The Art of Understatement

photo of Joan Roca pool project
Photos: David Tisherman

What constitutes great swimming pool and exterior design? According to David Tisherman, it’s not about creating visual spectacles using gimmicky or cliché features, but instead about using established design principles to create spaces that harmonize with their surroundings while satisfying the clients’ desires.

Let me start with a simple analogy: If a young child comes home from school and tells his or her parents that two plus two equals three, it’s safe to assume that unless the kid’s parents are mentally deficient themselves, they’re going to point out the error.

In a whole bunch of big ways, design is the same. There are right ways do to things and wrong ways. Yes, design is far more complicated than simple arithmetic and it is open to subjectivity, but that doesn’t mean anything and everything you do is correct because beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. Frankly, that’s a dangerous cop out that is used all too often to excuse even the most inappropriate and garish visual schemes.

The hard truth is design has rules and principles that must be learned and rigorously applied. It’s not, as many people are want to say these days, “all good.” In fact, much of what passes for design is not good, not at all. Unfortunately, our industry is chock full of bad examples created by people who claim to be designers, but in truth have little or no training.

As I’ve been preaching and teaching for years, until our industry embraces formal design education, we’ll continue to languish in a wilderness of our own incompetence.

To support those strong words, I’d like to share a recent example of a project where sound design principles enabled me to transform one of the most hideously ugly backyards imaginable into a private slice of aesthetically harmonic paradise.

UTTER ABOMINATION

The clients’ home is located in Hancock Park, an upscale Los Angeles neighborhood dripping with the elegance of early 20th century residential architecture. It’s an area replete with one gorgeously unique home after another across a spectrum of design traditions. The trees are mature, the yards are manicured and the vast majority of homes well maintained.

In this case, the home has an interesting country-French-meets-craftsman-style design with a spacious backyard. It’s not an estate by any means, but a fine example of a well appointed urban home. The clients are wonderful, educated, well traveled and warm hearted. Nearing retirement age, they enjoy entertaining as well as spending quiet time outside and wanted to refit their exterior spaces accordingly.

When we met for the first time, I walked into the backyard and literally came close to throwing up. Here was this beautiful house with terrific architectural details and period interiors, but when you went out back, it looked like something akin to a polar bear exhibit at a zoo.

Dominating the space was a rectangular pool dressed in large quantities of cheap-looking artificial rock along with a raised spa, with another pool section attached to it, all forming a massive, lazy L. It had no relationship to anything. It featured pink waterline tile with gray plaster, the barbecue was in an incredibly awkward location next to the pool house bathroom and the landscaping was terribly overgrown with no rhyme or reason at all.

photo of pool
Although the pool is intended as a supportive element in the overall landscape design, when viewed close up, the simple shape and harmonious color scheme generate a striking visual impact. (Costea Photography, Inc.)

When I sat down with the clients, I asked if I could be perfectly honest, and to not take what I said personally. They laughed and told me to go for it. I told them that what they had was possibly the ugliest backyard I had ever seen. Un-phased by my comment, they wanted to know what I thought they should do to correct the situation.

We went through some rough concepts I sketched on the spot, all exploring how we could re-imagine the landscape and use the pool to create visual harmony with the rest of the home. We talked about how we could set up the structures within the yard to address each and every one of their needs.

The clients said they love to entertain and do so often. They wanted an outdoor cooking area, a serving and dining area along with places to sit outside and read. Their only requirement for the pool was that it be large enough for lap swimming and come equipped with an automatic cover.

I explained that we could accommodate all of that, but everything had to be based on the style and color palette of their home. We went through a number of details and some basic ideas about layout. We also talked a lot about the sound of water and how just a trickle could help generate beautiful ambiance.

Through it all, I gathered the impression that they were very leery of the pool industry. They had already talked to a handful of builders, none of whom seemed to understand that in this type of environment, with a beautiful home and furnishings, the pool was merely a supporting element. Instead they had all sorts of gimmicky proposals, including one that involved a vanishing edge pool, which made absolutely no sense at all in this setting.

When we came to the subject of budget, suffice to say we weren’t close initially. But I was happy to leave them with my sketches and let them decide on the direction that made sense.

SUBTLE TRANSITIONS

It took about a month before they called back. After mulling over our discussion, they had decided to move forward following the general approach we discussed.

The ensuing design was driven by a number of important principles and concepts, including the way water’s reflective qualities can be used to amplify the impact of architecture and plantings; theory to create visual harmony and resonance; period design trends; and how the selection and joinery of materials defines the features within the space. It’s also based on how the layout itself can be used to create a beautiful and logical flow from place to the next while meeting the clients’ needs at every turn.

The idea was to create a balanced space where nothing is overly important. That’s why the pool, a 55-foot long narrow rectangle, is placed in the back of the environment, where, from some vantage points, it partially disappears behind the pool house. There are no gimmicky visual features, vanishing edges, perimeter overflows, gaudy fire elements or associated waterfeatures. Instead, it visually functions as an elegant reflecting pool, rewarding your view, enhancing the setting rather than dominating it.

The house, the primary element driving the design, sits about 24 inches above the grade of the pool. Originally, there was an abrupt set of steps out the back door that created a jarring transition when you walked outside. We decided to change that and create a two-tiered deck/entertaining zone with a gentle vertical transition leading from the upper area down into the lower space.

The outdoor cooking area is now on the upper tier, conveniently located adjacent to the kitchen with herbs planted nearby. The terrace is spacious, with plenty of room for entertaining. From inside, you look through a wispy curtain of greenery onto the terrace and the rest of the yard.

A broad set of steps and a modest architectural pond with a single, small, vertical plume lead down to the lower area. The water feature is placed so that it’s visible from inside the house, creating an inviting sound that can be heard throughout the yard. It’s a small, subtle feature, lined with river rock and featuring a custom-fabricated brass nozzle.

Again, the idea was not to overpower the scene with an elaborate art piece, but to use the structure as an invitation of sorts that draws you further into the space.

From there, the spatial flow leads to an area tucked into the back corner of the yard with additional deck space and a large serving counter with a built-in refrigerator. These spaces and the dining area are all adjacent to a covered pavilion with a fireplace.

We picked up a number of craftsman-inspired details throughout the project, including extensive use of river rock cladding; geometric details on the pavilion design; Padre-style pavers, which were extremely popular in the ’20s and ’30s; and loosely structured planting schemes, beautifully executed by my good friend and landscape artist Colleen Holmes.

If anything, the plantings are the most dominant visual elements with their array of greens, textures and soothing presence. Colleen and I worked extensively on the planting plan. We took the clients to a nursery to select plants, all the while nudging them towards choices that would harmonize with each other while also providing visual variety.

The garden design includes a vine-covered loggia and an existing elm pruned to show off its almost sculptural trunk and branch structure. We also created a stunningly beautiful garden path through the side yard, lush with plantings and modular stepping pads.

REFLECTIONS

The pool is next to the pavilion on one end, running lengthwise along the back of the property with a lushly planted backdrop. It’s the last thing you see. Pushed back from the house, its presence is subtle and non-obtrusive, yet when you move towards the water, you start to take in a pageant of reflections, which are most visible from the pavilion and dining areas.

photo of Tisherman pool project
This project includes a number of elements that define the transitions moving through the space, including the side yard, which serves as the outdoor entrance to the backyard; the subtle pond/fountain feature, which links the upper and lower levels of the yard; and the pavilion, a great destination for relaxation by the pool. (Costea Photography, Inc. (top two) David Tisherman (bottom))

photo of Tisherman pool project

photo of Tisherman pool project

The spa and thermal ledge are in the shallow end on the pavilion side, creating a great area for socializing and transitioning in and out of the water. The pool features handmade ceramic tile with a variegated deep green color and beautiful copper flecks installed on the waterline, thermal ledge and spa dam wall.

The interior surface is a story unto itself: This project served as a beta test for a new product, PTx-Colors, the latest collaboration between from Artistic Colors and Pebble Technology. It’s an enhanced smooth plaster available in an almost infinite spectrum of colors created with custom pigment blends. It’s the first time builders and designers can choose plaster colors with the same flexibility you find in a paint store using a fan deck.

It’s an exciting development, a game changer to my mind. In this test case, we developed a custom green color that is period appropriate, supports reflections and harmonizes with the palette used throughout the project.

Another important element, and one that most people fail to consider: the deck drains are made of cast iron with an ornamental grate pattern, all weathered, rusted and sealed. They’re 2-by-8 rectangles that fit beautifully with the modular design. Had we put in some kind of round fixture typical of most installations, it would’ve been entirely inappropriate and visually disruptive.

As mentioned above, the clients insisted on an automatic cover. We went with a beige cover from Aquamatic. The cover travels in a track concealed beneath the slightly cantilevered deck. Because the spa is at the same level as the pool and essentially disappears from view, we developed a tile ledge detail over which the cover travels. The ledge also prevents bathers in the spa from having their necks against the cantilevered deck, a detail I commonly add to my projects.

On the other end of the pool, the cover vault is concealed beneath stainless steel trays that accept the decking material on top of the vault. In most installations, this leaves a band of stainless steel visible on the front of the vault lid. Here we also installed the deck material on the vertical face of lid so that no steel is visible. When the pool is open, there’s almost no visible indication that it has a cover.

DESIGN LINES

If there’s a lesson here, it’s that it’s easy to create visual spectacles, to draw attention to individual elements within the environment. It’s much, much more difficult to create the feeling that everything simply belongs together, that nothing is more important than the next.

Nothing in this project jumps out at you; some might mistakenly regard the whole thing as simplistic. The big idea is to generate an experience for anyone walking into the yard to feel that they’ve entered a comfortable garden with soothing ambiance.

Achieving that from a design standpoint means paying attention to the house, the environment, the overall layout and the structures within the landscape. It’s both an exercise in understanding the big picture issues and paying attention to the most minute details.

All of that takes discipline and the kind of education that enables you to recognize the differences between what’s right and what’s wrong.

HOUSE HUES

photo of Joan Roca pool project

photo of Joan Roca pool project

photo of Joan Roca pool project

About halfway through the project’s construction, at a point when I gained the complete trust of the clients, we had a conversation about a major problem – the color of their house. When I became involved, the home’s stucco exterior was white with brown wood trim. It was extremely ordinary, almost dreary, and did nothing to accentuate the home’s beautiful architectural lines.

When I explained my thinking, the husband laughed and said that he had always known something was off, but couldn’t put his finger on it.

During the project, the house was undergoing some minor renovations, done beautifully by my good friend and gifted builder Greg Golenberg. With all the work in the house and the landscape ongoing anyway, the clients warmed to the idea of painting the house. For this, I developed a color palette of deep greens with brown and grey details, colors very similar to those used in the landscape elements, which are primarily green.

In this case, the results speak for themselves, as the richly dark colors transform the appearance of the house from that of a humdrum structure to a work of dynamic architecture.

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail [email protected].

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