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An Artisan's Touch

The watershapes, landscapes and artworks created by John Cohen are among the most fearless and wildly creative to be found anywhere.  By combining stone, sculptures, crystals, water and lighting with a host of inventive details, he weaves compositions that balance his own vision with the desires of his clients – as seen in this feature, where he shares a major project and explores the confluence of craft and art required to execute such ambitious designs.
The watershapes, landscapes and artworks created by John Cohen are among the most fearless and wildly creative to be found anywhere. By combining stone, sculptures, crystals, water and lighting with a host of inventive details, he weaves compositions that balance his own vision with the desires of his clients – as seen in this feature, where he shares a major project and explores the confluence of craft and art required to execute such ambitious designs.
By John Cohen
 
When I was a kid, the conventional part of my education in environmental design came in helping my father, Jay Stang, plant parkways and blocks of Pinus Pinea across the city.  

The unconventional part – the part that apparently took firmer root as I grew up – had me admiring the plate he’d made from hardwood with the dozen split avocado pits he’d carved and mounted on the surface; it also had me listening to my mother, Judy Campbell, tell me that the earth was here first, that the garden already exists and that pathways, watershapes and structures are best built around what we find there.

Those unconventional lessons – one about creativity and vision, the other about respect for nature and a method for approaching it – have stayed with me through the years and have given me access to a number of incredible projects.
 
As is the case with most intriguing and fascinating designs, the one seen here flowed from a client with whom I developed a close creative connection that resulted in a free exchange of ideas¬ – a synchronized spontaneity that became a pattern for the entire design process.  She always had strong thoughts about what she wanted, but she allowed me to interpret and express her ideas based on our conversations and the nature of the site.
 
As designers, it’s not unusual for us to be called on to use our skills and figure out what a client such as this one really wants and then suggest ideas we think will work.  I call this process “environmental psychiatry” because, while so many clients have a sense of what they want and a laundry list of general ideas, few have a direct vision of what might develop on site and it’s my job to draw it out.  

 

For this project, I’m happy to report that this exploratory, creative process unfolded with ease, excitement and joy at almost every step of the way.
 
A STARTING POINT
 
Set on an acre-plus property in an upscale neighborhood in the hills above Los Angeles, the client’s home had just undergone a renovation that highlighted a fascinatingly eclectic architecture that leaned toward both Asian and modernized Craftsman influences.  The stacked-level house has lots of windows, many connected angular spaces, cherrywood floors and a variety of unique architectural elements.
 
From the moment I walked in the door, I could see the potential based on the tasteful, sculptural quality of the architecture.
 

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The home’s entry hall received the first of the watershapes we designed and built for this project.  Here, water washes down a pair of highly textured acrylic panels before dropping into a bed of crystals lit from below with fiberoptics.  The small basin is also fed by water flowing across and down stone steps.

On that first visit, I noticed some beautiful cracked-glass railing panes along the stairway – an observation that led to an initial concept I brought up as soon as my client mentioned that she wanted to connect the inside to the outside using water and art.  My suggestion had to do with a large, hanging, sculpted waterfeature in which eleven-foot-tall acrylic panels would be suspended from the ceiling, ending two feet above and dripping freely into a sculpted catch basin.
 
The opaque acrylic panels would have a roughly textured surface impregnated with deep-blue veins that would run the length of the material.  The water would drop into a trough filled with glass crystals, and everything – panels and crystals alike – would be lit by fiberoptics.  The water would also flow down a stone stairway that would flank the cherrywood steps leading into the main part of the house.
 
The client latched right onto this first idea, and I immediately knew we were going to have fun together – although executing this interior waterfeature took quite a bit of doing.  In brief, it involved working closely with a Chinese firm that took four months to fabricate the custom acrylic panels and another month to deliver them.  Suspending the panels from the ceiling with rain bars (not intended to be used the way we used them!) proved difficult, as did setting up the fiberoptic track lights at the top of the panels.
 

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The stonework motifs announced inside with the glass-panel waterfeature reach outside to the pool deck, where the fountain is encompassed by a highly detailed composition in stone and crystal.  Many of the crystals are backlit to provide a nighttime glow; others are left to reveal their inner beauty with the aid of sunlight.

An ever bigger challenge came in mastering the flow of water from on high:  Controlling splash was a major issue, and we spent a lot of time adjusting and readjusting the flow and the weir’s configuration.  The result is unusual and quite vivid, yet tranquil – the sort of thing you’d never be able to pursue without a client who was willing to take chances or a crew with a can-do attitude.
 
Another cue I’d picked up in the early going came from the stacked ledger-stone details that were part of the home’s interior.  It dawned on me that this gave us the opportunity to combine glass, stone and water in an unusual way that would tie the inside and outside together and give the client something no one else had.
 
CRYSTALS AND LIGHT
 
Once we moved beyond the home’s front entrance, we were in something of a void: The existing landscape, which featured large trees and an aggressively ordinary rectangular pool, exhibited none of the creative spirit we found in the home’s wonderful architecture, so we were all in agreement that what we faced (and happily so) was a completely blank canvas.  

Our job was to take that space and develop it in such a way that anyone who ever came close would have the feeling of entering a different world – one filled with color, stone, glass, fire and water.  

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The interior of the swimming pool has been lined with tile and a pebble finish in a way that portrays a complete underwater world, from the sandy shallows to the darkened depths of the diving well.  Colorful fish immediately catch the eye, but further examination reveals a detailed realm filled with visual delights.

The client, who comes from a Japanese family, wanted everything to have an organic Asian feel while maintaining a sense of line, depth and soft formality.  In classic Japanese gardens, the goal is to usher in the Heavenly Spirits by creating such beauty in the environment that a connection is made between the two worlds.  This theme was a critical foundation for everything we did, but we began modestly, commencing with installation of a series of pathways leading from the front of the house to the back yard.  

A Note of Thanks

A project such as this is too massive for me to forget to give credit to:
    
*  My design partner, Jon Heberling of Innovative Theaters (West Hollywood, Calif.) and architect Sean Monahan (Santa Clarita, Calif.), who developed the design scheme for the entire house.  

*  General contractor Bob Potts of Fred E. Potts Co. (Woodland Hills, Calif.), who handled the remodeling project.  An excellent craftsperson and my good friend, I know I could not have accomplished a thing without his support.

*  A patient crew and my best friend Jeff Micka of Christmas Star (Topanga, Calif.), an artistic hydraulic engineer and the man who worked and reworked the water flow for the indoor waterfeature until everything was just right.

*  Landscape contractor Nache Hilton, who, along with her all-woman crew, has brought amazing depth of knowledge in selection and placement of plants and floral arrays to a challenging site.

Also contributing in huge ways were:  Mario Arredondo, always on time and available for every new request or change; masonry foreman Tobo Zumaran, who knew just how to fit every crystal in with the stonework; Uvaldo Cano, a master at matching simulated cliff panels to real rock; and Jason Speed and Rob Vanderborgt, who connected every wire and each fiberoptic run and who understood the visual goals we’d set for the extensive lighting arrays.

-- J.C.

We also worked on stone walls and pilasters featuring stacked ledger stone, crystals, veins and fine architectural details in wood.  Throughout, we picked up the home’s wonderful stonework, mixing a rich, cinnamon-colored ledger material with Utah Sunrise stone and its red- and rust-colored veins.  We also picked up the interior’s glass motif as well, mixing red, green and blue crystal pieces in with the ledger stone and lighting them from behind with fiberoptics to give the walls a striking yet subtle glow.  We used this same stone-and-crystal approach in the rest of the space as well, making it a recurring motif in several other areas – including the swimming pool.
 
The original pool had been a plain 16-by-30-foot rectangle, but it has now been transformed into a 20-by-40-foot structure alive with dramatic details.  The interior finish, for example, now includes a coral-reef mosaic created by Topanga Art Tile (Topanga, Calif.).  The firm is terrific at creating brightly colored scenes using textured, high-relief ceramic tile pieces that give their work three-dimensional character.  This mosaic is interwoven with a pebble finish in four shades ranging from blue to purple in dramatic, sweeping patterns that suggest the movement of ocean currents.  The beach-entry tile has the same swirls as the Utah Sunrise stone.
 
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The long spa features imaginative stonework, fine crystals and a multiplicity of hydrotherapy jets in the walls and floor that make for a satisfying soak.  The wall rising behind the spa ensures privacy, but it is also a functioning water wall, with streams flowing through various crevices into the vessel before they flow through a network of cracks into the pool below.

The revised vessel also includes large panels of artificial rock made by Rock & Water Creations (Fillmore, Calif.) as well as massive pieces of Kansas Farmer stone quarried in large, rough blocks that we used as decorative elements on the edges of the pool and with the massive diving platform over the deep end.  The pool also has a “star surface” fiberoptic treatment that reaches from the bottom of the pool out onto the deck, emanating from both the intricate mosaic tile and the cliff panels.
 
FLOWING STRUCTURE
 
To allow for jumping and diving, the pool’s deep end reaches to nine feet, and the mosaics and cliff panels extend roughly to the bottom.  The idea here was to create a work of art that was functional for swimming and diving.  As it turns out, the client’s children and their friends now line up to dive off rocks encrusted with clinging tile starfish and bleeding water through carefully hidden plumbing.  Those who jump or dive from the rocks are rewarded by visual details all the way to the bottom, the idea being that when you jump in you’re entering a vivid underwater world.

As all of this was unfolding, the client told me that her kids kept telling her she was crazy and that they didn’t understand how the thing would look when it was finished.  Now that they’ve used it through the warm summer of 2006, they apparently have gained a newfound respect for their mother’s artistic impulses.
 

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We used stone in various ways throughout the property, generally with some sort of twist to keep things from seeming conventional.  On the pool deck, for example, a common flag pattern in light stone is interrupted by a dark-slate ‘stream’ that flows across the surface.  For their part, the walls’ rusty-streaked stones seem anything but ordinary.

It is indeed a spectacular vessel, and the pebble finish, the tile mosaic, the large boulders and the wall panels all combine to create a backyard swimming pool that is as elaborate and uninhibited as any I’ve ever seen.  In fact, time and again, people who see it tell me that they’ve never seen a watershape that displays such sheer artistic daring.
 
The message I take from this praise is that the watershape is intrinsically interesting – and it just keeps going, too:  Adjacent to the shallow end of the pool, for instance, there’s a 20-foot-long attached spa that rises above the full width of the pool, fronted by a raised dam wall decked out with ledger stones and crystals.  Water from the spa doesn’t spill over the edge:  Instead, it flows into the pool through cracks in the ledger and the Kansas Farmer stone.
 

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Large standing stones are a major motif used throughout the landscape and the watershapes:  Huge slabs of Kansas Farmer stone frame the walk from the front drive to the pool deck; stand as sentinels just off the upper deck, looking out over the sloping yard; and serve as jumping platforms at the deep end of the pool.

Then there’s the 13-foot-long, two-tiered, radiused fire feature that serves as a backdrop to the pool and spa:  It uses the same stone and glass materials, with flickering firelight transmitted through the crystals.  Finally, opposite the spa, there’s a large water wall with fountain sprays from Fountain Supply of Santa Clarita, Calif.  Once again, this area uses the ledger-and-glass details – and the water wall picks up the motif of having water flow out through cracks placed strategically in the stone.
 
The deck features Utah Sunrise stone in a flag pattern, interspersed with large pieces of black Yosemite slate with a gloss finish that appear as “streams” of water “flowing” throughout the decking.  We’ve completed  a huge wooden deck and barbecue area that’s tied into the rest of the composition with crystals and ledger stone, and there’s also a planned Japanese-style bridge that will extend from the deck area toward a new guesthouse.  This, too, will include crystals lit by fiberoptics mixed in with the stone.   

Malibu Stone & Masonry (Malibu, Calif.) was a huge help throughout the project, helping us procure the stone we needed in the types and sizes required.
 
JAPANESE STONEHENGE
 
The landscape design for this amazing yard is an amalgam of classic Japanese garden styles with tropical plants added to represent that country’s southern regions.  There’s a small, rock-colored Japanese temple by one of the pathways, lit from the inside with fiberoptics and surrounded by moss streams and a collection of world-famous dwarf azaleas, camellias and gardenias from Nuccio’s of Altadena, Calif.  We also included mottled-glaze urns more than six feet tall, lit from within to uplight large clusters of bamboo stalks.   
 

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When the air cools at the end of the day, a huge area of the pool deck draws warmth from a long, curving fire feature that marks the end of the deck next to the spa.

The major watershape and hardscape features are complete, but we’re still hard at work on the landscape and yet-to-be-developed areas of the property.  In the entry court, for example, we’re working with the client on an elaborate water/light/crystal structure meant to evoke a Lord of the Rings experience.  We have also installed an LED-illuminated orb/moonlighting system – a programmable array that will dim and raise the lights to create shifting visual effects almost as though the “moon” is working through its phases or changing positions.  This starts up with a honeycomb glow in the early evening that turns bright silver later on.  
 

Five phases
 
As is true of many great projects, the design described in the adjoining text unfolded in several distinct phases, each building and expanding upon the last.

[  ]  Phase one included initial discussions with the client, general contractor Bob Potts and architect Sean Moynahan and the design and installation of the elaborate acrylic waterfeature inside the house with lit crystals in a rock wall.
 
[  ]  Phase two involved the initial work on the exterior pathways, walls and landscaping as well as veneering parts of the house in stone.  It was here that the governing exterior motifs really took form, with full expression of the Asian-influenced style and creative stone-and-crystal work now seen throughout.
 
[  ]  Phase three took the most time and encompassed creation of the swimming pool, the tile coral reef, the spa, the fire feature, the outdoor water wall and the surrounding stone decking – not to mention the wooden deck, its extensive substructure and the outdoor kitchen.
 
[  ]  Phase four is ongoing and includes work on developing the landscape in collaboration with Nache Hilton and her staff.  This phase includes the front entrance, aquatic gardens with arching stone bridges and large vertical Kansas Farmer stone placements we’ve used to create a “Japanese Stonehenge.”
 
[  ]  Phase five will see completion of the Japanese gardens, stone driveways and walkways and the Lord of the Rings-inspired courtyard with its giant crystals, subtle waterfeatures, fabulous light shows and sequenced water sprays.
 
In each of these phases, I’ve seen instant connections between these myriad concepts and the client’s desires as well as an open spirit when it came to fine-tuning design ideas before any work is done.  

In each case, naturally, the approach to a given phase is influenced by previous stages, and there’s an overriding need to make certain that everything blends, matches and flows with integrated coherence.  Our aim, in other words, has always been to leave no sign that the work is taking place in distinct phases.
 
So far, we’ve spent more than three years on site.  With humble determination and indomitable creative spirit, we should complete this graceful and daring project sometime in 2007.
 
--J.C.

 

As I hope I’ve conveyed here, this is a highly unusual project for a unique client, and I trust the photographs help in conveying its colors, styles, textures and materials in ways my words cannot.
 
One of the reasons I love this project so much is that the blue flowing veins in the interior water panels have been translated to all of the watershapes and hardscape outside – an intricate connectedness that creates bold and surprising spaces that are also collectively harmonious and peaceful.  The use of color is meant to be eye-catching, but when you spend time here, the contrasts and harmonies work hand in hand, yin and yang, with enduring beauty.  

 

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Lighting plays a huge role in the entire composition, from bold lights under the fountain plumes to the subtle lights that peek through tile features in a twinkling starlight effect both on the deck and below the waterline.  From the front entry’s pagoda to the ‘moonlight’ effect in the 50-foot trees that line the property, the emphasis is on extending the fun of the backyard experience well into the night.

We may not have 200 years to produce an archetypal Japanese garden, but our love for the beauty of the stone and glass is highly evident in the detailing and eclectic blending seen in our work and has moved everything we’ve touched in the right direction.

Another source of joy comes in the fact that the project has been pursued by a true community of artisans.  Everyone from the masons and suppliers to the general contractor and my own staff have brought passion and creativity to the project and, each in their own ways, left indelible marks on the site.  This endeavor was a true labor of love – one that will always conjure feelings of excitement, wonder and pride in everyone involved.  

 

John Cohen is owner and founder of Christmas Star, a watershaping and landscape design firm based in Topanga, Calif. Cohen’s career began when he was a child, working with his father planting trees and installing landscapes for upscale properties and public spaces in southern California. He founded his own firm in 1975, which adopted its current name in the early ’80s. Mostly self-taught, Cohen also studied Chinese gardening in the mid-’70s at UCLA and has been an informal student of visual and performing arts throughout his life.  His projects include highly stylized and distinctive watershapes and landscape compositions for upscale clients throughout southern and central California.

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