Poolside Paradise

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Noppenberger pool_credit John Ellis
A swimming pool area designed by Aria Design founder Arianna Noppenberger reflects one of her favorite elements: a combination of pool and spa to create a large, continuous body of water. | Photo by John Ellis

Local experts offer tips for designing an oasis for relaxing at home this summer.

By Ashley Breeding


In the 1970s, photographer Slim Aarons became famous for his iconic seaside and pool scenes. Capturing beautiful subjects—slim, tan and quintessentially Southern California—his images have also become synonymous with local pool culture, not only for their socialites but for the bold blue skies, skinny palms and standout swimming pool designs they featured.

Often sleek and modern, these picturesque landscapes can be found throughout Laguna Beach more and more today. Here, seasoned interior designers reflect on how pool style has evolved over the years and where it’s going, as well as how you can cultivate your idyllic home playground.


The Shape of Water

At Laguna-based firm Aria Design, founder and principal designer Arianna Noppenberger focuses on clean, rectilinear lines that are in harmony with the more contemporary, coastal homes she designs. A proud native of Italy, she’s still glad to see that the Mediterranean-style swimming pool—curvilinear, colorful and opulent—has slipped out of fashion.

“About 10 years ago, I was working on a project in Three Arch Bay, where the landscape architect had designed a pool with curvilinear shape,” recalls Noppenberger, noting that it contrasted with the modern house design with its smooth adobe exterior intersected by floor-to-ceiling glass walls and decorative linear metal screens.

Noppenberger pool 2_credit John Ellis
An infinity edge at a space designed by Noppenberger makes the water appear to connect seamlessly to the ocean beyond. | Photo by John Ellis

In its place, Noppenberger redesigned that pool and hardscape, opting for a long, rectangular-shaped pool with a perpendicular hot tub, perfect for swimming laps or relaxing. Where the pool and spa meet, a bridge made of Resysta—a synthetic product that looks like wood—provides a path from the main gate to the home.

The same Resysta was used for a built-in bench that seamlessly divides the hot tub from more seating that extends all the way to the covered patio.

“When designing a spa, I like to keep the water level the same as the pool, so it looks like one big body of water,” Noppenberger adds.

Matt Johnson, owner of Western Garden Designs, a firm based in San Juan Capistrano that does projects in Laguna (where Johnson grew up), has also seen a departure from older Mediterranean styles.

“The other thing people have gotten away from is the deeper—[think 8- or 9-foot]—pools with diving boards we saw in the 1960s through the ’80s,” he points out, nodding to smaller yards and existing elements such as trees and boulders that pose challenges in most Laguna yards. Considering space, topography and how clients intend to use their pool, Johnson recommends a pool “be no more than 5 feet deep.” He notes a deep end that doesn’t get used is wasting precious—and costly—space.

If you’re one of Laguna’s lucky few with a bird’s-eye view of the ocean, an infinity pool—built high on a perch, creating an optical illusion of water extending into the horizon—is also an option. Also called a “vanishing edge” or “infinite edge,” they require a cliffside position and ample space for a slope for water to spill into, Johnson explains. Even a small pool—he designed one at Top of the World that’s 8 feet by 22 feet and looks toward Park Avenue over the canyon—can add about $10,000 to the project. But a view of infinity and beyond? Priceless.

Payton Addison pool_credit Andrew Bramasco Photography
Designer Payton Addison says clients often request an outdoor living area next to the pool, complete with lounge seating, a fire pit, kitchen, barbecue, bar and dining table for added convenience. | Photo by Andrew Bramasco Photography

Fun and Leisure

Most designers agree that in addition to an adjacent hot tub, the most coveted feature of the modern pool is the Baja step, also called a sun shelf.

Payton Addison, founder of the eponymous interior design firm in Laguna, describes this wide, shallow platform—about 12 to 18 inches deep—as an ideal place to prop an umbrella and lounge chairs, so you can keep your feet in the water to stay cool on sultry summer days. Have small children? “This shelf also doubles as a kids pool,” Noppenberger points out.

If your household is active, you’ll need a pool to accommodate water activities, but that doesn’t mean compromising style. A swimmer herself, Noppenberger understands the desire to have a backyard oasis that’s both beautiful and functional for exercise. She prefers elongated pools like the one she designed in Three Arch Bay, which is eye-catching yet won’t require a flip turn every few strokes. There are even creative options for those who want to play volleyball in the water. “We can create a pool that’s deeper in the middle and shallow at both ends,” Johnson adds.

While the once-popular swim-up bar is also a thing of the past—unless you’re at an island hotel—it’s only a few steps away. Many clients are seeking an “outdoor living area” adjacent to their pools, Addison explains. This typically comprises a barbecue and brick oven, a kitchen and bar, lounge seating and fire pit, and an outdoor dining table. “All of the amenities are built into one space,” she says. “So, if you’re down by the pool and want a drink—it’s right there.”


It’s All Material

With pool trends, as well as the heat and humidity that come with living right on the coast, designers and contractors must find a way to marry modern design and durability.

Even if you’re partial to antiquated frills like mosaic tiles or splashy fountains, or prefer a different style all your own—Addison recalls a friend at Famosa at South Coast Collection in Costa Mesa saying a client once asked for a pool shaped like a perfume bottle with Chanel C’s at the bottom—you don’t want to compromise safety or comfort.

pool by Matt Johnson_credit Chad Mellon
For this home’s backyard, Western Garden Designs owner Matt Johnson worked with local architect Anders Lasater to design the pool, hardscape areas and landscaping. | Photo by Chad Mellon

“Dense, dark materials heat up, so you’ll want something that doesn’t get too hot and a deck surface that’s also anti-slip,” Johnson says, suggesting natural gray concrete and interlocking pavers that are more permeable so water can drain through. The type of coping—the material capping the pool edge—that you choose will depend on the style of pool and what’s most comfortable.

On the interior, PebbleTec is a safe, long-lasting option that also determines the color of your water. “The lighter the pebble, the lighter the water,” Johnson explains, noting darker finishes that create a “reflection pond” are becoming a trend. “When the water is still, all you can see is the reflection of the sky, so that’s pretty cool.”

When putting together the pool deck area, keep in mind that furniture should be able to withstand the moist, salty sea air. Polyethylene resin is indestructible, and Noppenberger also likes marine rope furniture, which she gets from Brazil and comes in an array of fun shades. Enjoy night swimming? Furniture with built-in LED lights that glow at night are now a thing, too.

Lastly, pool covers that minimize evaporation and keep pools warm have become imperative with new regulations around water and energy conservation, Noppenberger says. “Make sure this doesn’t become an unattractive feature of the pool,” she says, suggesting a motorized cover that disappears when not in use and unfolds at the touch of a button.

Whatever you do, it’s important to have a designer in addition to a contractor when conceptualizing your paradise pool, Johnson adds. “The best projects have been well thought out in terms of features and processes—and those have a designer behind them.”

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