he adds. “Creating that overarching structure is becoming a solid trend.” This covering is likely to change based on climate, he adds, with those in the Northeast far likelier to have a full roof, allowing for more frequent use of the space and better heat retention.

Having places to get out of direct sunlight is important, too. “Shade is incredibly important to outdoor kitchen and dining spaces because it creates a cool, comfortable environment where homeowners can relax and enjoy their outdoor space,” says Voohrhis. He notes that designers are incorporating shade in a number of ways, including the use of retractable or fixed pergolas, roller shades and umbrellas.

Slater agrees that it’s important to provide shade in these spaces. “Having shade available can bring the temperature down 10-15 degrees and make a space more usable,” he concludes.

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