How to Create a Stylish Outdoor Living Space

NE Home Magazine

Written by Kristin Amico

June 10, 2021

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Choose Comfortable and Stylish Furniture

Whether you’re entertaining guests, soaking in the afternoon sunshine, or star gazing with a cocktail, the right pieces will enhance the experience. “Today’s outdoor furniture choices are exceptional, and you don’t have to sacrifice style for durability,” says James.

That’s because there’s a wide range of furnishings featuring soft textiles as well as of-the-moment patterns and colors that look and feel elegant enough for a living or dining room while being rain and UV-resistant.

James’s tip for picking furniture you love: “Look for pieces that complement your style and are also are comfortable enough to make you want to linger outdoors with friends and family.”

Design the Landscape and Hardscape

In addition to floor plans and furniture selections, think about other natural and manmade elements that can be used to dial up design and make the space more inviting. James recommends choosing a designer who will factor in landscape and hardscape planning as part of the overall vision.

“You’ll want to consider how a garden, row of shrubs, or trees that double as a canopy play into the design, too,” James advises. Likewise, large plants or other natural materials can be used to define spaces and act like living walls.

Homeowners can also add architectural beauty and function with hardscaping. That includes everything from patio stones, deck design, and retaining walls to water features. She’s also a big fan of fire pits and stone fireplaces as they add a bold design element while also extending the outdoor living season from spring into late fall. 

Light Up Your Space

Lighting should be part of the initial planning stage. “It creates visual depth and can be used to emphasize objects ranging from trees to outdoor sculptures,” notes James.

She also explains that lights, like strategic plant placement, help to create boundaries in the absence of walls or a ceiling. Together, the right lighting and floor plan makes a space feel like a well-planned room.

When choosing lighting, think about layering both the type of fixtures and their brightness levels. Combine fixtures that sit at eye level and others that hang above you with ground-level lights that illuminate paths and the floor.


Accessories might seem like an afterthought, but the right objects pull a look together. Layer on pillows, consider stylish stools to kick up your feet, use candles for decoration and light, and line hard flooring with rugs for a touch of softness. Don’t forget dining accessories, either. For those who prefer to eat outside when the weather allows, there is a wide range of flatware, dishes, and serving tools that add whimsy to an outdoor table.

Her tips for accessorizing follow design rules in general—use objects that feel like they belong. For example, opt for sleek, shiny pieces to add character to a modern home and patio, while organic or rustic accessories are a better complement for a traditional or classic seaside residence.

Lastly, James wants you to have fun in the process of transforming the outdoors into a functional and beautiful sanctuary for friends and family.

Temperatures are heating up across New England and alfresco living season (some might say the best season) has arrived. Now’s the time to turn your backyard or patio into a cozy, comfortable retreat that enhances every moment of summer and adds a touch of luxury to your home. Diana James, designer and proprietor of the Marblehead, Massachusetts, shop Living Swell, provides a blueprint for exceptional outdoor living and entertaining. What’s her number one tip? “Treat your outdoor space as you would a living or dining room, and bring all the comforts and style that you have inside your home, outside.”

Here’s how to do that.

Create a Floor Plan

One of the first steps is determining how you want to use the space. An area built for entertaining should have seating and table arrangements that foster intimate conversations. Alternatively, a relaxation space may have lounges and lots of greenery, while an area for kids will likely be a mix of zones.

Then, create a floor plan that makes the best use of your available space. Here’s where professional design guidance is priceless.

“Use a designer to create a plan that incorporates your lifestyle and design style. They will map out furniture arrangements, traffic flow, and create a sense of scale that matches the proportion of the surrounding outdoor area,” notes James.

There are other benefits of using a professional during the planning stage. As part of the floor plan, a designer will create a natural progression from interior to exterior, making your outdoor living space feel like an extension of your home. In addition, they’ll create color and furniture schemes that match your design vision.

Designer Diana James’s Reading Retreat

NE Home Magazine

Written by Kyle Hoepner

March 20, 2019


Designer Diana James’s imagined client for this book-lover’s library is a sophisticated woman who needs an occasional escape from her busy life. The room’s vibe is feminine yet strong, with a bit of a midcentury edge. Natural textures—a luscious velvet sheathing the biomorphic sofa; organic patches and speckles patterning the rug underfoot—offset a high-sheen lacquer on the walls and bookcases. Tranquil notes of soft green and blue-gray glow gently against a neutral ground. “I feel that it’s a very smart room,” says James, “smart and a little bit sexy.”

1. Rufus horse sculpture, Made Goods, through Living Swell, Marblehead, Mass.,

2. ­Majorette chandelier, Corbett Lighting, through Neena’s, various Mass. locations,

3. Levi chair, CR Laine, through Circle Furniture, various Mass. locations, Upholstery fabric for chair: Clarke & Clarke Molten in Charcoal, Duralee, Boston Design Center,

4. All That Glitters #3, oil on paper by Janel Eleftherakis, through Living Swell
5. Khan sofa from Eichholtz, Upholstery fabric for sofa: Carnaby velvet in Rock, James Hare for Duralee

6. Drapery fabric: Clarke & Clarke Pagoda in Chartreuse and Charcoal, ­Duralee

7. Jive patinated rug, Tissage, through Landry & Arcari Rugs and Carpeting, Boston, Salem, and Framingham, Mass.,

8. Paint for walls and built-in bookshelves: Yeabridge Green in high gloss, Farrow & BallBoston Design Center

9. Ike side table from CuratedKravet, Boston Design, and through Living Swell
10. Designer Diana James

East Coast Design, Marblehead, Mass.,

Diana James Offers Advice on Living Swell


NE Home Magazine

Written by Kaitlin Madden

May 23, 2019

If you walked into Living Swell, the Marblehead boutique owned by veteran designer Diana James, and didn’t want to leave, no one would blame you. The store is full of finds that epitomize James’s enviable, casual-yet-sophisticated style: one-of-a-kind artisan-made candles, hand-picked accents chosen for their originality, and works from local artists along with curated pieces from heritage brands like Duralee and Kravet.

The good news, should you indeed not want to leave? In a way, you don’t have to.

In addition to her role as shopkeeper, James runs a full-scale interior design business, East Coast Design, and works on a wide range of projects, from helping customers choose the perfect fabric for reupholstering a sofa, to spearheading large-scale renovations and new builds.

James created Living Swell in order to build a visual, tactile representation of her design aesthetic through the things she personally loves, with the goal of inspiring both casual customers and clientele looking for a more in-depth design direction.

“The store allows me to connect with and work with people on all different levels,” says James. “Instead of looking at photos of my work on Instagram or in ads, this is the way I inspire and connect with people, whether it’s someone coming in looking for a light fixture, or someone who’s planning to reupholster a sofa or renovate a bathroom.”

Are you inspired? James offers the following advice for mirroring the Living Swell aesthetic.


1. That Kelly Green Fireplace
“The first thing that elicits a reaction when someone walks into the shop is the Kelly green fireplace with the Phillip Jeffries grass cloth behind it. That color combo is the driving force behind Living Swell: We are bold, beachy, and a little preppy. Painting the McIntrye mantel high-gloss Kelly green took some risk, but the impact it makes is powerful. My advice is to take a design risk, make it big, and own it. The unexpected is much more interesting and genuine.”

2. Fall for Fabric
“Our fabric samples and large array of fabric books entice customers to browse and find a fabric that speaks to them. We offer the entire collection of Clarke and Clarke, Kravet Couture, Ralph Lauren, James Hare and others that are kid, pet, and outdoor friendly. Textiles can be a big investment, and an economical way to incorporate more expensive fabrics is to use them in smaller quantities. Think custom pillows or as trim to window treatments and furniture.”

3. Develop an Interest in Art
“Living Swell is a lifestyle that embodies an easy elegance, and the art we exhibit always has a lighthearted, graceful vibe. Original art is special, and there is always a story behind it. Allow yourself to become emotionally attached to art. It’s good to understand an artist and the value of the work, but most of all, you want to fall in love with your art.”

4. It’s Possible to Decorate Sustainably
“Sustainable living is making an impact on our selections for furnishings and finishes. Clients are asking for products that are responsibly manufactured, handcrafted, sustainable, and as Earth friendly as possible. I recommend one of the several innovative decor and furniture lines we have partnered with that have captured the balance between beautiful and inspired designs through sustainability.”

5. You Can Update Your Space Without Redesigning it
“When clients have the itch to change something in their spaces, but aren’t ready to buy a new sofa, unique side chairs are a great way to change the look of a room. I believe that every room should have an element of the unexpected, and chairs are a great way to get that impact without redecorating the whole room.”

There’s another thing you should know about James. If she can’t find something special enough for her store or a project, she creates it herself. James has partnerships with local workrooms to create custom furnishings and window treatments, and she designs everything from kitchen cabinetry to space plans for her larger jobs. “Living Swell is like a little design center,” she says with a laugh. “I really want to be a local resource for high-quality products and services, whether it’s a really cool handmade candle, or custom window treatments, or a re-upholstery, or a complete renovation project.”

That sounds pretty swell, doesn’t it?