Before and After: Leanne Ford Turns a Sad Yard into a French-Inspired Garden

published Jul 1, 2023
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Piles of wood planks in backyard with moss and algae growing on side wall before renovation.
Credit: Courtesy of Leanne Ford

When it came to her backyard, designer Leanne Ford had space to work with in, well, spades. After moving cross-country from Los Angeles to her native Pittsburgh with her husband and daughter during the pandemic — and settling into a historic home — some of those old house quirks just happened to extend to the outdoors, which, when taken as a whole, was looking a little worse for the wear. “The yard had metal bars in it, a chain link fence,” says Ford. “But there was this beautiful garden wall, a terracotta porch off the side of the house, which was stunning as is — things just hadn’t been kept up with.”

Always one to embrace imperfection and work with the bones of a space, Ford found herself ready to give her backyard the glow-up it deserved but without changing too much. “My goal was to bring everything back to life, going a little more modern with the furniture but with a nod to traditional European gardens,” she says.

Credit: Courtesy of Leanne Ford
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To kick off the project, the yard, porch, and exterior of the home finally got the touch-ups they needed to truly shine (think: removing debris and the old swing set, tending to some of the grass and plantings to get it looking lush again, power-washing, and splurging on new stucco for the facade of the home and fresh paint where it was needed). Once those things were taken care of, and the space was, for all intents and purposes, back in tip-top shape, Ford turned her attention to decorating. “I love the trend of making outdoor spaces just as beautiful as indoor spaces, because in the past, they truly were more of an afterthought,” says Ford. “Now you have overstuffed pillows, cushy sofas — the outside’s really able to be an extension of your home.”

Credit: Courtesy of Leanne Ford
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Instead of just hauling in piece after piece of furniture without a plan, though, she put on her thinking cap to truly best utilize her acreage — Ford, after all, has her own line of furnishings with Crate & Barrel that includes outdoor seating, tables, planters, and more. The big design idea? She’d carve the property into distinct nooks that would each serve a specific function — an area for lounging in the sun, a comfy outdoor living room with sofas and chairs for reading, an entertaining spot for drinks and meals, and so on.

Credit: Photography by Erin Kelly; Styling by Hilary Robertson
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To settle on her zones, Ford considered the flow from the indoors to the outside around the perimeter of the house, as well what made sense where — and got a little bit creative with her setups based on the features already in the yard, many of which she kept and rehabbed. The gray stone paved patio, for instance, became a natural place for a line of lounge chairs. “I don’t have a pool, but that doesn’t mean I can’t sit in the sun,” says Ford.

On the flip side, when Ford and her family or guests want a little shade, they can retreat to the terracotta porch, where her Jeannie Teak Outdoor Sofas sit beneath a covered overhang that transitions into a lovely trellis. For dining, guests can take their pick: sitting at the Jeannie Extendable Teak Outdoor Dining Table on the Jeannie Teak Outdoor Dining Chairs in front of the original lattice-trimmed garden wall that’s right off the kitchen (making it super-convenient for serving), or, as Ford is accustomed to doing when the mood strikes, the whole setup can be moved right into the grassy knoll in the yard for a dining-in-a-secret-garden vibe.

Credit: Photography by Erin Kelly; Styling by Hilary Robertson

In true “Lazy Lee” fashion — Ford’s design alter ego that’s all about a good shortcut — Ford made certain decorative choices to make her life easier, but you wouldn’t know it from how artfully arranged the backyard turned out. First, she designed much of her outdoor furniture for Crate & Barrel from materials like teak, concrete (the Pebble Coffee Table, as shown just above), and all-weather performance polyester upholstery so she doesn’t have to worry about dragging anything in when it rains (and pieces look better with that lived-in patina they’ll get over time). For greenery, she turned to lots of lavender and boxwood, notoriously lower-maintenance outdoor plants. Pea gravel went into the section of yard around that striking garden wall because it’s inexpensive, easy to install and tend to, and barefoot-friendly. It also totally nails the European courtyard vibe Ford was after, which is complemented by the way in which her own outdoor pieces reference French mid-century design with their timeless, simple lines. 

Credit: Photography by Erin Kelly; Styling by Hilary Robertson
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Now that the work is behind her, Ford couldn’t be happier in her natural habitat for the summer: the outdoors. “I feel so at peace and at home in my garden,” says Ford. “I’m looking forward to the lazy days ahead out there.”