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Designing outdoor living spaces

Susan Nussdorf says the backyard of her Huntington

Susan Nussdorf says the backyard of her Huntington home has evolved over nearly three decades. (June 20, 2011) Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

Decorating a backyard used to be simple. You bought some potted plants, a couple of lawn chairs, a few tiki torches and maybe a kiddie pool to keep the little ones quiet. Then, you twisted open a beer and relaxed.

Not anymore.

"Outdoor living has changed," says interior designer Keith Baltimore, founder of the Baltimore Design Group in Port Washington. "There is more activity outside the home these days, with wireless communications and kitchens and pools and outdoor televisions. Outdoor living is becoming as popular as indoor."

Naturally, you want to create an outdoor environment both comfortable and attractive.

What follows are three attractive New York backyards -- two by designers and one by a homeowner. Here's what they did and how to did it:

A long-term approach

When visitors ask Susan Nussdorf how long she spent designing her Huntington backyard, she has a set answer.

"I tell them all it took was 27 years," she says.

It began when she and her husband moved into their home in 1985. The area now contains separate gathering areas accessible through a series of strolling paths set with bluestone.

Along the way, guests see birdbaths, a Buddha statue, stone benches, a concrete coffee table embellished with gargoyles, a wrought-iron trellis, a variety of urns and a sundial. All of this is surrounded by foliage and spotted with candles.

"I can fit maybe 50 people in my backyard, and you might not see all of them at once," she says.

Nussdorf says she likes its serenity.

"I fix my little espresso and watch the birds in the birdbath," she says. "It starts my day out. It's like my meditation."

Most things in her little paradise have been purchased from nurseries over the years, she says. Of course, it takes effort to create something that appears this effortless.

"I want it to look like I didn't do anything," she says. "I think that's a kind of perfection -- the imperfection of it."

She suggests visiting nurseries or checking gardening magazines to gather ideas. Also, invest in good quality backyard furniture and comfortable cushions that make it cozy.

Improvise, she says. When one of her birdbaths broke, she turned it upside down, filled the top with planting soil and added ivy.

Lastly, take the time to relax and enjoy your own backyard.

"I used to be so concerned about weeds, but not so much anymore," she says. "I've let go of a lot of things that make me crazy."

Uncluttered but eclectic

Designer Conni Cross basically started with a flat piece of land when she began working on this Southold backyard. The owners, the Di Maggios, wanted an uncluttered, country modern look using traditional elements.

Cross created six different seating and gathering places that range from a single bench parked among flowerpots to a cabana with a shower. It's all a part of her philosophy. "If you see something all at once, you're done," she says.

The three have been working on the backyard off and one since 1998, says Dean Di Maggio, who added touches including a circulating fountain and a pathway herb garden. The result is a series of relaxing spaces and intimate alcoves.

"It promotes a feeling of movement so that when you go from one garden area to the other it feels like a different place," he said.

As far as advice to homeowners, Cross recommends visiting garden shops or going online to get designing ideas as well as garden tours and design show houses. But keep one thing in mind when designing your space:

"Make sure it's a reflection of your interests," she says.

She likes things like fire pits, outdoor showers and movable pots filled with flowers. But her favorite trick is "found" objects filled with flowers or transformed into surprising design elements. "Yard sales are fabulous for finding old cooking pots or soup tureens," she says. "Look for ladles, old strainers, old coffeepots, old shoes, old tables. Find a wheelbarrow that's no longer functional or an old boat that leaks. Your budget doesn't necessarily dictate what you do."

Easy does it for outdoor spaces

When Keith Baltimore was hired to decorate a sprawling space behind a seaside home in Atlantic Beach, he says he knew what to do.

"We wanted it very simple, very clean, almost austere," he says. "We also wanted to make it easy to maintain and easy to live with."

This entailed using things like awnings and railings, cobalt blue planters, black and white striped throw pillows and touches of blue and white to bring the interior and exterior together, he says. Baltimore picked waterproof furnishings because of the home's ocean exposure. "When you battle the elements at the beach, you're really battling the elements," he says. "You've got erosion. You've got rust. You've got salt. Salt will eat its way through everything. Even the plant material has to be durable."

Decorating a backyard entails making some personal decisions, says Baltimore. "Is it going to be outdoor relaxation? A resort vibe? Spalike? Zenlike? What are you shooting for? Once that's established, it's just like interior design."

Baltimore likes low-upkeep environments and concentrating on one theme rather than overdoing it by mixing styles. You might want to pick a focal point, he says.

"If you decide the emphasis is going to be on the umbrella, buy the best umbrella available. If it's going to be a spalike setting, go with double-wide chaises and fabulous pillows."

High-end companies such as Janus et Cie can be a source for furnishings, but so can more budget-friendly places like Target, Pottery Barn and Crate & Barrel, Baltimore says. "Walmart has some great outdoor stuff if you know what you're looking for."

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