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Wild by Design

Bring Elegance to the Outdoors

January 20, 2001

Creating an outdoor oasis does more than extend your party space. By moving the celebration outside, guests can appreciate the yard, weather and view.

But eating in the open air doesn't mean it has to be paper-plates-and-plastic-cups time.

Elegance works with or without walls, says Eric Guenther, director of design for Glabmans Furniture in Costa Mesa. The key to a successful meal alfresco is to provide the comforts of fine dining--linens, pillows and real silverware.

The host shouldn't opt for a plain look for fear that precious items may be damaged. "You're just as likely to drop and break a dish inside as outside," he says.

And guests should feel pampered. "They shouldn't be swatting mosquitoes or be cold or hot."

Here are a few suggestions to add comfort and romance to patio dining:

* The table should look as if you intend to dine, not as if you're throwing an impromptu picnic. Start with a floor-length table cloth that covers more than the glass tabletop. "When people are wearing shorts, you'll be staring at their knees unless you cover the table," Guenther says.

* Use real plates and glasses. Stores such as the Pottery Barn and Pier 1 Imports have inexpensive ones that can add color and establish a theme.

"Break out of the mold," Guenther says. Safari patterns and bold ceramics add interest. "What may look corny inside adds to the atmosphere outside. And something outdated--like an aqua-colored plate--is appropriate outside."

When Guenther was serving Indian food outside, he continued the theme with magenta-colored silk pillows with little mirrors on them he found at Cost Plus and propped them into chairs.

"You're not under pressure to have everything perfect," he says. "If you look in your home, you'll see you already have funky stuff."

Mix colors and shapes. Put water in bright green glasses and wine in yellow glasses. Find a floral-patterned dish and use complementary-colored items with it.

If you don't feel comfortable bringing out glass plates, at least dress up the table with silverware.

* Move a side table, such as a casual, painted piece, outside; cover it with linen and lay magazines or books on top, or use it as a serving area for drinks. "Don't hesitate to pick flowers from the yard and add a vase to the table," he says.

* Set up a chaise lounge or another piece of furniture in which a guest can relax. Add a cotton or terry-cloth throw. "Even if it's sunny outside, you will always have one guest who gets cold," he says. "You don't want to force someone to stay outside and then watch them shiver."

If it's breezy, consider installing heaters.

* Provide seat cushions or a towel. "Molded metal chairs get hot and the strap chairs separate or leave lines," Guenther says. * Roll out the carpet. "I have brick on my patio floor and I bring out an inexpensive hemp rug that looks like burlap and place it underneath the table," Guenther says.

* Use an 8- to 10-foot-tall canvas umbrella that's inserted in a stand and can be moved around. This is better than the typical umbrella that's stuck in a hole in the middle of the table, Guenther says. "The only time that kind shades people is when the sun is directly overhead, and if you can't adjust it, you'll see four people crowded on one side."

* Block noise with portable screens or fountains.

* Don't ignore the patio cover. Guenther's is made of white wood with molding. "I hang sheer drapery panels at the corners, and when the sheers move in the wind it adds to the classic, romantic feel."

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