“Fire is more than keeping people warm,” says exterior designer Scott Shrader. “It’s about getting people out and keeping them out.” Shrader is addressing a dilemma common to garden lovers: After spending time and money creating a livable masterpiece, a cold north wind can ruin a garden party or a solo contemplative evening. The solution, fortunately, is as old as society itself. Fire—flickering from a garden’s outdoor fireplace, fire pit, or a flame-filled bowl, table, or trough—is one of humanity’s primal attractions. Once we are ensnared, it exploits our love for warmth, conversation, and canapés. A fire is an ancestral meeting place, a source of comfort, a mesmerizing play of light. Fire is the star of any room indoors, and when placed outside, it creates a room around itself. But there’s a lot more to designing a welcoming space than dropping firewood into a terra cotta bowl in the backyard. Being properly primal takes some planning.

In this fireplace by Santa Fe, New Mexico, architect Trey Jordan, an open corner makes the flame visible from angles inside and outside of the house. Photo by: Dominique Vorillon.

“Fires activate a space, make it useable,” says Sheri Sanzone of Bluegreen, a landscape architecture firm in Aspen, Colorado, where mountain nights are chilly throughout the summer, and winter begins to make itself known in September. “We ask, ‘How do you imagine using fire?’” If clients don’t have a clear answer, it usually falls away from the design. “Yes, it’s visual and aesthetic, but fire needs to serve a purpose,” she says. For some, that’s a quiet, seated evening with wine and a view. For others, it’s frequent parties for dozens of mingling guests.

“Start inside the house, and create a focal point outside that gives a person a reason to go out,” says Shrader. Once you have people in an outdoor space, he notes, you have to take care of them, giving them a comfortable place to sit and space to put down a drink and a plate of food.

David Kelly of New York City’s Rees Roberts + Partners has integrated fire into the landscapes of sprawling upstate New York farms, where he makes a point of building his spaces into the natural topography, where guests feel nestled and protected. “Tucked into a berm with pillows and built-in benches, it becomes chic camping and takes you back to childhood,” says Kelly. Much of that intimacy comes from the shape of the design. “A fireplace is like a TV, with people gathered in front,” says Jeffrey Gordon Smith. “With a fire pit, people look into each other’s eyes.” There are practical considerations, as well — what a wall of fireplace may lose in social interactivity, it may gain in hiding a neighbor’s hideous garage.

Though the basic function of an outdoor fire is Paleolithic, today’s designs are anything but. Just about any heat-resistant material can be configured to hold a flame, and natural gas technology makes the experience effortless and clean. Randy Thueme, a California landscape architect, points out that fire features need to function as sculptural or structural elements within the design. “A fireplace, when it’s not in use, is just a fireplace not in use,” he says. Thueme designs fire pits with wide lips for drinks or feet at a comfortable height from the ground, where they function as tables when not alight.

For safety reasons, fire elements are placed on hardscape, but that can mean anything from a geometric expanse of slate to the Zen informality of gravel. A fire pit shouldn’t be built downslope from untended vegetation, and nothing remotely flammable should come close to overhanging the area, but fire in the garden—especially with gas-fueled designs—is a very safe proposition.

“Though,” notes Smith, “the element of danger is part of the appeal; some people are simply pyromaniacs.”

A linear fireplace preserves this backyard’s view
Designed by Emily Rylander of Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture

Old-growth Monterey cypress shield the area from coastal breezes while a hedge of Leptospermum secrets the driveway. The flame of the fire lures people directly from the interior living room, and paths entice them to an adjacent outdoor kitchen and dining area. Photo by: Marion Brenner.

“It’s tricky balancing fire and views,” says Emily Rylander of Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture. “You want to put people in one direction, but they want to gather around the flame. For this house near the 18th hole of Pebble Beach in California, Rylander placed a linear feature between guests and the Pacific Ocean, preserving the view in a way that a round or square structure wouldn’t. The Pacific is gorgeous but also dark, stormy, and cold. If fog creeps in, a gas fire in a split-faced limestone trough helps battle the chill.

Warm fire and cool water balance on an interior courtyard
Designed by Pamela Palmer of Artecho

The gently weathered Cor-Ten surface contrast with the stainless steel, which reflects the light and heat of the flame. A fence serves as backdrop to the courtyard and hides and imposing neighboring structure. Weaver’s bamboo is under-planted with black mondo. Photo by: Jack Coyier.

It’s not an object; it’s a space,” says landscape architect Pamela Palmer of Artecho, of an outdoor fire. In this entry courtyard of a California residence, a ruggedly weathered monolith of patinated Cor-Ten steel entices guests to gather around a gas flame dancing over glass pebbles.

The house was built in the ’50s and fills its lot from side-to-side, except for this courtyard and another to the rear of the home. The space serves as both entry and oasis and can be accessed through an outdoor hallway, the kitchen, the living room, or the office. “I wanted to create an experience of light, air, comfort, and beauty for the family and their friends, whether it’s one person or 10 or 100,” she says.

“I shifted my professional practice from studio art—sculpture, printmaking, glass-blowing, photography, et cetera—to landscape architecture because I wanted people to be able to inhabit my work,” says Palmer. She’s not shy about inviting them in, using materials selected for their warm hues and textures and ability to weather well. She also provides a careful mix of those basic elements—echoing the ancient Greeks—of earth, air, water, and fire.

High-temperature glass is the medium of choice in most modern gas fires. Though it can be costly, it’s beautiful even when the fire isn’t lit. It comes in a variety of shades and multicolor mixtures and in shapes from tiny pebbles to jelly beans to cracked glass. California landscape architect Jeffrey Gordon Smith praises its efficiency, “Glass can superheat up to 1,000 degrees, and yet it cools in 15 or 20 minutes; it’s much more efficient than lava rocks or concrete fake logs.” Glass can also speak to other passions of the owners—Smith once filled a fire table with glass made from recycled red wine bottles for a client who has been known to empty a few.

A dramatic fireplace offers a glamorous backyard retreat
Designed by Jay Griffith

Lush greenery surrounds the patio, contrasting with the stark white face of the fireplace, which is framed by tall plants behind. The fireplace was inspired by the work of Mexican architect Luis Barragán, and its proportions are based on the golden mean. Photo by: Steve Gunther/MMGI.

Jay Griffith’s dad was in movies, and he grew up in the back lot. Everyone was sure he’d become a set designer—he was a prodigy in painting and sculpture with a natural understanding of three-dimensional design. “But I grew my own wings,” he laughs. Instead, he ended up as a garden designer, often working for the directors and actors he would have built movie sets for had he not followed a greener path. The jobs aren’t all that different, he says.

Here, Griffith sets the stage with this fireplace and the room it creates. “In the great Hollywood tradition, everything is composed to woo you into a quagmire of indolence,” Griffith says. In addition to this outdoor living room, there is also an outdoor dining room, bathroom, and bedroom. “But the sole function of this area is s’mores and smooching,” he says.

This room was built behind Griffith’s own home more than two decades ago. The house was mostly glass, and Griffith faced a choice of taking up a wall with a fireplace or with a painting. “I opted for art and put the fireplace outdoors,” he says. The spot is raised 18 inches above the garden plane to give a dramatic overview of the garden from the sofa. “I spent lots of weekends in front of that fireplace,” Griffith recalls. “I loved getting to set fire to stuff on a regular basis.”

Were he to build this outdoor room today, Griffith would have opted for gas. (“I could drive to Vegas for this particular carbon footprint,” he says.) Of course, air quality regulations wouldn’t have given him the choice. But other landscape architects love wood. Kelly says, “It’s primal—it offers sound and scent that you don’t get with gas. It’s ever-changing and untamable.”

A hidden treasure and a magnificent view await on a wooded hill
Designed by Jeff Andrews

The fire sits in a 12-foot circle of flagstone and gravel, the same materials used for the path that winds up to this cozy hideaway. Rounded chunks of lava stone break up the sleek design giving the fire pit a more authentic, rustic feel. Photo by: Tim Street-Porter.

A lucky home shopper in the hills of Southern California managed to find two adjoining lots, one directly uphill from the other, and built his house on the lower lot. Interior designer Jeff Andrews knew he had to take advantage of the view offered from the portion of the property above the roofline.

“This area gives a view of the whole city,” Andrews says. “We wanted it to be a secret destination, separate of the everyday yard.” To that end, a gravel and flagstone path rises from the house below into the lush landscape, ending at an engaging entertaining space and a magnificent vista.

“It’s mostly an evening getaway for a glass of wine, but when the homeowners entertain, the place is full of people,” he says. The design accommodates both uses: When a crowd gathers, they instinctively circle around the campfire-like central structure; when it’s just a few people, they curl up on the built-in bench and peer over the flames into the valley. The cast-concrete sofa does double duty, Andrews notes, “Throw on the cushions, and it’s good to go; when they aren’t there, it works as a sculptural element that blends into the landscape.”

Andrews is a fan of fire, no matter the situation. “[Fires] are always appropriate, one way or another,” he says. He even adds small fire bowls to hemmed-in courtyards that lack such amazing views. “In the end, fire simply draws you in,” he says. “There’s nothing quite as comforting.”

Lava rock is the old standby in gas fires, but today’s options are a far cry from the briquettes that used to line the bottom of propane grills. Rocks of all sizes and shapes are available, in a variety of natural colors from terra cotta to charcoal gray. Other stones work, as well, though anything porous enough to absorb water may crack or explode when heated. Other materials that radiate heat—from links of iron chain or custom-made ironwork, to that much-maligned fake log—can add height and break up the flame to more closely mimic the look of a wood fire.

Backyard Landscaping

Scott Shrader, Shrader Design
Trey Jordan
Sheri Sanzone, Bluegreen
David Kelly, Rees Roberts & Partners
Jeffrey Gordon Smith
Randy Thueme
Emily Rylander, Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture
Pamela Palmer, Artecho
Jay Griffith
Jeff Andrews

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