Condo Living

July 20, 2018 Published by Toronto and Area Chapter - By Frederick Hann

The No-Style Trap

From the Summer 2018 issue of the CCI Toronto Condovoice Magazine.

I've seen it many times, visiting with the owners of a gorgeous, beautifully appointed condo. They are unhappy with their balcony. They've chosen high quality pieces of furniture and accessories, but they not really enjoying their outdoor space. "It just isn't coming together very well. Something seems to be missing," they tell me. "What can be done?" They look at me somewhat discouraged, and definitely frustrated.

I can see the problem right away: the furniture proportions are off; the accessories are either too drab or too demanding; or the decking colour is dark while the flooring inside is light. Unknowingly, they have fallen into what I call the No-Style Trap. And as a result, their experience of their balcony is unfulfilling. But it need not be.

Identifying and knowing your style is key to avoiding the No-Style Trap. Style doesn't mean that everything has to match or be from the same collection. You want the choices you make to express something about you, who you are and how you wish to be seen. You express your style in how you decorate your home, the clothes you wear, the car you drive, your choice of a watch and jewelry.

The Emotion of Style

We are attracted to places and things in our life where there is a harmony of parts, and that touch our emotions. When we see beautiful things, made with care and quality materials, we are left with the warm feeling of appreciation, possibly a little yearning desire, and maybe a twinge of dissatisfaction with our current life.

Imagine this: you're in the outdoor furniture showroom and are enticed when you rub the fabric of a beautiful lounge chair. The colour is lovely and it feels so good! You find it attractive because we are visual, tactile creatures, and the furniture piece is pleasurable to touch. The desirability of that chair includes not only the way it looks and feels, but what it reminds you of – a wonderful holiday perhaps, or a lifestyle you dream of. When you are aware of your style, its much easier to choose components (the chair and also accessories, decking, and lighting) so the interplay of their aesthetics work together to evoke a satisfying richness of memory, aspiration, emotion and experience. They make you feel good and reflect you and what matters to you. Knowing your style, understanding what makes things fit together, is an incredibly powerful tool for making truly satisfying choices. Your style is what

If you strive to create an enticing and beautiful living room or bedroom, why would you accept that your balcony or terrace be bare, bleak, boring concrete or tile, or a poorly assembled arrangement of disparate parts?

Is it Design or Style?

Let's step back for just a moment to share some understanding of the often-employed terms of "design" and "style". Design is a way of solving problems, and humans have been designing their world for many centuries: a stick whittled to a point, or a stone chipped away to make an arrowhead, is design. An effective design can be realized in different materials, cheaply or with care and craft, and still be a good design. Design is practical, and usually 'form follows function". But design on its own can feel impersonal.

Style is largely shaped by culture. For example, its not unusual for different cultures to attach different meanings to a colour, pattern, or shape, which could make that colour (or pattern or shape) more or less acceptable. In other words, style carries a cultural message. The message can be associated with an era in time, a geographic location, a social class, or a lifestyle. Style captures the personal and emotional – "I like that", "That's me!" – so that "form follows emotion". The emotion tells you which style you find desirable. And, when associated with good design, style is enduring.

Just as a beautifully designed sofa needs your artwork, choice of lighting, and your colour of throw pillows to have "style", so it goes for your balcony or terrace.

Your Inspiration, Your Style

My aim here is to help you understand your personal style, and how to use it to transform your balcony into a multisensory experience. A favourite place in your home.

As a starting point in your exploring your personal style for your balcony or terrace, think about the inspiring gardens and landscapes you have seen, or visited. Fortunately, there is tremendous interest in gorgeous outdoor spaces, and there are many wonderful examples online in which to immerse yourself. Give yourself an hour to browse websites such as Pinterest or Instagram or to visit the website of famous gardens., and maybe start your own collection of images you find appealing.

Now, go a little deeper. Ask yourself, what is it about these gardens that captures your imagination? Is it the towering cedars, or the calming raked gravel? You can create a beautiful space on your outside your condo window that is evocative of an Italian Renaissance garden, or an Imperial Japanese garden of Kyoto. Think of your balcony or terrace as an opportunity to create a microgarden.

Garden and Landscape Foundation Styles

While there are several styles to choose from, there are four basic design styles that I have found to be the basic building blocks to making a balcony special: Classic, Contemporary, Contemplative, and Nature.


The Classic style is rooted in Italian, French, German and English traditions of controlling nature at grand scale, and the Classic Style is associated with wealth and status. Classic gardens are characterized by orderliness and structure, straight lines, symmetrical spaces, and geometric borders. The simplicity of forms and predominant evergreen plantings and formal topiary of a Classic garden are ideally suited to year-round interest in a small space. And a Classic balcony garden created with faux plantings or living dwarf plants is easy to maintain.

If the furniture in your home features tufting and piping detailing; if you are drawn to window coverings and draperies of opulent combinations of fabrics; if you are attracted to architectural detailing and ornamentation, chances are the Classic style is for you. The Classic style is perfect for the person who holds class and sophistication above all else, enjoys the finer things in life and loves their home to be a place of absolute comfort.


Next there is the Contemporary style. Contemporary style gardens employ simple geometric forms in a minimalistic, asymmetrical plan, combined with plantings of selected ornamental plants, emphasizing shades of green, and different forms, to create a structured but relaxed ambiance. Contemporary gardens are particularly enhanced by accessories such as dramatic pots and lighting.

A Contemporary garden reflects current desire to enjoy the outdoors as an extension of the kitchen or living room, rather that simply as a place for plants. The Contemporary style accommodates spaces for entertaining and is ideal for families. The design maximizes places to relax, to play, and to dine. The Contemporary style garden is ideally suited to transforming balconies and terraces into outdoor rooms, and as visual extension of interior spaces.


The Contemplative style garden is rooted in Japanese and Chinese traditions of representing landscape in miniature, with tiny mountain, river and ocean forms, complete with symbolic shorelines and forests. A complete and tranquil landscape, a source of emotional soothing and insight. Natural stone and beautiful wood are key to a Contemplative garden. Curve-linear forms evoke rivers and shores; mounds are hills and mountains; restrained greenery, such as boxwood or tealeaf, combined with clipped flowering shrubs represent forests. Mosses, ferns, bamboo and ornamental grasses create movement. Simple and restrained feature objects are focal points for meditation.

Visual harmony is at the core of the Contemplative style, which is is ideal for small outdoor spaces like balconies. The structural elements of the "garden" are balanced for an experience to be enjoyed from inside or outside the windows of your condo. Simplicity of forms both of the balcony garden spaces along with the furniture and accessories, clean lines between materials and attention to detail are the hallmarks of the contemplative garden style.


The Nature style balcony garden emphasizes the shapes and forms of plants in careful plan that appears to be unstructured. It is primarily a plant wonderland, featuring informal plantings in arcing swaths, with an emphasis on flowering herbaceous plant species and grasses. It may include rustic elements such as old pots, wood or stone benches. Focal points, such as spires and treillage, add height and support for climbing plants. The Nature garden offers an escape from the crazy pace of urban life.

A Nature garden on a balcony, created with high quality faux plantings, makes maintenance much easier! A Nature garden requires skill, knowledge of plants to create the desired visual effect within the confined space and to meet the rigorous constraints of a balcony or even a large terrace.

Your Next Steps

An important task for you to consider if you wish to design your balcony or terrace is to start with the four styles I've outlined above. Then review as many styles as possible and think about how they might be right for you.

  • If you find yourself drawn to an informal look with free flowing lines and relaxed shapes or symmetry, look deeper into Contemplative and Nature styles.
  • If you prefer the structure and order of a minimalist space, you might be most comfortable with a Contemporary garden.
  • If you love the formal appearance of symmetry, geometry softened with curlicues and cushions, look deeper into the Classic style.

Capturing the essence of a style and expressing an understanding of another time and place is often the foundation of the best designed outdoor spaces. There are examples of style everywhere. Don't overlook a style that you don't like. Try to understand what it is about the style that you find unattractive because it will help you understand what is attractive for you. Once you have clarified your garden style preferences, you'll have the foundation of a good design, and personal style, the role of which is to make life enjoyable. Then you'll want to dig in to imagine how that can work within the physical opportunities and constraints of your balcony or terrace.

Expressing your style is worth pursuing. It will enable you to reflect and express what you value and who you are. It will help you complete your condominium living lifestyle and it will make you feel happy. Works for me, how about for you?


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