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Riding a Wave

200611BVB0

200611BVB0

If you’ve been paying any attention to the media lately, you may have noticed that watershaping is “in” as a big-time topic for television, books, magazines, newspapers and other forms of mass communication.

Never in all my years as part of this industry can I recall a time during which the subject of beautiful custom pools, spas, fountains, ponds, streams and interactive bodies of water has won so much attention. It seems as if our society has finally caught on to the power, beauty and excitement of the art form many of us now call watershaping.

If we are, in fact, seeing what was once an obscure niche – that is, the creation of highly detailed, aesthetically inspiring outdoor environments – evolve to become the focus of interest among the mainstream media, one can only surmise that this coverage of our wares is attracting readers and viewers and advertising. Otherwise, I’m certain we wouldn’t be getting the nod.

It’s great fun to see this happening and certainly bodes well for our future prospects, both as an industry and as individual practitioners. We’re partly responsible, of course, because our work in the recent past has stepped up to an all-new level of beauty, sophistication and performance. But so are our clients, who seemed to have awakened to the reality that, if they want it, they can get something truly special.

I see this as a glorious opportunity, and I’m hoping we can collectively apply ourselves to perpetuating this “wave” and riding it for all it’s worth.

IN THE MAINSTREAM

I’ve been fortunate through the years to get involved in a long list of stories and features in various media about custom swimming pools and outdoor environments. I’ve participated in articles in The Wall Street Journal and Miami Herald, among many other newspapers, in lots of consumer magazines and on CNN, NBC and PBS. It’s been fascinating in these encounters to see what “sticks” with producers, editors, publishers and reporters – and how their coverage has shifted when it comes to working with our industry and its products.

Just prior to this writing, for example, I appeared on a CNBC show called “On the Money” in a segment about elaborate residential watershapes. I was one of a small group of watershapers interviewed along with a few savvy consumers.

One of the projects involved an extreme backyard environment that included a pool with rope swings, slides and other fun bells and whistles as well as an adjacent dry vessel built specifically for skateboarding.

The homeowner reportedly paid more than a quarter-million dollars to create his play space, and when the reporter asked him what had motivated him to dig so deeply into his pockets, he indicated that he worked hard, loved play-filled family activities and wanted to have his good times in his own yard rather than traveling anywhere else.

That honest and simple answer speaks volumes. Indeed, the coverage we’re seeing these days is the direct result of grand societal trends as well as the individual desire of consumers to enjoy themselves in the safety and comfort of their homes. This is not a new idea by any means, but the fact that our products are so clearly part of the discussion in the mainstream media points to a moment of opportunity that won’t come around very often in any industry’s history.

In a real sense, what this kind of coverage means is that elaborate watershape designs are now mainstream rather than novelty items. It means that the watershapes on display in these articles and broadcasts have been “normalized” and have become both attainable and desirable. Ultimately, it means that our potential clients have seen and are considering watershaping options that never seemed to be within reach before.

One of the people interviewed for the segment pointed out that there was a time not long ago when “quality outdoor living” was all about lawn chairs and hibachi grills. Those are still great, but the image of the ideal backyard now includes everything from pizza ovens and outdoor sound and video systems to grottos and interactive waterfeatures. It’s all good – and better yet, it’s apparently fit to print!

IMPRINTS

This isn’t just my own experience.

The work of my good friend and fellow WaterShapes contributor Juan Roca, for example, was recently covered at length in a new book called Infinity Pools (Collins Design/Harper Collins Publishers, 2006). Juan is a wonderful designer and builder who dominates the custom market in Costa Rica, and a half dozen of his projects appear in the book.

This particular example leads me to a couple of important points. First, Juan is just one among a new breed of watershapers who have gained widespread acclaim in recent years – and for good reason: His work is as creative and exciting as it comes. Second, fine watershaping is an international art form, which bodes well for those whose focus reaches beyond the United States. Third, although many of us have reached a point where vanishing edges seem old hat, here comes an entire hardback, coffee-table book devoted entirely to this one subject. Could it be that what seems overly familiar to us will become brand-new again?

Bower artwork

Printed material on the subject of watershaping has bloomed dramatically in recent years. The fact that these books and magazines exist at all is testimony to consumers’ interest in (and willingness to pay good money for) the opportunity to see what we can do for them.

What we have in this book, no matter its narrow focus, is a display of our products in the very best light – a beautiful idea book that will stoke the desires of potential clients looking for something special. Yes, it will be great for Juan’s reputation and business, but it will also be great for absolutely everyone from consumers and designers to the suppliers of the glass tile and other gorgeous materials he uses in his projects.

And this is just one example among many. If you do an Internet search for books about “swimming pools,” you’ll be stunned by the number and variety of both hardback and paperback volumes you can buy. And you really should buy them, not just for your own inspiration but also to share with clients. (WaterShapes columnist Mike Farley often discusses these titles in “Book Notes” – a great place to get leads on the best available releases.)

You don’t have to look very hard to find these publications. And when you pick them up, you’ll be amazed by what you see. And again, it’s a market-driven thing: These books simply wouldn’t be on store shelves if consumers weren’t interested in buying them.

BIGGER PICTURES

And it’s not all coffee-table tomes these days, either. Beyond WaterShapes, which has become an idea book that designers share with clients as they explore ideas together, there are also consumer-oriented, newsstand-style magazines that are helping spread the good word about watershapes.

One I’ve participated with for some years now is Luxury Pools (published by Manor House Publishing Co.), which currently comes out twice a year and features spreads about specific watershapers and their work. When it first came out a few years back, it was filled with projects I thought didn’t rise to the level of “luxury.” More recently, however, the caliber of contributions has picked up – right in line with the rising trend this column has been discussing and the positive evolution of our marketplace.

In economic terms, placing good work within eyes’ reach of mainstream consumers can only be good for watershaping, if only to the extent that it makes prospective clients more open-minded when it comes to thinking about details, materials and budgets.

Trendsetters

I’ve found that you can break consumers down into two basic categories when it comes to quality/creative exterior environments: There are those who want something that no one else has, and there are those who want things other people have. In both cases, what these consumers have in common is a desire for something that makes them happy and gives them a sense of pride.

From the designer’s standpoint, it’s always fun to work with clients who want a unique watershape: It forces us to stretch our abilities. At the same time, this original work feeds future projects and sets us up to accommodate clients who want “time-tested” elements they’ve seen elsewhere. (The latter group, by the way, is far larger than the former, even when the clients are bracingly affluent.)

To have the media step up and help us demonstrate our creativity on the one hand and display our “common” wares on the other is something that accelerates our industry’s evolution. What was once exotic (underwater windows, fire effects, perimeter overflows and vanishing edges) and the province of trend-setters has now received such wide exposure in the media that many more consumers are catching on and making us all advance creatively.

— B.V.B.

This same upward trend has also changed the inner workings of our industry: I remember a time when trade shows focused mainly on low-end, affordable products, but now we see lots of suppliers of glass tile, deluxe stone, elaborate equipment, lighting, sculpture – fine art of all varieties.

We’ve done our part as watershapers by stepping out and getting more creative, and media outlets are finally responding by catching on to what we’re doing in meaningful ways. We’ve broadened our palettes and have great stories to tell, and the more varied and rich the picture becomes, the likelier the media will be to shine a light on it.

It is both important and useful to recognize that this increased media coverage is not happening in a vacuum. In all our media endeavors, for example, watershaping is aided and abetted by a growing societal focus on health, fitness and all forms of exercise. Indeed, aquatic exercise has been getting more and more play in the media – again, it’s all good.

We also know, for example, that our society is getting older and that just about every story (at least those I’ve been part of) mentions “baby boomers” somewhere. These aging boomers have accumulated wealth and are freely expressing their desire to enjoy recreation and relaxation and pass an appreciation of this pleasurable lifestyle on to their children. This isn’t news to anyone who’s been paying attention, but it does seem to be coming into increasing and more practical focus.

This passing of the lifestyle torch has, in fact, already been helpful to watershaping, as children of the boomers are now becoming our clients. Like their parents, they want something beautiful, something that will provide recreation and relaxation, something that has an air of prestige and of having “arrived.”

ARE YOU READY?

I’m of the opinion that, as an industry and as individuals, we should be prepared to latch onto these trends with unbridled enthusiasm. Whether for recreation, relaxation or exercise, swimming and swimming pools are tremendous resources for our clients and their families. That’s a powerful message we should trumpet at every opportunity.

And we can’t overlook the fact that resorts and vacation destinations continue to play major roles in opening our prospective clients’ eyes to the world of possibilities watershaping now encompasses. Just about every time we see any kind of story about a fun place to visit, the coverage more often than not focuses on water – and the influence of these places on people who actually go there is of incalculable value in advancing the state of our art.

What all of this means for watershapers is that, more than ever before, we have a growing capacity to convey our messages. What was once an industry that resided in obscurity now finds itself on the cutting edge. Now’s the time to get involved and start talking with media outlets in your area. Be ready to talk to producers, journalists and editors when they call, and don’t fear to make bold statements about the importance, beauty and creative flexibility of our products.

Riding this surge of attention means being bold and proud of what you do: You never know, but one of these days you just might find yourself on television or in a major magazine being recognized for your best work – a great wave to catch and a fun ride beyond doubt.

Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants, a design firm based in Miami, Fla., and is a co-founder of the Genesis 3 Design Group; dedicated to top-of-the-line performance in aquatic design and construction, this organization conducts schools for like-minded pool designers and builders. He can be reached at [email protected]

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