Set the Mood: Ambiance for Outdoor Entertaining
A pergola creates a cozy dining space on a Sonoma-style patio

As designers of space, we understand that the feeling of your outdoor living space makes all the difference, and never is this more key than when it comes to outdoor entertaining.  The feeling we refer to as ‘ambiance’ could better be thought of as the transformative experience of a space, and it is something we are really aiming for when we design!  So how does one create ambiance for entertaining?  While the answer is a little abstract, we do consider a few factors when we design, and even when we set up gatherings of our own.  Here’s how we create ambiance when we design, and set the mood for outdoor gatherings of all kinds.

Geometry Class

This is really elemental, but when we design one of the first things in our minds is actually geometry.  Believe it or not, the shape of a space affects our emotional response to it.  Closed shapes, in particular squares and circles, are restful for us to inhabit because we have an innate sense of the center.  These spaces also tend to be more intimate.  Rectangles and ellipses (elongated circles) have a similar effect, but can read as more formal especially with corresponding furniture.  A gathering, since it often centers around a single point, is natural in this kind of space.  In contrast, long linear spaces should be avoided as they encourage movement.  As a Landscape Architect we know once told us, imagine having a dinner party in your hallway!  Promoting restfulness with geometry is an amazing tool to make space feel inviting.

A rounded seat wall and chairs surround a firepit creating an attractive gathering space

A simple round seat wall encircles a matching firepit alongside a bocce court, which is a very linear space.  Without the strong defining geometry of the circle, the gathering space would feel exposed and the intimacy would vanish.

Scaled to Fit

From indoor entertaining, many of us know that scale is also a crucial factor.  There is nothing more awkward than a small gathering at a huge table, or more uncomfortable than the other way around!  (Dinner party in the closet, anyone?)  When planning a gathering space, defining the size of your party and how you want interactions to take place is major- should it be more intimate or more spacious?  Should the kids have their own space?  Combine the right scale with the right geometry and you have the right effect right away.

Dining tables and Spanish tile create atmosphere on this Mediterranean-style courtyard.

This courtyard has multiple sitting areas, creating a café-style atmosphere.  This space is designed for small gatherings with a less formal feel.  Spreading a formal dinner between multiple tables would definitely break things up when it comes to conversation, but might be ideal for the right crowd.

A Sense of Enclosure

One aspect of a gathering space is what surrounds it.  The sense of gentle enclosure can make a space feel safe, intimate, and cohesive.  This can be accomplished in a variety of ways.  A ‘ceiling’ structure, like the pergola or even umbrella, walls as in the image below, even a low wall surrounding part of the space will give the illusion of enclosure.  If you’re on a budget, well-placed decorative pots can even serve the purpose.  Think of our geometry lesson – define the center of your space and the size, then work around the borders to give definition to the space.  You’ll notice the change in atmosphere!

A custom-tiled Spanish fountain fills one wall of this Mediterranean courtyard.

Lush ivy walls surround the rooms in this sweet Spanish-style courtyard, and a custom-tiled fountain fills the scene with an instant grounding effect.  This project also made use of decorative pots and structural plantings to define spaces on a narrow site.

Arrangement of furniture and accents can sometimes be enough to define space.  Don’t underestimate the use of color to draw attention to a space you want people to find.  The same rules apply here as in interior design, with an inviting tone set by artistic as well as geometric principles.  Place seating facing inward, and define the center of a table with a point of interest to draw people in.

warm colors, fun succulents, and wise furniture layout make for an attractive gathering space.

These couches form an ‘L’ shape around a square table, providing an irresistibly inviting nook.  The repetition of orange accents in the pillows and pottery draw the eye, and the planted arrangements give a fun touch to define the space as classically outdoors.


When night falls, lighting transforms your evening experience.  Lighting can be used to highlight a gathering area, illuminate the floor plane, create a mood-defining centerpiece, or twinkle overhead.  Lighting around a seating area should be directed so as not to shine in your guests’ eyes.  Down-facing riser lights and patio lamps are made for just this purpose.  Café lights and pendant lamps can be dimmer – more for the effect than for bright illumination.

A formal dining table is lit with candles and landscape lighting in an elegant garden setting

Down-facing lights illuminate this formal outdoor dining area, defining the walls for a cozy effect.  The simple lanterns are a perfect addition for a contemporary take on traditional table lighting.

Pendant lights illuminate an outdoor bar overlooking a hillside view

A few pendant lights and tea candles are all it takes for inviting ambiance around this outdoor bar.

A long wooden table set for a summer gathering with blue and yellow plates and a vase of nasturtiums

Good design and a few special touches can make the biggest difference when it comes to outdoor entertaining!  We think of our landscapes as “setting the scene” for our clients to bring their outdoor gatherings to life.  There is nothing better this time of year than time spent with loved ones.  That’s what it’s really about.