Many design elements found in well-designed mid-century gardens continue to fit well within the framework of the 21st century modern home and serve as great sources of inspiration. These classic designs include dazzling water features—their shapes oftentimes unique with mood-setting drama, movement, and sound—capable of transforming a backyard or atrium into a place even more special.
The Donnell garden of Sonoma, from 1948, is the most famous and recognizable of the more than 2,000 gardens designed by the Northern California-based master landscape architect Thomas Church. It is home to what is probably the most photographed swimming pool of all time. Great form is one design element that makes this pool so special.
At first glance the pool's shape looks like a freeform 'kidney,' but it is actually an asymmetrical composition of arcs and tangent lines. The angles and curves of the pool's edge play off the regularity of the adjacent grid pattern in the paving. While this move gives the composition plenty of visual punch, true genius is found in the abstract sculpture that seems to float in the pool. Its sinuous shape and the shadows it casts add depth and drama to the sparkling water.
Not every yard is large enough for a swimming pool, and most budgets don't allow for original pieces of monumental sculpture, but there are aspects of the Donnell garden design that can easily be translated into a water feature that is just right in a contemporary garden.
Form and focal point are two of the elements that make for a successful water feature, and both came into play for San Jose Eichler owner Michel Graff when he constructed a spill-style fountain in his atrium. "We really like the classic shape of Architectural Pottery," Graff says, referring to the distinguished modern pottery manufacturer. "We selected a low, inverted cone bowl for our fountain and had it glazed a bright green so that it stood out against the red-orange walls of the house."
Graff elevated the ceramic basin on a pedestal and placed it asymmetrically in a nicely balanced composition that brings a visitor's gaze to rest naturally on his creation. Similarly, the placement of the pool sculpture in the Donnell garden is responsible for much of the remarkable visual balance found in that classic design. A planter bed or lawn with a sculptural fountain strategically placed just off center can have the same effect. This kind of focal point can also be realized through something as simple as a basin of still water, floated with bright flowers and placed on a tabletop or set in a bed of gravel, which one discovers as he or she moves through the garden.
The idea of discovery is important to Judy Kameon, a Los Angeles-based designer whose recent work includes the gardens and fountains at the swanky Parker Hotel in Palm Springs. "Water can be a great addition to any garden, large or small, but not every garden can handle a big fountain or pond," Kameon says. "Often we will tuck a small, splashing water feature into the planting to the side of a path or in a private corner. This gives you something to discover as you move around in the garden. The sound of water can act as an audio cue, drawing people out into the landscape."
At times Kameon has used the fountain designs of modern landscape pioneer Garrett Eckbo as an inspiration in her projects. The famous fountain that Eckbo created in 1959 for the Alcoa Forecast Garden of Los Angeles is a good example of the pleasing acoustic quality of water in the garden. It was made up of two distinct parts: an active sculpture with splashing jets and a shallow reflecting pool.
An abstract form that resembles a flower, Eckbo's fountain was made of aluminum—an unusual material for the garden at the time. Water spouted from silvery tubes at the center of the piece and splashed against the flat-panel sides, creating a jazzy percussion. The water then poured into the reflecting pool, generating ripples that expanded across the surface into the gently curved edge. "The sound of water has a relaxing effect," Kameon says. "And it changes people's moods."