If there’s one thought that permeates every page, every word and every photograph in this publication, it is this: The creation of something outstanding, something that stirs an emotional response, something that establishes an ongoing, extraordinary experience for clients and anyone else who sees our work all starts with the passion we have in our hearts for art and its intimate relationship to what we do as watershapers.
That’s a big concept. Really big. And I believe that unless you appreciate and (on some level) understand the raw power of artistic creation, then what you generate will seldom be true to the ideals of beauty, balance and harmony toward which we all should be striving.
Furthermore, this unrestrained sense of passion is an important one for us to embrace as professionals because it can serve as an internal compass that will guide the way we approach our work in an infinite number of practical and tangible ways.
THE TASTE OF ELEGANCE
I’ve written over and over in these pages about what it means to be a designer. Some of you have come to the conclusion that this line of discussion is meant to exclude all but an elite few, but I can’t think of anything that is more off base.
In fact, I believe that most everyone possesses some artistic ability. This is why I spend so much time in front of classrooms: I hope to unlock that ability in others, and it’s clear to me through more than 20 years of teaching that those talents lie untapped within many of my students, their true passion hidden behind a detrimental set of preconceived notions.
Let’s get specific about this with the pool and spa industry, where, to me, the worst of the detrimental preconceptions is the “retail mentality.”
|This spillway system may be beautiful on its own, but it is in the context of the entire visual and auditory composition – colors, textures, materials, elevations, contours and the surrounding environment – that it achieves its full potential.|
This mindset says that when we work with clients, we are there to sell them anything and everything, including the kitchen sink, because it means the project will generate more money for us. The last thought in mind is to select carefully or artfully among available materials to find things that go together: This is about jamming as much into the project as possible to extract as much money as the traffic will bear.
If you ask me – and lots of you have, believe me – this retail mentality is the main hurdle that stands between us and the potential we have to deliver great work.
Design is not about riffling through options and pulling things off a shelf without a care in the world about how the tile, for example, works with the coping and all the other stuff we’ve pulled. It’s about bringing something to our clients that emerges from our talent, educational background, insight into a setting’s dynamics, experience and, ultimately, our own hearts.
To explain this with more clarity, let’s step beyond watershaping and explore a topic to which we can all relate – food.
When you have a dinner party for friends or family, you don’t go buy canned or frozen tamales; you make the tamales. If you want to serve a great steak, you don’t go buy a chunk of meat and serve it as is. Instead, you accentuate the meat’s potential with spices and seasoning, garlic, pepper, bleu cheese and butter and cook it with care and precision.
We do this because we want our guests to experience something beyond the ordinary, something that flows from our passion about food and our desire to use it as a means of expressing our affection for friends and family. This simple process of making dinner guests feel pampered requires thought, preparation and the ability to translate basic recipes into a true culinary extravaganza.
DESIGN BY DESIGN
In the pool and spa industry, it’s too easy to crank out projects and forget the value of creativity and presentation. If the restaurant industry operated the way we seem to, then most everything would be fast food. Sure, there’s money to be made with mass-produced burgers and fries, but it’s not something we would classify as an expression of the fine arts of food, wine and dining.
To me, watershaping is every bit as valid and valuable an experience as fine dining. Think about it: We have the opportunity to bring beauty, balance and harmony to the lives of our clients, and they’ve come to us because that’s what they really want in their backyards. Unless we step back from the volume-over-quality mentality, we will, like purveyors of the fastest of fast foods, always be thoughtlessly slinging hash.
And this is not strictly a matter of working at the high end of the market – far from it.
|A design in which various components and materials are assembled without consideration of the setting or the style of the home may function well, but there’s something “off” about it, a visual tension that gets in the way of appropriateness and beauty.|
Indeed, I don’t think about what I do in that way, because I think the level at which I generally operate is a by-product of my approach to the work in just the same way a cookie-cutter builder’s approach determines his or her level of operation. On that basis, what I do boils down to looking at materials with a fresh eye and using them in innovative, creative and visually appealing ways that work with the site and the client’s needs and desires. By contrast, the volume builder looks at materials as commodities and thinks in terms of what’s on the shelf rather than what’s creatively possible.
In the last issue, for example, I wrote in this space about tile and color: You can look to standard suppliers who offer a standard array of tiles in standard colors, or you can use your own experience and powers of observation to peruse the universe of tile options in ceramic, porcelain or glass and guide your clients to a choice that is perfect for the setting and context in which it will be used.
That last point is important. Which would you prefer, having your dinner guests say, “Oh, what delicious tamales,” or “What a wonderful meal”? No matter what level I operate on, I don’t want my clients and their guests to view my work and say, “What pretty tile!” Instead, I want them to walk out into the yard and say, “What a beautiful space.”
Yes, the nuances of the tile (or stone or plantings) and the overall composition contribute to that impression, but it is the way they all work together that creates the experience. We design and develop a beautiful experience, and the tile, for all its individual beauty, is just one of many components.
This principle of defining wonderful and elegant elements that comprise a whole composition is the essence of art. Consider writing, for instance: A well-composed sentence in a novel is made up of often-ordinary words and phrases, yet the deliberate way in which those components relate to one another can convey a thought brilliantly.
Watershaping works in the same way. Yes, there may well be a spillway or tile or a construction detail or a water effect that is beautiful unto itself, but it is the context and the interrelation of elements that carries the experience to a richer potential. This is why, when I discuss projects with prospective clients, I don’t have a sense that I’m “selling” anything. Instead, what I’m doing is presenting ideas – specific ingredients as well as the possibilities embodied in an overall concept.
As a recent specific example, my partner Kevin Fleming and I are working on a project in the Northeast that features a grotto spa. This part of the project includes amazing blond/brown stone from Arkansas, a beautiful Italian glass-tile blend that picks up on and complements the stone’s colors and a host a great details including a built-in ice chest hidden by stone veneers and a weeping wall with multiple stone shelves on which the clients will place large candles.
|Quite often, there’s beauty in understatement: When offered distant views, for example, a harmonious design that leads the eye to the horizon works well; by contrast, a project crammed with jets and waterfalls might try to compete visually in a setting such as this – and generally will not succeed.|
Are we selling the stone, the tile, the ice chest or the candlelight? No. Instead, what we are doing is collaborating with the client and working to develop a design that will provide the elegant experience rich with the color, sound, warmth and beautiful water he wants.
This is quite a change for Kevin, who came out of a background where the retail mentality dominated and where his basic impulse was to sell as much as humanly possible into every project. It took a while, but he now sees, appreciates and participates in the sort of process I’m after – a process in which my clients and I interview each other and decide whether we want to work together to make art.
In some cases, I walk away after the interview because what they want and what I want cannot be reconciled in a way that will, at any price, give me pride and satisfaction in my work.
Look: Great painters don’t market their paintings by talking about the specific pigments or brushes they use. Even though their choices may be extremely interesting and reflect a great deal about their training, background, experience and professional preferences, the artist is providing a composition of texture, line, color and image that creates an experience that in totality has almost incalculable value for the viewer or the collector.
Some of those elements may be bold and expressive, while others may be retiring and subtle. It is the aggregation of the painter’s choices that makes the “design” worthwhile. The exact same thing can be said for watershaping.
I recently completed a project in southern California that consists of a simple rectangular pool with green plaster, ceramic waterline tile and tasteful decking and plantings. If I had a “sell, sell, sell” mentality, I probably could’ve convinced the client to up the ante and go with more expensive and elaborate components, but to my way of thinking this would have been a betrayal of what the situation required.
In this case, the project checked in at well under six figures – sort of unusual in my practice. The point is that the client and setting called for a composition that relied on simple shapes and materials. Was I working at the high end? I don’t really know or care: What I was after was a composition that worked, and in this instance the outcome was both absolutely beautiful and utterly appropriate.
|Words can’t adequately capture the dullness of this design and it’s antiseptic look in a setting that called for warmth and color rather than plain-vanilla expansiveness. That’s probably why it’s gone now and has been replaced by something much more visually engaging – and suited to the wide-open space.|
Just as with projects with budgets many times greater, this simple composition is an art piece and will for years provide beautiful daily experiences for the client. If I had approached this project with the retail mentality, I might have pushed for expensive glass tile and goodness knows what else. I almost certainly could have put more money in my pocket, but the result would have been diminished by a lack of artistic appropriateness and cohesion.
Creating that modest project and the others I design and build has never been about extracting dollars by using a limited and pre-conceived set of options. Instead, it is about finding beauty and elegance of the most appropriate kind, given the specifics of settings and clients.
As for the perception that I’m different from other watershapers because I work only at the highest end, that’s just a crock. What is important is to approach the work as a designer and artist, forget about selling in a retail sense and focus on collaborating with the client in useful and creative ways.
In other words, embrace the passion that might yet still be locked in your own heart behind the preconceived notion that tells you watershaping is about selling and commerce and bells and whistles. In my book, it’s about educations, aesthetics and experience; more than that, it’s about art.
David Tisherman is the principal in two design/construction firms: David Tisherman’s Visuals of Manhattan Beach, Calif., and Liquid Design of Cherry Hill, N.J. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is also an instructor for Artistic Resources & Training (ART); for information on ART’s classes, visit www.theartofwater.com.