The new American status symbol: A backyard that’s basically a fancy living room

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Bill Paliouras's outdoor kitchen and dining area has a louvered ceiling, fans, infrared heat and a television. (Photo for The Washington Post by Melanie Landsman)

BRANCHBURG, N.J. – Bill Paliouras dreamed of a backyard Eden. Not your garden-variety deck with stackable plastic chairs and a kettle charcoal grill – why settle for that? – but a loaded, supersize, decked-out deck with an outdoor living room, dining area, 54-inch grill, full kitchen, bar, two-draft kegerator, oversize island, massive weatherproof television, elaborate sound system and semicircular fire lounge.

“I’m Greek. I love being outside. I wanted to extend my outdoor living during the winter,” says the 45-year-old dentist. His deck kitchen is only a few steps from the family’s sublime indoor one.

What else? A second dining area, a pizza oven and a mammoth rotisserie grill from Greece. To control climate and mood, a louvered roof, infrared heaters, ceiling fans and Vegas-level lighting. Leading to the pool area, Paliouras desired twin curved staircases because – and this is a common exterior design request – “I wanted to replicate the inside part of my house outside.”

Sean McAleer completed the dream deck in June for $350,000; Paliouras’s entire outdoor extravaganza including landscaping, pool, waterfall, slide, hot tub and grotto, totaled $550,000. “Why would you want to go to the beach when you can hang out on a beautiful deck with a TV, day beds and refrigerator?” asks McAleer, owner of Deck Remodelers. “It’s all there.”

The project claimed first place in a 2020 North American deck competition – yes, there are awards for such things – and it became an Instagram hit with well over a million views. “Everybody wants to come,” Paliouras says. Friends dubbed his oasis “Paliouras Paradise” and “The Resort.”

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Outdoor spaces are many things these days but rustic is not one of them. Neither is natural. For many well-to-do Americans and those who aspire to join their ranks, the backyard has become the ultimate family room, a place to be decorated and tamed, a receptacle for stylish stuff, while nature is held at bay. During the past decade, decks transformed into major design statements. Patios mimic hotel lobbies. Backyards are stage sets, with dramatic lightscaping after the sun recedes. Pools, if you’re fortunate to have one, are excuses for ever-proliferating furniture and conversation areas. It’s the Great Fauxdoors.

“We have a very interior design look outside,” says Lindsay Foster, senior director of merchandising for Frontgate, the high-end decor company. “We put tassels and fringes on our outdoor throw pillows.” (They have indoor prices, starting at $139.) In 2012, Frontgate offered a dozen coordinated outdoor furniture collections. Today, it features more than 30 with evocative names like St. Kitts, Palermo and Newport.

Americans long made do with lawns, nature’s outdoor rug. This is no longer enough. Now, we have actual outdoor rugs, a design statement to tie the outdoor living room together, the outdoors being a place to be coordinated and tied together, and where feet require protection from dirt, heat, cold. We’re glamping without ever having to leave home.

“People want being outdoors to be as sophisticated as an indoor living room,” says Los Angeles designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard. Interior design long exhorted homeowners “to bring the outside in,” embellishing rooms with plants, wood, stone and natural light. Today’s design ethos inverts this, turning the inside out: outdoor living rooms, deluxe kitchens with cooler drawers, a luxury grill that rivals any stove in size and price, elaborate sound systems, and supersize, weather-durable televisions.

“When we were kids, parents would say ‘stop watching television and go outside,’ ” says McAleer. “Now, you can go outside and watch television.”

Exterior decorating was on the rise before coronavirus shutdowns, possibly because some folks ran out of rooms to revamp. Investment in the outdoors makes sense when you consider how much time, pre-pandemic, many workers spent in offices with sealed windows, fluorescent lighting and view-thwarting cubicles, nature seeming as distant as Mars.

During the pandemic, the home transformed into everything – office, school, gym, asylum. The backyard’s status became more exalted, a safe space where we could gather. McAleer’s business doubled this year while scarcity of building materials forced prices up 30 percent. He completes 125 decks a year at an average cost of $125,000.

Despite the dalliance with tiny homes, many Americans covet space. It’s in our DNA, a domesticated turn on Manifest Destiny. For decades, the number of people in the average U.S. household continued to shrink, while new family homes emulated “The Bachelor” pads.

“It’s a natural desire to enlarge a home’s square footage, and this is easier than putting on an addition,” says Jane Latman, president of HGTV. The network, with 56 million unique viewers in April, is a huge influence – a favorite channel of the Paliouras deck, where the TV is frequently on – and has amped the G (garden) in its programming with shows like “Inside Out” and “Backyard Takeover.” Says Latman, “you can be more whimsical with the outdoors. You feel more freedom.” A big beautiful outdoor space “is a little showoffy,” she says, on display in a way that living rooms rarely are.

Meanwhile, the dining room died. Too fussy, too formal, no place for soft pants or grilled treats, the dining room in many homes is a repository for bills, bric-a-brac, dust, Thanksgiving. Outdoors offers the antidote. For something that has long been there, it seems modern and liberating.

“Americans feel they’re losing their freedom. We think we’re losing control,” says Carleton Varney, head of the venerable design firm of Dorothy Draper & Co. (who extolled bringing the outside in). Taming the outside is an exercise in control and liberation simultaneously. “Being there, you don’t feel all containerized,” Varney says. “And being outside is happy.”

“There’s this whole craving for comfort, in creating your own luxury hotel,” says Lori Greely, CEO of Serena & Lily, the furnishing company, which has seen a spike in outdoor furnishing sales since 2015. Cabanas are no longer just for resorts. Serena & Lily sells a $4,000 outdoor twin-size day bed. Greely says contemporary exterior design is “polished, refined. There’s zero compromise in aesthetics.”

The desire to quell the outdoors is occurring atop a warming planet. In the Sisyphean struggle between humans and nature, it’s wise not to bet against nature. Fires in California. Valentine’s Day snowstorms in Texas. Shirt-drenching humidity. And bugs. Bugs were here long before us. Bet against them at our peril.

And what has it led homeowners to do? Hurl money at the problem: Louvered ceilings, fans, heaters and “fire features,” all prominent on the Paliouras deck. Frontgate and RH (formerly known as Restoration Hardware) offer umbrellas the size of Buicks. RH Tucci umbrellas are feats of architectural wonder sporting five-figure price tags; fetching RH Heatsail cantilever lamps sell for about $5,500.

Paliouras’s goal was to hold winter gatherings outside, and he hosted a dozen guests New Year’s Eve. “There’s this paradigm shift of thinking of the outdoors as a place to be all year round,” says Serena & Lily’s Greely. Her company’s indoor and outdoor furnishings are almost indistinguishable. Its mailings are considered more magazine than catalogue. The February edition omitted prices altogether, as though the collections were pieces in an art gallery.

Emphatic outdoor living is part of our evolving self-care regimen. “At the end of day, green plants and blue skies feed everyone’s soul. People need places to just sort of relax,” Greely says. “It’s also connected to wellness. Everyone wants to spend more time relaxing outdoors after spending so much time on our devices.”

Which does not explain outdoor televisions.

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The backyard became an American staple after World War II with the boom in single-family homes and leisure time. The first Weber grill fired up in 1952. The ubiquitous Grosfillex chair, thought to be the first mass-market plastic outdoor seating, popped a squat seven years later.

“We want to show off our social status by what we can do in our backyards,” says Cindy Brown, who helped organize the Smithsonian traveling exhibit “Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard” and is education and collections manager for Smithsonian Gardens. “We want to domesticate nature. We can’t but we can do one piece of it.” Also, Brown notes, “our mental health goes bonkers if we’re not in tune with nature.”

But since the mid-20th century we’ve developed better, comfier materials, and banished those uncushioned wire chairs that turn posteriors into Waffle House specials. And not only at vertiginous prices: Ikea and large home-improvement emporiums sell more affordable designs and are not immune to the phenomenon of outdoor rugs.

European dining alfresco and the legacy of wealthy Americans’ great houses are also influences on this trend, says University of Pennsylvania architecture professor emeritus Witold Rybczynski. “All these alternative spaces, the sunroom, the parlor, create variety,” he says. “There are wonderful pleasures in being able to eat in different places. It brings a richness into your life.”

With little space on these new decks to squeeze in another tasseled throw pillow, what could possibly be left to do? Greely sees a growth in outdoor showers, no longer confined to the beach and lake. Bullard thinks spaces will become even more sophisticated and personalized. “So many things out there are matchy-matchy,” he says. “Design will be more creative, eclectically mixed and matched.”

With the pandemic subsiding, Paliouras looks forward to entertaining more guests. But he practices at seven offices across New Jersey, performing root canals six days a week. He often leaves before dawn. His wife, Irene, and their two daughters look forward to a time when Saturday is a day off and enjoyed outside.

Paliouras takes it in stride. He has his dream deck, his outdoor Xanadu. “You know,” he says, “it takes a lot of root canals to pay for ‘The Resort.’ “

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