Q&A: Terry Lin on making the most of your outdoor space

Oct 01, 2020

Terry Lin is the chief design officer of Outer, a new outdoor furniture brand. Prior to Outer, Terry worked in retail and product development. He created hundreds of successful furniture designs at Pottery Barn, along with imagining new customer experiences at Walmart. Terry holds a B.F.A in Industrial Design from the Rhode Island School of Design and currently lives in San Francisco.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, Marie Kondo, the Property Brothers or Amy Astley, editor-in-chief of Architectural Digest, answer your decorating, design and decluttering questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and organizing. For more than 20 years, our Thursday Q&A has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share your own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small.

Welcome to Terry Lin, who knows a lot about living outdoors and has designed a stylish and functional new line of furniture for the company Outer. Terry has worked at Pottery Barn and other retailers and it ready to answer your questions to how we can spend more time outdoors feeling cozy and warm. Last night, I layered on my turtleneck and fleeces and sat on a friend's porch and then her back yard huddled around a chiminea. It felt great and the 63 degrees is going to seem warm very soon. Let's chat.

Hi everyone,  my name is Terry Lin and I’m the Co-Founder and Chief Design Officer of Outer - an outdoor furniture company that has designed the worlds most comfortable, durable and eco-friendly outdoor sofa which press has called the “Apex of Outdoor furniture”.  We have not only reinvented the ways of thinking about outdoor sofas, but are also reimagining the the retail shopping experience through we call Neighborhood showrooms. Simply put, it Airbnb meets retail.

 

Prior to Outer, my experience spans retail and product development. From my work on design strategy at IDEO, to the development of hundreds of successful furniture designs at Pottery Barn, along with imagining new customer experiences at Walmart, my collective experience across the different categories of retail gives him a unique perspective. I have  a B.F.A in Industrial Design from the Rhode Island School of Design and currently livesin San Francisco with my wife, two kids, dog and two cats.

We live in a condo with a large but very drab patio with a cement floor and 6 foot high brick walls. I can't change either of these things. How can I make it prettier? I was thinking large plants (small trees/bushes?) in large planters. Can you suggest any sources for interesting, big planters? Want to buy new furniture too- what can stay outdoors all year? Our building is very 1960's modern- are there any styles or stores that you might recommend? Thanks!

Here are my suggestions to  transform your space from drab to fab.

 

I’m making the assumption  that you have room for an outdoor lounge in suggestions.  Find yourself and outdoor sofa that is suitable for your space. 

 

Instead of suggestions on WHERE to find great outdoor furniture since there are so many options, I  can educate you on WHAT you should look for when selecting outdoor furniture.  Outdoor furniture is designed to live outside. Of course not all outdoor furniture is going to last.  There are a lot of options. In fact, there are a lot of bad options out there.  I’ve seen to many designs that might look good in the photography but in looking at the dimensions, they have a shallow sit and are not comfortable at all. Do your homework and find the perfect “Goldilocks” sizing for you.  If there is a sofa that you love - maybe its your family room sofa or a sofa that you’ve been eyeing.  Grab a tape measure and mark what it’s seat height is and seat depth. Add those two number up and use that as a reference when you are shopping around.  

Whatever you choose, make sure to find a suitable solution to protect the cushions.  Who wants wet cushions or even worse, a wet butt because you didn’t know the cushions were wet?  Invest in a furniture cover.   

 

Find the right coffee table that compliments your sofa and is essential for having your first cup of coffee or an alfresco dinner.  A flat surface allows you to modify the space to suit your needs which makes it easier to utilize your space more.

Get yourself an outdoor rug.  Make sure it’s synthetic.  Select a design that is simple and understated. You don’t want it to drive the overall look of your space. A dominant rug design  would limit your ability to refresh the space easily.

 

Think about it this way.  You are trying to recreate your outdoor family room.  Do you have a rug or carpet in your indoor family room?   How would it feel if you didn’t have something soft underfoot?

 

The above suggestions are what I consider the foundational pieces in a space.   

 

The last and most fun part is accessorizing your space - Accent pillows, hurricane lanterns, throw blankets, stylish woven baskets (to store your blankets and pillows) decorative accessories…it’s these small items that elevate the space and give it the personality that make it comfortable and familiar.  Also, these things are are much lower in price relative to the larger foundational pieces. The lower price gives you the room to experiment and mix things up when you want to refresh your space.  Mix.  Match. Play with textures and coordinating color palettes.  Let your personality and style shine with these items.

 

As for the 6’ high concrete wall.  Plants are an absolute must.   Get plants of different heights,  different leaf shapes, different shades of green and in different planters, the wall will just fall away into the background.  This is your outdoor space.  It’s a luxury - especially in the times we are living where the only safe space is your home.   Getting outside is good for you.  Being around plants is calming.   There are many stories that I’ve read about folks who have sheltered in place and have converted the indoors into greenhouses.   Transform your concrete patio into a lush garden!

 

I follow the same recommendation that I made earlier.  Providing you with the WHAT instead of the WHERE may be more valuable.  In selecting planters. Bigger is better.   our plants need space to let their roots spread.  Small pots mean less soil. Less soil is more prone to dry out or require a lot more watering to stay healthy   Find a planter with thicker walls that help with regulating the soil temperature.  A thin walled planter would heat up quickly and your plants wouldn’t be very happy.

 

Finally, don’t forget about lighting. It makes all the difference. Bistro string lights hung across your space will make your space feel magical and allow you to extend the amount of time you can spend outside.

 

Every space starts exactly the way you have described. In an empty space, the focal point is just how you described. Once you begin to design and curate your space,  the focal point will shift.  You control where you want want the focal point to be. Your future space is limited to your creativity these tips should put you on the right track to create a stylish and cozy space that you will want to spend time in.

I am thinking about purchasing or building a fire pit. Your thoughts?

If you have the time and skills to build vs buy,  100% Build it!    We live in a disposable culture these days where we never realize the effort it takes to produce something.   When something breaks, you replace it. too many things end in the landfills because of this mentality.

 

By taking the time to understand the effort it takes to build something, you will have a much deeper appreciation of product development and manufacturing.   It also gives you the opportunity to build it with a friend, father, mother or your kid/s.  Just the effort of building it will give you an experience that will go far beyond the actual usage of your fire pit.

It also seems like this could be a project that is bucket list worthy?

How should you clean outdoor wicker?

All weather wicker is relatively easy to clean.  Its worthwhile to make sure you get HDPE wicker vs PVC wicker which will peel, crack and degrade much faster.  I start by hosing it off to get the dust and pollen and then you can make s solution of 1 part dish detergent to 3 parts water and give it a good scrub. Finish it off by hosing it down and letting it dry.

How do you keep a wooden deck safe under a fire “ dish”?

A fire pit pad should solve the problem.  https://www.thefirepitstore.com/brands/Deck-Protect.html

 If you are using a fire pit with a propane or natural gas assembly,  the design of it has a heat shield and is sitting at least 12" above the deck.  you should be good.

Terry, I saw you recently launched rugs made of plastic bottles - so exciting - how does that work?

I am proud of the latest product we've launched and yes they are made with 100% recycled pet bottles.   Sustainability is core to what we are doing.   We are by no means a big company but we still must do our part and want to continue to bring this to the forefront of the conversation.  We call the collection the 1188 collection.  1188 represents the number of bottles we use in the 9x12 rug. 

How can people in the Midwest and New England try and extend their outdoor living seasons?

Extending your outdoor living season is about identifying the reasons that are keeping you from getting outside.


The insight that we gained from the research was that the “bookends” of enjoying the outdoors - getting the furniture set up / getting it broken down and protected when you are done enjoying it - was enough reason NOT to enjoy your time outside.  Its why we create the OuterShell.  It makes protecting and transport your cushions a breeze.   


Minimize the bookends of enjoying you outdoor set up.  Quickly get your outdoor space set up and broken down like we have done with our Outer sofa, you remove the friction of getting outside.  

 

You may have created an outdoor movie night this past summer when it was a warm 75 degree night.  The only difference about having another outdoor movie night in the Fall is that it might be 30 degrees cooler. It’s easier to throw on an extra layer on a brisk day than cooling off on an oppressively hot day.

Drive-in movies are making a comeback. Make family is planning to go to a drive-in movie this weekend.    Why not make it a regular fall event for your family and friends without the drive-in part?

 Have at least a 1:1 ratio of outdoor throw blankets for your guests to keep the chill at bay.  Who doesn’t love staying cozy under a fuzzy blanket?  Consider heat lamps or a fire table to create warmth.   

Bonus if you can serve your guests a hot beverage that they can cradle between their hands.   

 

The other is light.  I love that the path of the sun is lower in the sky creating the long shadows that make me think of my childhood and that the holidays were just around the corner but that also means shorter days. Lighting up an outdoor space is must.   Even more so when you want to extend the season past Oct and into November.   

How has RISD shaped your career?

It took me a number of years to understand the value of my education at RISD.  My portfolio of projects were not nearly as polished as other designers who had graduated from other other prestigious design schools.  This was were validated by how quickly a hiring manager would flip through my work. A questioned myself and my education.   It was only years later that I realized what my education provided.  It taught me about critical thinking and problem solving through the mind of a designer.  I learned about divergent thinking without the constraints of reality.  At the time,  RISD cared more about the blue sky thinking that went into the solution more than the actual solution itself.

I eventually learned how to create polished presentations and designed products that were more appealing. If I could go back in time and give my younger self a pep talk, it would be that the way I solve problems and see the world and the opportunities to find solution is where my value is.  As I meet the next generation of designers, I take a different approach on how I evaluate them.   I care much more about the beginning and middle of the process and much less about the final result.   

Check out my article today on how to extend your life outdoors on your patio, deck or porch in this pandemic. Terry is part the story and you will see a photo of his home in San Francisco. Read it here.

How and when did you know it was the right time to start your own company? And why the outdoor category?

I never had the intention of starting a company. It was really fate (and a bit of luck) that I met my Co-Founder Jiake Liu that I might have the opportunity to build a brand. I didn’t know Jiake from a previous job, growing up or even our social circles.   In fact, we have never lived within 500 miles of each other.  I live in San Francisco and he lives in LA.   He reached out to me with a thoughtful message on LinkedIn after seeing my profile and past experiences.   I sent him a message 11 minutes late and the rest was history.

 

Outdoor furniture does sound like a seemingly arbitrary category and sometimes overlooked.    Thats where we saw the opportunity. Most people can think of a few brands in any industry.  

 We realized that even there are well established brands that have been around for decades,  we, as a challenger brand, could still gain marketshare and more importantly mindshare if we could be the brand people think of.   

 

Jiake and I have complimentary skill sets.  Outer wouldn’t exist if not for his business acumen and eternal optimism against all odds.  It also wouldn’t exist if  I wasn’t able to design product that is differentiated and solves a problem that has not been solved.  Bottom line is this.  We wouldn’t have gotten where we are today with the skills that we bring, the interactions and most importantly the alignment of values of what we are trying to build.

I'm trying to figure out what color cushions to get on new outdoor furniture. I don't want white or tan as they get too dirty. What is a good color to go with - blue? green? something gray?

This is an age old problem.   The lifestyle shots you see along with the perfect outdoor lounge that you might think of in your minds eye is at a fancy resort is often white fabric.    Dreamy but in reality, hard to maintain.   I am of the mindset that outdoor fabrics on furniture should be neutral which opens up the possibilities beyond khaki or taupe.   I suggest Navy or Grey. My personal preference is grey as it is much easier to coordinate with many color palettes.   If you can, try to find a fabric that is not just a solid color or piece-dyed.   Having variations in color help with creating a little more visual interest.  It also helps with hiding the dirt and stains that happen in life.  Check out the grey fabric on the Outer furniture so you see what I'm referring to with the variation in threads. www.liveouter.com

Hi - sorry for the off topic question, but hoping you can help. We are moving into a ski home which currently has a lot of yellow wood - namely the ceiling has wood planks with a very yellow/orange undertone. We were thinking of painting that portion white (leaving the dark brown support beams). The main room is north facing, so can you recommend a white paint that won't read cold or yellow given the lighting? I'd prefer something in the Benjamin Moore line as we're already using them for other rooms.

Thats a great to refresh the space and update the color.  The white will certainly make your space feel more spacious.  I wouldn't recommend a stark white color and suggest you look into Eggshell. It's always worthwhile to pick up a test pint or quarter and see how the color looks.  Make sure that you have enough coverage since color is relative. the color will look very different depending on how much of the yellow/orange planks you see.  

Hi. We have a brick patio in our backyard that we'd like to remove. The bricks were cemented (?) in. Any advice on how to remove this? Is it something we can do ourselves? Thanks!

A cemented brick patio is more than just a weekend project beyond the blood, sweat and tears.  Do you have a concrete pad that the bricks are resting on?  You'll have to invest in the right tools to make it easy and also manage the logistics of getting the bricks out of your backyard.   I would suggest that you save your energy for the creative part of figuring out what your future space will be.

How did you know you wanted to be a designer?

I knew early on that my passion was something in design.  I was your average student when it came to math, science and history.  Where I did stand out was in art and design. I was lucky that my parents didn't push down a normal career path.  At one point while at RISD, I even considered becoming a ceramicist.  That might alarm many parents but my parents said to finish my industrial design degree first.  There is a term that I love called IKIGAI.   Its a concept that talks about finding the intersection between what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs and what you can get paid for.  I am fortunate that I was able to find my IKIGAI.

Do you have anything new and exciting coming out?

We are busy finalizing new products that we plan on launching at the end of this year and next Spring.   We are rounding out the assortment to help you build out your outdoor lounge and will also begin testing the waters in dining.   We are going to expanding into time tested materials that I am personally very excited about!

We've got a tiny outdoor deck with room for two small chairs and a table, and maybe a few plants. How could we add some spice to it? And any suggestions for improving privacy?

Great question.  If you search on Pinterest for small outdoor spaces that appeal to you.  You will find a pattern on things that catch your attention.  Its all about layering and adding visual interest.   Your small table and chairs are the foundation.  Start adding to it!    Drape a outdoor throw on your chair.  Get a small area rug.   Put a bud vase with some flowers you picked.   Its all about adding layers and contrast.  The plants will break up the manufactured lines with something organic.  As you layer on with these suggestions, you'll see how quickly you can transform your space into something IG worthy.

Thank you Terri. I have already ordered the Edison string lights that you recommended in my story! Thanks for all your help today. Next week I have Tara Shaw talking about using antiques and vintage in a modern home. Click here to send in questions. Stay warm all.

Mosquitos are killing my outdoor hangout vibe, what suggestions do you have for enjoying outdoor lounging without being eaten alive?

An insight that we are working on!   As an outdoor furniture company,  we know that having a comfortable outdoor lounge is paramount to spending more time outdoors.  We started with comfort and thought about the way we designed our cushions.   Comfort goes beyond just how comfortable the seat is but the biting mosquitoes and no see ums.   We are working on a eco friendly solution to this right now.   To try to solve this problem. Think about the root cause and work on solving for these.  Mosquitoes are attracted to CO2.    There are a number of solutions that make the CO2 that they output more appealing than the CO2 that you put out.  The company that comes to mind is Therma Cell but there are many others.   If you can, try to eliminate any standing water in the area.  There are also setups where you can setup a perimeter to keep the mosquitoes at bay.   Of course, there is the option of using pesticides that are effective, but that comes at the expense of spraying harmful chemicals.  I would also look into solutions that use Permethrin.  Thats a great eco-friendly alternative to Deet.

 

Are they made in the USA?

Outer's all weather wicker furniture is crafted in China.  The area that it is produced is known for two things - the bamboo forests and the weavers that have used theis medium to earn a living.  We had to go where the artisans are.  Each chair takes an average of 10 hours to weave and does not include the cutting, welding and powder coating of the aluminum frame or the cutting and sewing of the cushions.   The Corner chair uses 1/2 mile of all weather wicker.   The Armless chair uses 1/3 mile of all weather wicker.  The time needed to produce each chair would be prohibitively expensive to produce in the US as well as the ability to find artisans weavers that have the experience and trade-craft to produce this  furniture.

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily Twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering and organizing.

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