Owen Humphreys, Courtesy of Jupiter Artland
Above: For the 10th anniversary of Jupiter Artland, a sculpture park in Scotland, Joana Vasconcelos created a wild pool decorated with more than 11,000 colorful hand-painted Portuguese tiles.
A high-flying cannonball isn’t the only way to make a splash with a pool. Although most of them look like little more than simple blue glistening rectangles, artists and designers have recently been reminding us that it doesn’t always have to be so. Treating the pool as a blank canvas, they are experimenting with color, pattern, form, and light to create places for an uncommonly refreshing dip.
At Jupiter Artland outside Edinburgh, artist Joana Vasconcelos conceived Gateway, a circular pool and free-form deck adorned with undulating ribbons of colors realized with 11,366 hand-painted tiles. At L’Arlatan Hotel in Arles, France, Jorge Pardo extended the same multicolored, geometric tiles he used for indoor flooring out into the pool. For private collectors in Connecticut, James Turrell created Baker Pool, a truly immersive art installation lined with color-shifting lights.
But perhaps no one has recently done more to inspire people to reconsider what pools should look like than the multitalented designer and artist Alex Proba. “I think they are a missed opportunity in the design and architecture of houses,” she says. “No one really pays attention to their interiors.”
Proba started out by imagining otherworldly pools lined with vibrant, overlapping Matisse-cutout-like shapes and then posting digital renderings of her proposals on Instagram. Before long, real commissions flowed in, and she found herself coating pool plaster in Palm Springs with special underwater paint in custom hues. “I love canvases that aren’t canvas,” she says.
Designers are also increasingly using pools to make statements in hotels and private homes alike. “I wouldn’t leave a wall blank, so why would I leave a pool blank?” says Ken Fulk. “It’s about creating beautiful spaces where there’s also a sense of playfulness and whimsy.”
Fulk’s current projects include a pair of pools for a home in Mexico, where artists will paint the bottoms with murals—one with a Cocteau-inspired figure of a woman, the other with a more abstract pattern mimicking sound waves. And for his upcoming Harthan hotel in Austin, Fulk is designing a pool that will sprout mosaic-covered tentacles that curl up and out of the water to form built-in furniture and planters.
These pool provocateurs follow in the footsteps of earlier artists and designers who saw enormous opportunities in the watery voids. At the Villa El Martinete in Málaga, Spain, the flamenco dancer Antonio Ruiz Soler had an original sketch by his friend Pablo Picasso re-created in tile to finish the bottom of his pool.
Artist David Hockney is revered for not only painting pool-focused works on canvas but also painting directly on pools themselves, including his own kidney-shaped refuge.
The Italian architect Gio Ponti, who designed irregularly shaped pools filled with unexpected features for hotels like the Royal Continental in Naples, Italy, summed up his motivation like this: “I want swimming pools for nymphs.”
Designers Angel Sanchez and Christopher Coleman of Miami’s Sanchez + Coleman Studio were thinking along similar lines when they developed a sinuous pool covered in cherry-red glass mosaic to give it the appearance of an exotic sea creature for a client’s backyard. “Our thought was to use this red mosaic to make it a sculptural object,” Coleman says.
Sasha Bikoff is also deviating from plain blue tile in a pool she’s currently designing in Palm Beach. Instead, she’ll install Moroccan tile with a graphic pattern rendered in pink, green, turquoise, and white. “It’s going to be the same tile we use on the patio floor, so it will feel like one big enveloping space,” she says.
At Fulk’s Napa Valley ranch, he has a simple pool with an understated design. But now that he’s at work on ones with more artistic expressions, he can’t help but wonder what else his own could be. “It is indeed a beautiful blue rectangle that reflects the sky,” the designer says. “But I don’t know that I would do the same thing if I was doing it all over again.”
These extravagant pools have long offered more than just a place to do laps.
- When David Hockney painted the inside of the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel’s pool with drippy blue macaroni—shaped strokes in 1988, it became an instant icon. After decades of fading, a 2019 restoration brought it back to vivid life.
- At Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California, you’ll find the “Neptune” pool lined with Vermont marble and overseen by mythic sculptural figures, and an indoor Roman-bath–inspired pool blanketed in blue and orange mosaics.
- The infamous pool at Gianni Versace’s mansion in Miami Beach (now the Villa Casa Casuarina hotel) is covered with mosaics depicting aquatic creatures and scalloped shells and includes thousands of tiles finished in 24-karat gold.
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of ELLE DECOR. SUBSCRIBE
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