Modern backyard ideas – 10 clean and contemporary looks for your outdoor space
From feature fire pits and cool color schemes to perfect paving and pools, the experts share their top tips on achieving a fresh and functional backyard
Choosing a modern backyard style is proving more and more popular – and it's easy to see why. These sleek and chic spaces offer a breath of fresh air from fussier or more traditional schemes, and can suit yards of all sizes.
Materials are chosen carefully and tend to be smooth, hardwearing and low maintenance. Strong lines are celebrated and layouts are clear. Planting schemes are stripped back, with often just a handful of varieties selected for their complementing color palette and architectural form. And of course, as with any backyard idea, the most successful designs aren't just pleasing to look at but are functional, too. Covered outdoor entertaining areas, atmospheric fire features, swimming pools, pathways and planters can all be integrated into a modern-style plot.
Above all, it's important to note that a contemporary look can still feel just as welcoming as other exterior styles. As Joe Raboine, the Director of Residential Hardscapes at Belgard points out, these designs often emphasize natural light and neutral tones to embody modern flair that is cozy, not cold.
10 looks to inspire a modern backyard scheme
Whether you're planning a total transformation for your outdoor space or just a stylish yet smaller update – perhaps for your pathways or planting – these modern backyard ideas will provide plenty of inspiration.
1. Tie together tranquil living zones with an all-white palette
With contemporary designs, less is generally more – and your color scheme is a great place to start. By simplifying your palette down to one or two primary tones, the space will feel focused and considered. In fact, the impact will be far greater than a muddle of contrasting hues.
This serene scene from Living Gardens is a wonderful example. It elegantly showcases bright white tones across large format pavers, furniture, and the central structure that shelters a dining area and outdoor kitchen space. The result feels open and airy, with each zone flowing seamlessly into one other. In terms of planting, greenery and grasses pop against the neutral backdrop.
Of course, you don't have to stick with pale hues to achieve a modern vibe. A contemporary color palette can be formed of moody, earthy, or vibrant tones just as effectively if you stick to a select few. It all depends on your personal style.
2. Soften hard materials with natural elements
Joe Raboine is the Director of Residential Hardscapes at Belgard, a company that specializes in paving and hardscaping. He collaborates with both sales and marketing to ensure that Belgard’s contractors and dealers are receiving best-in-class service, products and experiences. To that end, he often hosts webinars, assists with training events and trade shows, and presents at Belgard Universities and other industry events on current topics such as design trends, product innovations and industry best practices.
'When exploring materials for a modern backyard, consider large format, modular hardscapes,' says Joe Raboine of Belgard. 'Smooth lines and neutral colors are ideal options.'
To add a more naturalistic and visually interesting effect, consider leaving spaces between and around your hardscaping to intersperse low-growing greenery. Gravel or stones in the gaps can also create a pleasing contrast in textures. This approach also allows you to get creative with layouts and geometric patterns.
Studio AKA is a landscape architecture and design firm based in Washington, DC, USA that specializes in residential and hospitality projects. Dani, the Founding Principal, has practiced in the United States and Switzerland and is currently a Fellow with the Tory Burch Foundation.
'We always seek to incorporate natural materials in our hardscapes,' says Dani Alexander of Studio AKA. 'Concrete is exceptionally modern and it can be warmed up and softened with natural stone aggregates in a range of colors and textures.'
Large, matching backyard containers add the perfect finishing touch to this scene, while bringing more greenery into the mix.
3. Build a statement backdrop
Gray can bring a sense of sophisticated, urban cool to an exterior scheme, as demonstrated in this basalt-paved courtyard space designed by California-based Surfacedesign.
The sculptural, freestanding garden wall is a true attention-grabber. Built from puka lava with custom cladding, it creates a show-stopping statement at eye level. Tropical planting and soothing waterfalls bring pops of color, movement, and balance.
Painting a feature wall with a bold color, adding an outdoor mirror, or planting vertically to create a botanical backdrop are other ways to bring your backyard's boundaries into a contemporary scheme. Whatever approach you go for, try to repeat the materials, colors, or planting picks around the rest of your site, to pull it all together.
4. Get creative with pathways
Every backyard needs a series of garden paths to get from A to B. And in a modern backyard, it's a great opportunity to create a style statement, using straight lines and thoughtfully selected materials.
In this design, sleek, meticulously placed stepping stone pavers lead to steps that appear to float. The straight lines and gray tones complement the exterior of the house beautifully, while smaller-cut stones set between each paver and the raw edge of the retaining wall add a tactile, organic feel.
The prairie-style xeriscape planting to the right adds a bold juxtaposition to the hardscaping, and is also well suited to this sloping plot in terms of its watering needs. The tapestry of earth tones warms up the grays with a result that's breathtakingly dramatic.
5. Consider an architectural outdoor room
A former professional gardener and allotment-grower, Holly has a passion for plants, outdoor living, and garden design. She has a particular interest in modern backyard schemes that bring together urban materials, bold color choices and sculptural shapes with soft and muted planting.
An outdoor room allows you to make the most of your backyard rain or shine, and creates a secondary living hub that's perfect for entertaining loved ones. For a modern plot, a luxe, louvered pergola is ideal. That way, you can adjust it easily depending on whether you want to enjoy shade and shelter or soak up the sunshine.
I visited this design by Consilium Hortus at the RHS Hampton Court Garden Festival 2022, and was blown away by the contemporary yet welcoming vibe: there is everything you could need for outdoor living in style. Inside the garden building, with its sliding glass sides, was a bespoke fireplace and bar area – a perfect space to retreat to. Outdoors, a plunge pool, ample dining zone, and sun loungers offered multiple places to relax.
Porcelain slabs are a go-to material for many contemporary paved backyards due to their sleek appearance and easy-care nature, and they were included in this space. I also liked how the edges of the design were softened by a mix of perennials and large-scale boulders to bring a sense of the natural world in around the modern oasis.
6. Choose contemporary patio furniture
Furniture isn't just functional – when selected carefully, it can become a stylish feature in a modern scheme. This seating set is a serious talking point, for instance.
Backyard fire pits are one of my favorite ways to cozy up an outdoor space, and they are particularly well-suited to bringing movement and warmth to contemporary-style areas. There are lots of sleek and streamlined styles to choose from, but a failsafe option for that modern flair is a fire table. For a social feel, place one in the center of your seating area for everyone to gather around as the evening draws in.
'Simple detailing with clean lines keeps the table quiet in the landscape,' says Daniel Thorp, Partner at LaGuardia Design Group. A low height will prevent it from overwhelming surrounding furnishings, he adds, while wide ledges are useful for placing cocktails or small plates.
Keep warm around this contemporary fire pit table. It's available in light and dark gray colorways and we love the circular shape. A tank holder keeps fuel nearby, while doubling up as a chic side table.
This set of two cushioned chairs plus a side table will provide a stylish place to sit and enjoy the fresh air. We love the rattan style and the retro hairpin legs and think it would suit all sorts of modern schemes.
7. Raise up your planting in Corten steel beds
'Picturesque landscapes tend to allow you to meander,' says Dani Alexander. 'A modern site,' she continues, 'has clear relationships between spaces, and views tend to be axial as opposed to hidden and revealed.'
A great way to achieve this more structured layout is to use half walls and raised garden beds. This design is a good example, mapping out the space with sturdy Corten steel containers filled with color blocks of a minimal planting scheme. A central water feature acts as a focal point.
'Modern gardens that lean on consistency or repeated elements often simplify maintenance for their homeowners, because they only need to learn how to take care of a few species of plants or have hardscape materials that are all maintained in the same way,' she adds.
8. Make a statement with simplicity
Here is another example of beauty in simplicity. I love the clean lines and smooth finishes in this design, and how they provide a sophisticated backdrop for a handful of statement features: the tree, two symmetrical fire pits, and a cascading waterfall.
Rather than frothy flowers more suited to a romantic scheme, a variety of foliage plants has been used, neatly arranged in a row. They add a layer of texture and color to the rear wall, while creating a subtle tropical garden vibe that would be very effective in a smaller townhouse backyard too.
Tom Casey of Anthony & Sylvan Pools shares his top tips for making a swimming pool fit in as part of your modern backyard ideas. 'For our customers who want a more contemporary design, we recommend geometric pools with clean lines and sharp angles to create a modern look. Other popular trends right now include vanishing edges and darker interiors, both of which can elevate a simpler pool.
'For our customers who are renovating older pools, adding LED lighting creates a dramatic update,' he continues. 'Converting an unused spa into a sun shelf and adding water features, such as cascades or fountains, is a great way to enhance a pool's design. Many of our customers also opt to update the tile, coping, and swimming pool surface to create a more modern look. The landscaping surrounding a pool is just as important, and we've found features such as sleek hedges, modern outdoor seating, fireplaces, and stonework to be wonderful accents.'
9. Don't forget the lighting
Outdoor lighting is a must for upping the atmosphere when night falls, and of course, it's practical too. When it comes to modern backyard ideas, recessed spotlights in pavers are a popular approach, while a set of simple, structural wall lights are a contemporary way to illuminate a path. Strip lighting beneath step rises is another option.
Consider highlighting the plants in your borders, too, as this design does. It's a great way to show off their form and create dramatic shadows on nearby fences and walls, and all you need are a few carefully positioned stake spotlights.
There are four colorways available for these stylish, dimmable wall lights. They emit both up- and down-lighting – position a row along a wall or on either side of your porch for a subtle yet chic result.
These solid brass lights are ideal for illuminating outdoor features at night. Each has an adjustable glare guard, and hammer stakes are included for fuss-free installation.
10. Work with levels
Forget tricky hills and wiggling paths – for a modern feel, introduce structure to your sloping plot. Here, the wide-format steps in grey stone break the space up into practical zones. And by mirroring the muted brick walls of the home across aspects of the yard, the space feels perfectly pulled together.
A Soake Pools plunge pool, bottom right, is finished with these same materials, which beautifully integrates it into the landscape. As explained by Soake Pools' Co-founder, Karen Larson, 'installing a plunge pool partially above the ground creates a destination and a focal point that a flush install rarely offers. Additionally, the above-ground edges provide seating. It is also a great opportunity to add additional personality and decorative elements, as the exposed vertical surfaces can be adorned with materials that fit within the landscape.'
How can you create a modern backyard for a historic home effectively?
You don't have to have a state-of-the-art home to embrace modern backyard ideas.
'We read the site’s context – its geographic location, architectural style, interior furnishings, existing trees, solar orientation – for cues on how to initially respond in our designs,' explains Dani Alexander, Founding Principal of Studio AKA. She explains that even a historic home can give them hints that allow them to creatively interpret materials in a modern way.
'For example, the brick masonry of a historic townhome can look exceedingly modern when used on end in the landscape or with more contemporary, cooler colors such as schist, maroon, or charcoal, and it coordinates well with smooth cut stone. In one project, we helped the client select an inky paint color for their window bay which helped to link the brick facade to the cooler colors in the landscape. We also deployed a bluestone pattern that created asymmetrical plant beds to offset the strongly rectangular shape of the space, so that it would feel modern and have a sense of flow.
'Sometimes, it is the introduction of a new material that can tie a historic home to a modern landscape,' Dani continues. She explains how on a Georgian home, they worked with a high-end metal fabricator to create a curving steel and bronze staircase, pergola, and planters that balanced instead of competed with the historic facade. 'We also worked with TOBE Design Group, the interior designer, to coordinate flower colors with whimsical plastic outdoor furnishings for their children,' she adds. 'The result is a historic home with eclectic detailing that reflects the personalities of its new owners.'
What are some perfect planting choices for a modern backyard?
'When selecting plants for a modern landscape, we have a few different approaches depending on the site,' says Dani Alexander, Founding Principal of Studio AKA. 'We love a muted palette of green textures, with pops of white to highlight spaces in deep shade. The subtle variations allow for a modern sense of consistency without being dull.'
For very contemporary architecture, Dani and the team love to work with ornamental grasses. 'They lend both structure and softness to facades,' she says. 'For certain projects, a dramatic use of deep and bright colors can feel very modern if carefully selected and coordinated with other project elements.'
Katie Phillips, the Co-owner and Co-designer of Spade and Sparrow Designs, also favors grasses, explaining how they use a lot of juncus and switchgrass. Fatsia, heuchera, and sweet potato vines are other choices that bring a subtle mid-century-modern quality to the landscape and planters surrounding outdoor living spaces, she adds.
The garden was always a big part of Holly's life growing up, as was the surrounding New Forest where she lived. Her appreciation for the great outdoors has only grown since then; over the years, she's been an allotment keeper, a professional gardener, and a botanical illustrator. Having worked for Gardeningetc.com for two years, Holly now writes about plants and outdoor living for Homes & Gardens.
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