When designers say, "bring the outdoors in," they’re usually referring to plants. But while leafy greens are one way to freshen up a room, they’re not Mother Nature’s only children.
Indoor-outdoor furniture isn’t often recommended to apartment dwellers, probably because few apartments can claim an outdoor space.
But perhaps it should be.
Transitional pieces that can take a beating and work in a variety of spaces are often exactly what urbanites need.
"It’s like clothing," says Nancy M. Colbert, who works for Design Partners in McLean, Virginia. "When you invest in it, you expect it to weather a few moves."
And thanks to improved technology, durable materials such as polypropylene or Sunbrella are no longer stiff and waxy. Natural materials such as reclaimed wood have seen a renaissance, and materials such as sea grass and wicker, which were long taboo indoors, are welcome under the right circumstances.
That’s great news for apartment renters, because these materials are nothing if not versatile. If you’re having a last-minute gathering and need extra seating, or if you find yourself moving into an apartment with a balcony, you won’t have to buy all-new furniture.
Mark Jupiter, a furniture designer in Brooklyn, New York, who specializes in working with wood, encourages homeowners to embrace natural materials for interior spaces.
"They make a home feel less stuffy," he says. "My whole business is based on modern interpretations of that raw, natural look."
A wooden bench, for example, is one piece that comes in handy almost anywhere you stick it. Slide it up next to the foot of a bed or the back of a sofa to use as a makeshift table, or by an entryway as a catch-all piece for bags. Many retailers offer storage benches (such as Target’s wicker storage seat, $136, www.target.com) to keep boots, hats and gloves out of sight. Or, for a more modern look, try Crate and Barrel’s Fiji bench ($299, www.crateandbarrel.com). Although it’s not a true outdoor piece, it’s made from natural materials (hand-woven lampakanay rope) and a wooden frame finished in matte lacquer, giving it an outdoor feel.
"Reclaimed wood has been big for a few years now," says April Force Pardoe of AFP Interiors in Elkridge, Maryland.
"The newer trend is to mix it with metals, marbles – things that add dimension and surprise," she says. "It’s like nothing is one material anymore."
The one material Pardoe is not sure about using indoors is wicker. There are two camps on wicker, she says, and she sides with those who think it can look too traditional, thus out of place in an apartment.
She steers clients toward the thick, woven variety. "It’s unexpected but warm," she says.
Another way to keep the look modern is to look for wicker pieces in clean, stylish silhouettes. The brown Giesel PE wicker outdoor chairs ($229 for a set of two, www.wayfair.com) are a modern spin on the Louis chair that, at just 12 pounds, can easily be moved indoors or outdoors based on the occasion.
Speaking of unexpected, one of Pardoe’s handiest design items for spicing up an interior is a garden stool. The traditional ones – often shaped like plump barrel drums, lacquer-finished with little cutouts – are rather country-chic and almost conjure up a grandmother’s home.
But garden stools actually hail from ancient China, where they were fashioned out of tree stumps. Today, they’re a go-to accent piece for designers who want to add a heavy dose of color and texture to a stale room, and what’s more, they’re highly functional.
"They’re the opposite of frivolous," says Jonathan Yaraghi, who is the creative director of Safavieh, a national furniture store headquartered in New York that offers modern interpretations on the traditional piece such as metallic finishes; the Gold Glazed Ceramic Elephant Stool ($195, www.safaviehhome.com) is one of the most popular options.
"They can be used almost anywhere as a table or extra seat, and they’re a high-impact design piece," Yaraghi says. "They’re a little piece that packs a lot of style."
In his SoHo apartment, Yaraghi uses a stool in his bathroom as a surface for towels or toiletries and slides it under the pedestal sink when he’s not using it so it’s still visible. He uses another as an end table in his living room and nudges it under a console table when he needs to make space.
Pardoe is also on the garden-stool bandwagon. "I can’t resist them," she says. "They’re like throw pillows but more functional, you know? People say if you want to add flair to your apartment, do so with fun throw pillows, but you can do that with garden stools, too. They have a presence without screaming."