Mid-century Modern pool design

Cool in the Pool

Pool design didn’t change very much for 5,000 years, but designers like Architectural Blue’s Matt Naylor are determined to change that.

Raoul Hausmann Real Estate

Mid-century Modern pool design
This raised infinity pool by Architectural Blue has a black granite top and face. The 
spa lies just beneath the water level.

111 East


Matt Naylor is founder and chief designer of Architectural Blue, a Palm Springs company specializing in cutting-edge pool and landscape design such as the water fountain at the Gardens on El Paseo. But sometimes, it feels like he spends as much time removing old pools in the valley as filling new ones.

“We take out a lot,” he says. “In the last few years we’ve done a tremendous amount of work on the north end for Alexander houses.”

Naylor says that often the structures of older pools have not held up and have to be demolished for safety. Often, new owners of midcentury modern homes compare the kidney-shaped pools in their backyards with the straight, clean lines of the surrounding structure and scratch their heads in disbelief.

The pool is wrapped in custom-cut tile whose color scheme matches the house, 
by Architectural Blue.

In fact, according to Naylor, the term “kidney shape” is a bit of a misnomer when it comes to these pools. True, some (especially the pre-fab vinyls) were more or less in the shape of a kidney, but many were “free form,” and really quite beautiful. The famous boulder-strewn pool at the Raymond Loewy house and the meandering edge of the pool at Frank Sinatra’s Twin Palms home were conscious attempts to add a contrasting organic element to the design of the homes. The Loewy home, in particular, reflects the near obsession of top midcentury architects such as Albert Frey and Richard Neutra with its indoor/outdoor relationship. In their ideal form, these pools were designed to feel like natural water features that were part of the desert landscape.

Unfortunately, many people who bought second homes 50 years ago in Palm Springs either did not appreciate that particular aesthetic or could not afford it. Pools were not as ubiquitous in the 1950s, ’60s, and even ’70s as they are today. The nascent pool industry began in the years following World War II because many veterans had learned to swim as part of their military training. Even in Southern California, where the climate made in-ground pools a reasonable landscaping choice for middle-income homeowners, custom pools were considered a luxury item.

A Julius Shulman photo of the pioneereing 1941 Albert Frey house.

Naylor points out that many pool contractors did not encourage homeowners to choose free-form styles out of any architectural considerations. “It was cheaper to build back in the day,” he says. “You could have the same length and width on a free form [but] you’re cutting off the corners.”

You could say that Naylor got into the business when he was 8 years old and helped his uncle build a pool for his family in Salt Lake City. “The pool [was] all cinder block. We finished it with plaster. That’s old school.”

The homes first built in Old Las Palmas and Movie Colony in the ’20s and ’30s are not unlike the earliest man-made pools. The oldest pool yet discovered is at the site of Mohenjo Daro in modern Pakistan and is estimated to be more than 5,000 years old. Like the Greek and Roman baths that followed two or three millennia later, the basic shape was a rectangle. The construction was tightly placed brick whose seams were filled with a tarlike sealant, and the whole covered with several layers of plaster. It is believed that the first heated pool was built by Gaius Maecenas of Rome in the first century B.C. Romans also kept fish in their swimming pools.

Very little changed in pool construction before legendary film studio owner Jack Warner built his Roman-inspired Billy Haines villa on Via Lola in Old Las Palmas. Instead of bricks, it was a large rectangle composed of plastered cinder blocks and tiled just like an old Gaius. According to Naylor, one of the biggest design sins of the past was to dig the largest pool the yard could accommodate with no consideration for scale and supporting features. He says that aesthetic transgression has changed dramatically in the last decade.

A perimeter infinity pool by Architectural Blue.

“What’s happened is that the homeowners have become more savvy for pools and design. It’s about high-end design [and wanting] the whole yard designed around the house.”

Like any unfortunate fashion trend, pool design has worn its share of polyester leisure suits. There was the lava rock waterfall era, the in-pool spa, the lap pool, the infinity pool, and, most recently, the tanning, or Baja, shelf. None of these trends was particularly awful in itself, but as Naylor points out, the problem is usually that homeowners fail to see how water features, boulders, decorative pots, furniture, lights, and plants are supposed to complement and interact with a home’s architecture and interior design.

“You’re trying to make your outdoor look like your indoor,” he says. “No matter whether it’s [midcentury] modern, contemporary, or Spanish. Sometimes I think we forget about the Spanish heritage we have here that requires just as much detail [as] any modern home.” Naylor’s own Spanish home is a case in point. A former post office building in South Palm Springs, his pool’s central perpendicular position to the house, the classic Mexican tiles, and a line of detached arches accentuate and heighten the cultural aesthetic so that it doesn’t seem so much old Palm Springs as much as old Mexico.

A Palmer & Krisel house and a pool in Twin Palms.

A request Naylor receives frequently is for infinity pools. He has to point out to clients that the shape of their yard is the determining factor. In some cases, he’ll design the infinity pool so that the disappearing edge faces the house, or he’ll create full-perimeter infinity pools that look like someone laid a gigantic square of plate glass in the middle of a lawn.

Architectural Blue doesn’t stop at pools. Naylor and his team have custom furniture, iron work, tiles, and lighting fixtures all made to fit the vision they create for each property. “It’s a pain in the ass … but it’s a specialty vision,” he says. “It’s not like we can go to a patio store and pick out furniture.”