It’s the glorious days of summer, so let’s live outdoors!

People live in the Flathead Valley for its wild, rugged setting. The incredible outdoor world of mountains, lakes, forests, and rivers sustains our spirits. When the snow melts and the temperatures warm, it’s time to move outside and stay outside. There’s no need to head into the house when the sun starts to drop and neighbors flick the porch lights on and off and whistle for kids. Instead, gather around the fire pit in comfortable lounge chairs, study the stars, dabble in refreshments, and swap stories.

In the past, enjoying a yard meant merely looking at it and appreciating the visual beauty. Now yard space is a place to occupy—to live. The current approach to outdoor living is to create outdoor rooms that mimic what we have indoors. Patios have soft, comfortable places to sit and converse, outdoor kitchens turn out fabulous meals without losing the host or hostess to the indoor kitchen, and there are spots for dining al fresco by firelight. The outdoors lends itself to casually and comfortably entertaining friends and generations of family. Families are more comfortable coming over for dinner when the children can run free and play. And because it’s outdoors, there are pools, spas, docks, boats, fire pits, lawns, and sports courts to make it all the more enjoyable.

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Natural Connections

“The outdoors is really why we’re here in Montana,” asserts Dave Radatti, a partner of Mindful Designs, a custom builder based in Whitefish. “It’s the property that’s really important, and we design and build custom homes that extend fluidly to the outdoors to capture views and the features that make the property so special. Even with a very small home, a covered outdoor living space that flows from inside out makes it a remarkable place to live.”

The site for a home is so important, Radatti explains, that Mindful Designs offers to assist in the search for the property for new homes. “We can compare lots, estimate infrastructure costs, and discuss the opportunities the land offers for outdoor living.”

The views and connections to the outdoors play an important role in the design process. Mindful Designs begins with a rough bubble diagram that takes in key factors including solar exposure and views, trees, and outdoor space. The bubbles define spatial organization, and then the structure is designed around this organization.

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“The clean lines of modern design come together beautifully with the organic landscape, whether it is rustic-modern or mountain-modern.”
––Dave Radatti, Mindful Designs

“The views include not just the local vistas like the trees and nearby ridgelines, but the vast views and horizons beyond,” adds Radatti, speaking of the intentionality of the design process.

The art of designing homes on properties in beautiful locations lies in establishing connections. “We create visual connections by continuing materials and lines through glass,” says Radatti. Examples are a continuation of the roofline outside into an overhang with the same ceiling material underneath, durable flooring materials going from the inside to the outside, walls extending outside, and of course, lots and lots of glass.

Products are available to open up walls with accordion and lift-and-slide doors. Once only common in warm climates like Arizona, now there is interest in building with them in mountain states. “It is so hard to generalize whether a product will work here because there is so much variation. We sometimes use them with great success, but it depends on the location and the goals of the homeowner for energy performance, budget, when they will be spending time in the home, and lifestyle. At lower elevations, many people prefer screens and even screened porches depending on the number of mosquitos and people’s aversion to them. Sliding doors with screens can open up spans as wide as 12 feet and still offer protection. We can sort out pros and cons with clients and make recommendations for the door systems that will work best for them and the home. For an upcoming fantastic luxury home project, for example, we are pursuing European structural frameless (that’s right, frameless!) sliding glass wall systems. These architecturally mind-blowing sliding glass wall systems actually meet passive house standards when it comes to performance.”

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Radatti sees design preferences generally moving to modern: lean and clean. “The clean lines of modern design come together beautifully with the organic landscape, whether it is rustic-modern or mountain-modern. Mindful Designs has been moving toward modern for a long time and has found that we can achieve higher energy performance and build more economically than in the past. The homes are thoughtful and comfortable with dramatic effects where it is most felt and appreciated.”

Other architectural connections to the outdoors vary by site, design of the home, and the clients. “We have a toolbox of methods to unite the home, screen out neighboring homes, and to highlight the best views. So much of what we do depends on the site, conditions, and what the client wants. For example, with a home sited near a lake, we can make the visuals and the outdoor spaces seem to flow into the water,” Radatti explains. “It is different from a treetop home with steep drop-offs, but the common thread is the elimination of all sense of separateness, while still maintaining an intimacy of a contained space. It sounds like a contradiction, but designing and building for outdoor living is a balance.”

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Functional Combines with Aesthetics

As interiors connect with exteriors, outdoor living spaces are a natural design extension for Whitefish interior design firm Hunter & Company. Hunter Dominick, Allied ASID, founded the design firm, which is located in a 3,500-square-foot showroom on Wisconsin Avenue in Whitefish. “We are a full-service interior architecture and design firm, and we work closely with clients, architects, builders, and landscape architects on new construction, remodels, and project work,” Dominick explains.

“Exterior living is a continuation of interiors,” Dominick says. “The design addresses the function of the space. Naturally, we focus on hardscape finishes, but there are other considerations such as colors, lighting and light fixtures, and, of course, furnishings and accessories. Our goal is to combine the functional with the aesthetics. We design functional performance from the ground up: floors, cabinets, trim, the color of the windows, placement and swing of the doors, and even outlets. With these structural and practical details carefully thought through, the home feels and functions as a whole.”

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There are commonalities to Hunter & Company’s designs. One is connecting the interior and exterior spaces, and at times, they even seem to merge. “There has to be an easy flow, both practically and visually. Wide doors and ample glass establish connections, but also we repeat finishes. An example is extending flagging or limestone flooring from the inside to the outside. Also, the colors and the textures of the landscape, like tall grasses or hydrangeas, inspire the colors both inside and outside the home. We take inspiration from the surrounding plants, grasses, flowers, and garden edibles. When the outdoor setting makes such a strong statement, it benefits both the indoor and outdoor spaces to draw upon it.”

While there are similarities among outdoor designs, there are also strong differences. The site drives the exterior living spaces and the Flathead Valley offers a range of different living environments. “It is so hard to generalize how we approach an outdoor design,” Dominick responds. “We approach a lakeside home with wide patio spaces differently than we would a home on a steep mountainside lot where by necessity, the outdoor living is deck space.”

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A glimpse at some of Hunter & Company’s completed projects demonstrates the variation in outdoor lifestyles. In one, the ceiling and beams from the inside continue to a covered seating area around a stone fireplace. In another, the dining area and fireplace seem to hover over the lake. Glass doors open and disappear to connect to areas covered by a pergola. In a contrast, a high treetop deck eye-level with the ski run has a seating area that rivals the most elegant of living rooms.

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Responding to the mention of the elegant outdoor living room furnishings, Dominick says, “Outdoor furniture no longer looks like patio furniture of the past. Now, we can create comfortable upholstered lounging areas, and the sofas are just as luxurious as they are in the living room. Clients are asking for comfortable outdoor gathering spaces to enjoy our incredible summers, long lingering sunshine, and late evening sunsets with friends and family. While we have a harsh climate for fabrics, there are some wonderful new products like colorfast chenille and acrylic-dyed materials that can bring luxurious fabrics outside. With sumptuous furniture, decorative and ambient lighting, and a fireplace or fire pit, outdoor living can create some treasured moments.”

“It is so hard to generalize how we approach an outdoor design. We approach a lakeside home with wide patio spaces differently than we would a home on a steep mountainside lot where by necessity, the outdoor living is deck space.”
–Hunter Dominick, Hunter & Company

Elegant Concrete Surfaces

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Drawing upon his background in design and construction, Johnny Neal founded Woven 3 Design, maker of architectural concrete. Fusing technical skill and artistry, Woven 3 Design creates lasting original pieces: seamless surfaces, walls and wall panels, three-dimensional concrete tiles, countertops, sinks, built-in and freestanding furniture, and other architectural concrete accents. Considering the needs for durability to withstand the year-round weather in Flathead Valley, concrete might be the perfect material for exterior living spaces.

“Any concrete surface creates a timelessness in the space…it flows into malleable shapes that are highly compatible with materials like iron, other metals, and wood.”
–Johnny Neal, Woven 3 Design

“Any concrete surface creates a timelessness in the space. In itself, concrete is plastic and easily molded to custom shapes, and with proper design, it flows into malleable shapes that are highly compatible with materials like iron, other metals, and wood,” Neal explains. “We have techniques like casting concrete with glass fiber that eliminate risks for cracking. It’s also tough. I built a 16-foot-long seamless countertop adjacent to a grill. There are no concerns about heat; the concrete is rated for 700 degrees.”

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Some of the biggest advances in concrete have been the new pigments to add color to the concrete and advances in sealers. Neal agrees that these products have made a difference. “The mix designs protect the concrete extremely well during freeze-thaw cycles, and there is no longer peeling or yellowing of the finish. The colors add new options for our designs.” As demonstration of this point, for one client, Neal created a tabletop with a striking original geometric design of a rabbit using influences from Native American art.

Creating something innovative and creative is at the heart of Woven 3 Design. A recent project features a vertical concrete carving with the look of a monolith. “It mimics the look of natural stone—perhaps impossible to tell the difference.”

“Mix designs protect the concrete extremely well during freeze-thaw cycles, and there is no longer peeling or yellowing of the finish.”
–Johnny Neal, Woven 3 Design

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Even custom sinks are one-offs. Neal mentions that he really enjoyed innovating a recent sink at project at Flathead Lake with an infinity edge and strip drain. Other products he is having fun creating are three-dimensional concrete tiles. “They’re vibrant and create interest on what could be a plain wall.” Concrete walls are one of the techniques architects and landscape designers use to address grade changes, to screen other homes or perhaps roads, and to provide privacy. Woven 3 Design can add decorative elements to these walls or add built-in concrete benches. And while concrete may not be the first material one thinks about for outdoor furniture, Neal has some striking furniture he designs and builds by combining other materials with the concrete with exquisite cushions to add comfort.

The Flathead Valley is a good fit for Woven 3 Design and Neal’s creative talents. “It provides wonderful opportunities for me to design elements, such as creating a modern ski chalet,” says Neal. “Concrete designs go very well with mountain modern, and they share a flavor of Frank Lloyd Wright’s mid-century designs: minimalist, clean, and subtle. Concrete architectural elements fit very well into all these styles.”

“Concrete designs go very well with mountain modern, and they share a flavor of Frank Lloyd Wright’s mid-century designs: minimalist, clean, and subtle.”
–Johnny Neal, Woven 3 Design

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Furniture Favorites.

Founded in 1978, Wright’s Furniture in Whitefish is more than a furniture store with a focus on service. It is both a local tradition and the town’s eyes and ears on what is new and fresh. With the long days of summer finally here, Wright’s 60,000-square-foot showroom and warehouse is a place to browse for just the right piece of outdoor furniture.

Kyle and Alana Wright are the third generation of the family to work at the store. Kyle describes the kinds of furnishings for outdoor living to be found at the store: “We carry a wide selection of furnishings to meet the needs of the many ways people enjoy their outdoor living spaces. These furnishings include dining sets, deep seating, accent chairs, chaise longues, benches, and occasional tables. Furnishings come in many different durable materials suitable to withstand local weather conditions, such as resin wicker,  cast aluminum, wrought iron, and teak.”

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Alana adds, “We also have outdoor area rugs, throw pillows, umbrellas, fire tables, and lighting. Our styles range all the way from rustic to modern, so I am confident we have something perfect for any client. We have some items available in stock and many more options and styles available for special order.”

Kyle explains that Wright’s furniture offers in-house design service at no cost. In addition, Wright’s Furniture will deliver for free and set up the furniture. “We recognize that many homeowners travel, and we want to make receiving the furniture as simple as possible. We offer many styles, fabrics, and finish options, so people can personalize their outdoor spaces to fit their individual styles and the overall home design.”

“We offer many styles, fabrics, and finish options, so people can personalize their outdoor spaces to fit their individual styles and the overall home design.”
–Kyle Wright, Wright’s Furniture

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What advice do you have for people shopping for furniture for patios and decks? Alana, who works in design, answers with this list:

  • Choose luxury outdoor furniture and fabrics that reflect the style and color of the home’s interior.
  • Explore colors that work together to establish a smooth flow with a defining theme.
  • Use accessories to tie larger elements of the design together.
  • Consider the garden and surrounding foliage when making choices for planters and fabric selections.
  • Be flexible in choices for outdoor spaces. For example, use a variety of seating options by intermixing benches, chairs, and lounges.

Alana notes that the bright sun and moisture in outdoor spaces can take a toll on fabrics, but there are fabrics that fare much better outdoors. “I advise checking the UV exposure rating, which indicates resistance to fading. Also, products can be waterproof or they can be water-resistant; they are not the same. Anything can happen to a fabric outside, so I would also look for fabrics resistant to mold and mildew and resistant to stains. I would also evaluate how the fabric can be cleaned and the amount of maintenance required.”

“There are some exciting trends in luxury outdoor furniture,” adds Alana. “One that stands out is mixed material design. By that, I mean pairings: wood and resin, wood and iron, and stainless steel and teak. Another trend, rustic contemporary style, combines modern seat materials and colors with the look of hand-hewn wood embellished by materials such as chicken wire, stone, or weathered metals. This trend allows for daring exploration and experimentation in the design of outdoor spaces, especially when addressing the challenge of deviations from precisely matching styles while maintaining a cohesive flow at the same time.”

Alana continues. “Another exterior design trend that combines quiet sophistication with a relaxed lifestyle is modular outdoor suites. The suite typically is comprised of a double-seat couch, slipper couch, coffee table, and standard ottoman.  Multi-purpose bolsters are movable and can be used as pillows, armrests, or separators. For enjoying our summers, I particularly like outdoor daybeds for the perfect place to nap, read, sunbathe, or meditate on nature’s wonders.”

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Kyle adds, “I like the versatility and natural appeal of rattan and wicker. Always favorite materials, now new fibers make them more durable.”

It seems that enjoying time outside has become even more precious. Advances in designs, materials, products, and furnishings have kept up with the demand to live better outside.

“I advise checking the UV exposure rating, which indicates resistance to fading. Also, products can be waterproof or they can be water- resistant; they are not the same.”
–Alana Wright, Wright’s Furniture