When interior designer Kyra Williams lived in Paris, she was always happy to see her fellow city dwellers perched on their balconies, enjoying coffee with friends. “If you’re in the heart of an amazing city, your apartment is probably really tiny, so real estate is important,” says Williams, lead designer for San Francisco-based Bungalow, a home rental start-up. Even the smallest, narrowest balcony can be a great place to relax and entertain. “Consider your balcony part of the square footage of your space and really utilize it.”
Here’s how to transform your postage-stamp-size balcony into an outdoor oasis, according to experts.
“Whenever I go into designing a space, I really try to think about how the people living in that space are going to use it,” Williams says. The needs of someone who aims to create a cozy reading nook for one will differ from those of someone looking to host outdoor gatherings. If you want a space to fill more than one role, consider multifunctional or adjustable pieces that can be moved around as needed.
To get the most seating out of narrow, rectangular balconies, Williams suggests lining a long bench with cushions. “That way you could seat five or six people, whereas a table and chairs can really only seat two.” Storage benches such as Ikea’s wood-stained Applaro bench ($70, ikea.com) can be used to stow items and can be repositioned (keep in mind that it’s best to store items inside if you’re worried about them staying dry). For those on a shoestring budget, she says, you could buy stackable storage crates from Michael’s and layer with cushions to create DIY seating and storage.
Cynthia Hoyt, the Atlanta-based creative director of the Darling Down South blog, agrees: “You can turn basically anything into a dining situation,” she says. (She once threw a tablecloth over a moving box for a temporary outdoor dining surface at an old apartment.) If you’re faced with the choice of a table set or lounge seating area due to space constraints, Hoyt would prioritize a casual seating area and add a small table, especially if you already have a dining area inside.
Williams likes metal or ceramic garden stools, which can be used as end tables or as additional seating indoors or outdoors.
For long, narrow balconies that wouldn’t fit a table and chairs comfortably, Williams suggests a bar top that either slides on top of the railing or stands against it (check with your landlord or condo association to see whether it’s okay to hang items off the balcony or on the railings). She checks Etsy for bar tops that are customizable and made by local artisans. “You can fit more people without giving up any of the floor space,” she says.
Williams suggests Christopher Knight Home’s Caribbean Three-Piece Acacia Wood Patio Bar Set ($279.99 at Target) or Ikea’s Applaro set of two bar stools and a table ($229). She also likes the classic bistro look she saw so much of in Paris, if space allows. “If you have a bigger space or a square space, I love a good round cafe table with some chairs,” she says.
If you only need to seat one person, Williams says, a hammock or hanging egg chair is a fun option. There are numerous ways to hang one from the ceiling (check the architecture of your space and the rules of your rental agreement), and many come with stands that don’t rely on the building for support.
Plants can beautify small outdoor spaces. Williams personally loves red geraniums (she spotted the flowers in windowboxes everywhere in Paris) and herbs. To find out what plants are suited to the climate you live in, check with local nurseries for recommendations and consult the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Plant Hardiness Zone map. Hoyt suggests considering the amount of sunlight the balcony gets. If you’re short on floor space, Williams suggests using planters that attach to railings or hang from the ceiling, such as Crate and Barrel’s Alfresco Rectangular Rail Planter ($49.95).
Hoyt has a potted rosebush and likes the look of the cascading tendrils on pothos vines (also called “Devil’s ivy”) hung from the ceiling or on a high shelf. She also likes to position odd numbers of plants in rows. “You can find a lot of really affordable, amazing hanging wall planters to pot herbs in,” she says. “If you have three plants, you could have three in a row, and it feels balanced.”
It can be hard to get privacy on the balcony of a high-rise apartment building. “I think a lot of people maybe don’t use their balcony because it doesn’t feel private,” she says. Plants and screens can help. “Plants not only look beautiful, but they also give a sense of calm.” Station taller potted plants that grow straight up, such as bamboo, or climbing plants such as a vine or jasmine, near the edge of a balcony to create a natural barrier.
For those who don’t possess a green thumb, a patterned metal or wrought-iron privacy screen, such as Pottery Barn’s Veradek privacy screen ($399) provides visual interest and privacy without blocking sunlight, breezes or your view. Hoyt suggests adding roll-down shades or hanging linen or canvas curtains on a tension rod or with zip ties for retractable privacy and a little added protection from bugs.
Both Hoyt and Williams suggest adding additional light sources beyond the wall sconce that probably came with your balcony. Stick with LED lights that are meant for outdoors and add different levels of lighting to create a layered, cozy look.
“If you’re renting an apartment you might not be able to paint or completely change the floors or get rid of a weird built-in thing, but if there’s a light fixture out there that’s not really your style, you could change out the lightbulb or get a new sconce,” Hoyt says. “Personally I think that literally every outdoor space should have bistro lights.” She says to look for solar-powered or battery-powered LED string lights to cut down on ugly cords running into the house and through the space.
“If you have an overhead lantern and it’s really ugly, string some lights around it as the centerpiece,” Williams says, with the strings extending out like the spokes of a wheel. Alternatively, she suggests zigzagging string lights across the top of the balcony to create a roof of soft light. Williams also suggests placing battery-operated tea lights inside clear, square lanterns (such as World Market’s Black Windowpane Cargo Lantern, $34.99 to $59.99) on the ground and on tables to create low light. “Get multiple heights, a shorter one and a taller one next to it, to move the eye around the space and make it a little more interesting,” she says. Hoyt likes to mix and match shapes and colors and advises buying one lantern that has an interesting design element, such as intricate cutouts. Williams likes World Market and Restoration Hardware for outdoor lights, and Hoyt suggests Target or Costco.
Both Hoyt and Wiliams suggest buying bulbs that emit warm white light, rather than severe yellow or white light. “It brings more warmth and coziness and a more romantic atmosphere, as opposed to the bright light, which to me feels more hospitable-like and not welcoming,” Williams says.
Your average apartment balcony is likely to start out cold and dreary, with ugly concrete floors and metal railings. Williams suggests covering the floor with flat-weave outdoor rugs, natural-woven fiber rugs (try jute, sisal or sea grass for a tropical look) or wood decking that snaps together for easy assembly (Williams suggests something such as Ikea’s Runnen decking, $2.87 per square foot). These pieces make the space look more complete and create extra cushion underfoot. “Rugs are your friend,” Hoyt says. “Buy as many affordable rugs as you can and layer those different textures. That way you have a little more visual interest and it starts to feel more unique to you.”
Pillows and throws make for a cozy finishing touch. Hoyt likes linen and woven fabrics for thick material that won’t stain. For cushions and pillows that stand up to weather and wear, Williams swears by pieces constructed of Sunbrella, a durable fabric that won’t fade in the sun. However, Hoyt and Williams both say you can bring indoor textiles outdoors easily, as long as you remember to bring them inside and shake off any dust when you’re done.