Jun 14, 2007

Mid-Trend Collision

Just as the new Ballard Designs catalog arrives touting "Outdoor Living: Living without Walls (TM)", June Fletcher at the Wall Street Journal writes about the anti-trend, Giving Up on the Outdoors. "Outdoor rooms," she writes, "one of the decade's most visible symbols of excess, have been a bonanza for manufacturers of everything from $3,700 waterproof pool tables to $130 patio umbrellas that emit a cooling mist. ... But some homeowners say they're falling out of love with their expensively furnished backyards, which require hours of upkeep and costly repair. Others are abandoning the rooms altogether."

Ms. Fletcher's story drips with anecdotes of fire ants, squirrels, pollen and pigeons conspiring to deprive us of our quality of backyard life. High-end retailers such as Smith & Hawken and Restoration Hardware are slashing prices to move inventories, and pest-control and electronics-repair companies are raking in the profits as rats move into outdoor kitchens and plasma TVs bake in the sun.

It all sounds so dramatic, doesn't it?! But really, I don't have a lot of sympathy for anyone who needs to watch TV outside, or for the guy who "has to take out his blower or power washer every day to clean off his new brick fireplace, gazebo and patio set" (italics mine). I mean, hasn't he ever heard of "weathering"? Or "patina"? Or, for that matter, "dust"? These things are a fact of outdoor life, and it's just folly to design any kind of outdoor feature that can't stand up to the elements. Frontgate offers a selection of outdoor wall art; if you want a view of red tulips, why not just plant the real thing?

I don't mean to sound grouchy about all of this. Certainly, homeowners have been oversold on the concept of "outdoor rooms" -- there is, truly, only so much living one can do outdoors. But there also is no such thing as a maintenance-free yard, no matter how expensively you appoint it. Every space, indoors or out, requires some investment of effort to look, feel and function its best. I ask my clients up front how much time they have each week to spend maintaining their garden -- and "0 hours" is a perfectly acceptable answer. At some point, self-knowledge and common sense are the best accessories of all.

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