How to create an outdoor room you can use all year round

Interior designer Sarah Vanrenen has created an outdoor room that’s equally suited to summer and winter entertaining.

‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing,’ wrote Alfred Wainwright the late, great Lancastrian fell walker and author. The past 18 months have taught us that the same principle applies to outdoor spaces, which have become a vital part of our social lives and simply need to be properly kitted out. Together with Zoom parents’ evenings and home deliveries, structures prepared for alfresco entertaining look set to be one of the enduring legacies of lockdown.

The interior designer Sarah Vanrenen is a vocal advocate of outdoor entertaining, come rain or shine. When pondering the use of a 300-year-old flint barn next to her home on a farm in Wiltshire, she decided to create the ultimate outdoor sitting room.

‘Even in summer, it can be chilly in the evenings, so I considered how I could create a warm, inviting place to sit outside around a roaring fire,’ she says.

Having persuaded her husband, Grant, that it would be better to re-purpose the barn as a garden room, rather than an office, she set about planning the project in the same way she would an indoor room. Choosing to leave the sides of the barn open to make the most of the setting, she began by restoring the fabric of the tumbledown structure.

Next, she installed a carved wooden fireplace as a focal point and slips cut by the builders from old concrete slabs found on the farm. Rough plastered walls are painted in Invisible Green by Edward Bulmer Natural Paint (01544 388535; www., chosen to blend in with the barn’s verdant surroundings.

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A large carved mirror was hung above the fireplace to accentuate its role as the focal point of the room and logs stored in a vast copper cauldron, inherited from Sarah’s grandmother in Stellenbosch, South Africa. ‘I remember hiding behind it as a child,’ she says.

Sarah Vanrenen Outdoor Room

The space has solved another problem. ‘There are no trees around our house, so eating on the terrace can become uncomfortably hot, but this room is shaded and cool,’ she says. A large dining table is dressed with a cloth made in Dahlia Blue linen, one of Sarah’s own designs, plus splashes of pink and green in napkins and tableware and small vases of just-picked blooms. ‘I like to use what I find in the garden. Flowers help to bring different colours and patterns together,’ she notes.

Sarah’s instinctive enjoyment of multicoloured prints is inherited from her mother, the interior designer Penny Morrison. She acknowledges that decorating is in her DNA.

‘Ever since I can remember, I’ve visited antique and interiors shops, so it’s always been part of what I’ve known and understood.’ After a spell at Christie’s, Sarah set up her own interior-design studio before joining forces with fellow designer Louisa GrevilleWilliams to form Vanrenen GW Designs three years ago.

‘We love colour,’ says Sarah of the studio’s signature look — a passion for joyful hues and pattern is evident here in the choice of fabrics, decorative china plates next to the fireplace and the bold splash of yellow introduced by the scalloped drinks trolley, a design that is new to her range.

Rattan furniture with cushions makes for relaxed comfortable seating, some covered in another of Sarah’s fabrics, Wiggle, and others made in designs from her collection of antique textiles. Metal armchairs from the 1960s, which once belonged to Grant’s mother, have been re-covered in vintage French linen, and a 1970s wicker Peacock chair adds to the relaxed feel.

A scalloped jute rug, also from Vanrenen GW Designs, adds warmth to the concrete floor and defines the seating area. And the coffee table? ‘It’s surprisingly difficult to find a large design suitable for outdoor use, so I bought an old outdoor dining table and cut down the legs.’ To complete the room, several reproduction lithographs hang on the wall. ‘I love the juxtaposition of old prints in modern frames,’ she says.

Sarah Vanrenen Outdoor Room
Does Sarah worry about wind and rain causing havoc? ‘I bring the cushions and rug inside in winter, but I don’t worry unduly in summer, because the roof provides good shelter,’ she explains. She adds that many fabric houses now offer durable performance collections, designed to repel water and resist fading.

Sarah’s advice for anyone considering building a similar outdoor room is to plan it as carefully as you would an indoor room.

‘Avoid creating a wind tunnel, ensure you have enough walls around the fireplace and that the fire draws properly,’ she says. ‘Nobody wants to sit in a room with the wind whistling in or clouds of smoke billowing from the fireplace.’

Get it right, however, and you have a glorious extension to your living space. ‘This room is wonderful in summer, but it works well in other seasons too — we were out here on Christmas Day to enjoy a glass of Champagne around the fire.’

For more details, visit Vanrenen GW Designs