With a coffee table overhung with a chandelier, a snug two-seater and curvy armchairs ranged around a fireplace, as well as a kitchen and dining table, Abigail Ahern’s back garden has to be the ultimate outdoor room.
When she moved to Hackney with husband Graham 13 years ago, Ahern, an accomplished interior designer but a self-confessed non-gardener, approached the outside space with caution. “At first I did what everybody else did, and had stuff down the perimeter and nothing in the middle,” she says, “but as I became more confident, I realised the same principles I applied to inside could apply to the outside.
“One of these is that you never have everything on the perimeter. I like to design interiors so you can’t walk in a straight line from one end of the room to the other, because there’s always something in your way. It’s the difference between walking in a field, where you can see all around you which is really boring, or in a forest, where you’re not sure what’s around the next corner. That’s what I wanted to do here.”
This atmospheric retreat, with weathered decking, leafy tree canopies and stashes of logs for fires indoors and out, looks like it was built in the heart of a forest. That is, if it weren’t for the cowboy cacti — realistic fakes that Ahern sells in her Islington shop and has tucked in among the hydrangea bushes, adding a touch of Santa Fe to the patio — and the petrol blue cabin at the rear, a £100 eBay find upcycled by Graham.
The roomy patio with York stone paving looks as cosy as the living room on the other side of the huge, two-storey glass doors. Another Ahern design principle is to supersize features and furniture to make a space look larger, so naturally, as well as chandeliers in every room of the house, an outsize chandelier of tiered driftwood pieces hangs over the black lacquer coffee table.
Lighting is a game changer, indoors and out, says Ahern. “I have a problem finding outdoor lights I like, so I put indoor lights outside, and have them professionally rewired.” These include a standard lamp and a Sixties pendant shade, while the bonus of overhanging electric cable is that the mile-a-minute vine scrambles along it, creating playful garlands of green above the patio.
To the right of the patio-cum-sittingroom is the dining area, defined by an Indian zinc-topped table from Petersham Nurseries and a customised concrete kitchen from Dutch company WWOO.
“The company customised the kitchen to fit around the Big Green Egg, a barbecue cooker I’m obsessed with ever since I designed a set for a TV programme with Heston Blumenthal, who uses it all the time. You can bake on it, roast with it and it’s all temperature controlled. We put something in on a Saturday morning, slow cook it for 10 hours and come back in the evening and supper’s ready. We even cook the Christmas turkey on it.”
Playing with different textures is a big part of Ahern’s design philosophy, and is apparent in her choice of materials in both hardscape and planting. The decked garden path that leads down to the cabin is a clever fake from Millboard that resembles old, weather-worn oak timber, and is edged down either side with a deep ruff of variegated tufted grass Carex oshimensis Everest.
Pebbles — another textural contrast — are her choice of flooring on either side, giving Ahern the freedom to gradually plant both areas over time. On one side is a wall of rustling bamboo, which she planted so she could look down from her bedroom window and enjoy the constant movement, and on the opposite wall, a sheet of evergreen jasmine. “We planted about 20 tiny plants and now the scent of the flowers in summer is beautiful,” she says. “I’m mad about watering all the time to make them cover the wall.”