Modern swimming pool design does not always mean that a pool was built recently or has all of the most high-tech features and materials. Residential pool design dates back to California in the 1930s, when wealthy movie stars were able to afford houses with landscaping that blended the indoor/outdoor lifestyle. These early residential pools often reflected the home's architecture, complementing its design rather than competing or looking like a stand-alone feature.
Along Came Gunite
Before the introduction of gunite—a mixture of concrete and sand—most residential swimming pools were built from plywood or fiberglass that held poured concrete. Others were constructed with a shell of reinforced concrete blocks. This costly construction process made private pools attainable mostly to the wealthy. It also made shapes other than traditional rectangles easier to design.
During the post-World War II housing boom, gunite swimming pools became more of a possibility for middle-class homeowners. California, with its mild climate and indoor/outdoor living spaces, was the unofficial capital of residential swimming pools.
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The Modernist Donnell Pool
In 1948, noted landscape architect Thomas Church, along with landscape architect Lawrence Halprin and architect George Rockrise, designed the Donnell Garden in Sonoma, California, for the family of Dewey and Jean Donnell. The garden—especially the freeform, kidney-shaped gunite swimming pool—is an icon of Modernist design and one of the most well-preserved examples still in existence.
Groundbreaking features of the Donnell pool include a small "island" in the pool with a sculpture by Adaline Kent, a floating deck, and, of course, its Midcentury Modern biomorphic shape.Continue to 2 of 25 below.
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Two Types of Pool Designs
In designing residential swimming pools, there are two basic types:
- Architectural Pools: These complement the architectural style of the house and often have more formal lines or geometric shapes.
- Naturalistic: Inspired by nature and its surroundings, this type of pool has more freeform shapes with faux rock formations, waterfalls or features, gradual beach-like entries, and themed landscaping (tropical, desert, etc.).
To Infinity and Beyond
This infinity pool was built to take advantage of the stunning view and offers many extras, including: a swim-up bar, tanning bay, colored LED lighting, fire bowl, hammered Mediterranean blue glass tile in the pool; with flamed granite tiling on the deck and an equipment room built beneath the pool with easy access on the sideContinue to 3 of 25 below.
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Pool with Fish Mural
A striking example of continuing architectural design into a yard and pool, this home features a lap pool that spills into an adjacent lower-lying catch gutter, where water runs into a balance tank at the opposite end of the pool. From the vantage point of the lap pool, the balance tank appears to be a separate water feature or adjacent pool. An abstract fish mural on the support wall ties together the two bodies of water.Continue to 4 of 25 below.
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A cantilevered roof with an opening allows sun to shine through to the tanning lounges beneath it. A few steps away is a negative-edge pool which repeats the clean, horizontal lines of the house.Continue to 5 of 25 below.
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It's not evident, but this pool was built off the second floor of the house, about 21 feet above ground level. This required the builder to pour and construct retaining walls on both sides of the yard and pool. While its shape is a traditional rectangle, this pool was modernized with a negative edge, tiled logo at the bottom, and a glass-chip fireplace. An eco design, the pool is solar heated and its filtration system and pumps are hidden below water level.Continue to 6 of 25 below.
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A long, narrow rectangular pool is artfully illuminated by Patdo Light Studio of Port Chester, New York, to complement and not compete with the geometric shapes of this modern house.Continue to 7 of 25 below.
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South Africa's Spa House
The often-photographed Spa House in Cape Town, South Africa, is a beautiful example of modern architecture with landscaping and hardscaping to match. Designed by the firm Metropolis Design, the spa features a floating deck and a spa located below the waterline, which is viewable through a large window in the house.Continue to 8 of 25 below.
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Many contemporary homes are on small lots, which presents a challenge when designing a pool and outdoor living space. A pool, spa, and bar were all incorporated in a limited area, with lighting that accentuates the round forms of the all three components. The pool uses an ionization disinfection system to sanitize the water.Continue to 9 of 25 below.
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Wet Deck Design
Not all modern pools are geometric, as evidenced by this elegant, curving design set amidst the landscape. Existing patios at varying elevations made this pool project a challenge: the decking was able to tie into the elevations without creating noticeable steep slopes. A large gutter was built underneath the deck cantilever to contain and conceal the surge tank.Continue to 10 of 25 below.
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Cantilever and Curves
A cantilevered roof gives the feeling of extending a house outdoors, providing shelter, fresh air, and outdoor living all at the same time. A curving, raised patio gives the pool an unusual, striking shape, enhanced with artistic pool lighting.Continue to 11 of 25 below.
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If you have the great fortune of living on a coast with a view of a nearby island, why not make the home design all about the view? The horizon is repeated in the linear roofline, with an open design that makes indoor/outdoor living seamless. This stunning pool repeats those lines—a clean rectangle that appears to be an extension of the ocean.Continue to 12 of 25 below.
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Small Lot, Big Pool
Also designed on a small lot, this space was designed to accommodate the client's request for a large swimming pool. Adding to the challenge: the house and pool house were already in place when the pool project began. The client also requested waterfalls that be positioned away from the house to escape the sound. The builder created a long, freeform pool with two waterfalls and a hot tub situated between the main house and pool house, tying together everything.Continue to 13 of 25 below.
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Perched atop a mountain with a spectacular view of the city lights below, this enclosed pool was designed to capture the beauty of its surroundings, both near and far. The pool's vanishing edge is angled, and the glass structure echoes this shape. The three separate pools include an exercise pool with swim jets and a children's pool—all heated by solar energy.Continue to 14 of 25 below.
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Gunite curvilinear pools loosened things up in the pool design world, resulting in forms like the figure 8, or sometimes referred to as the hourglass. One of the earliest figure-8 shapes to show up in public was at The Desert Inn in Las Vegas in the 1950s, on a magnificent scale, of course. Figure 8s are timeless shapes, and are still a popular choice, especially for mid-century modern style homes.Continue to 15 of 25 below.
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The clients for this modern design wanted a home and yard with a strong focus on sustainability and innovation. Nature is mimicked with a mixture of aquatic plants, reeds, and lotus. A waterfall splashes through a large natural boulder, while local river rock and different shades of PebbleCrete were used for the pool surfaces. Continuing with the natural theme, the pool's entry steps were made from hand-cut stone, then accented with blue LED lights.
Layers of filtration media help to create an organic filtration system that makes the pool clean for swimming and a safe habitat for certain types of fish, dragonflies, tree frogs, and other wildlife.Continue to 16 of 25 below.
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This large 1,250-square-foot pool with integrated spa is raised to show off its rare, four-sided zero edges. Glass tile surrounding the raised exterior of the pool enhances the effects of the zero-edge design. Travertine entrance steps match the approaching decking, while a flaming cauldron provides a splash of drama.Continue to 17 of 25 below.
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Designed by Modernist architect William Krisel, this Palm Springs home was renovated and restored by Studio AR&D Architects to preserve the home's architectural integrity. The pool echoes the home's horizontal lines and geometry, beautifully blending the indoors with the outdoors.Continue to 18 of 25 below.
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The homeowners wanted a resort-like escape, which came in the form of a massive, 2,600-square-foot pool with lots of amenities, including a wet/dry walk-in grotto with built-in seating and table, waterfalls, a lazy river, and an elevated spa with rock wall and fire bowl.Continue to 19 of 25 below.
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Natural Negative Edge
This hillside home near a lake features a pool and spa area with several custom features. A negative-edge pool and spa are joined by a "creek" made of river rock pebble tile, travertine, glass pebble tile, and travertine. The creek flows into the pool, which wraps around a seating area with a fire pit, spilling into a catch basin below. Water from the spa appears to carve another creek.Continue to 20 of 25 below.
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Tuscan Farmhouse Goes Mod
Not every home in Tuscany is rustic and centuries-old. This farmhouse received a modern update outdoors, mixing geometric shapes with old world materials that looks fantastic.Continue to 21 of 25 below.
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Man Cave Grotto
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- A team of architects, structural engineers, landscape architects, audio visual specialists, and saltwater reef consultants joined forces to create this man cave grotto. Not surprisingly, this exotic escape is really a self-contained house/cave with all the extras, and then some.
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Santa Monica Style
The Santa Monica, California, home and yard of interior designer Kathryn Ireland (not to be confused with Kathy Ireland, the former model and lifestyle brand entrepreneur) reflects her penchant for using vivid colors and textures in her designs. Ireland's pool area is personalized with ceramic tile, a coordinated bench, and pretty, casual cushions and pillows.Continue to 23 of 25 below.
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Pool with Fire Bowls
Situated on a lot that used to be a 15-acre farm, the challenge of this design was to deconstruct the old pool and locate a new one on a much smaller part of the property, adjacent to the house--and make them both look like they were built at the same time. Stone columns support a pergola that connects the house to the patio and pool area, while a swim-up bench that runs the length of the pool offers in-pool seating. A fire bowl serves as a focal point, and a nearby fire pit provides yet more seating for larger get-togethers.Continue to 24 of 25 below.
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Palm Springs Alexander Pool
A coveted Alexander home in Palm Springs designed by architects Palmer & Krisel was updated but managed to keep its Midcentury Modern roots. Among the new features: a spa integrated with the pool, a ground-level fire pit, and a mosaic outdoor shower.Continue to 25 of 25 below.
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Renovated Older Pool
After several years, pools are going to need an update in equipment, surfaces, and pretty much everything else. The owners of this 30-year-old pool wanted to retain the simple, straight lines, but allowed the designer to get innovative. Brick coping was replaced with Leuder limestone and dated blue and mauve tile was replaced with custom designed and cut elongated tile in several shades of grey.
Wiltse, Jeff. Contested Waters A Social History of Swimming Pools in America. The University of North Carolina Press