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A Santa Monica backyard is remade for outdoor entertaining

Santa Monica back yard
Landscape architect Joseph Marek redesigned this Santa Monica backyard to create serene environments that feel like extensions of the house.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Landscape architect Joseph Marek’s clients made do with their Santa Monica backyard for six years, but eventually they decided that previous owners’ “improvements” just didn’t fit their lifestyle.

“It was pretty sad,” Marek recalls. “There was a bizarre hot tub separate from the pool. It was black, teal and dusty rose tile, with a lion’s head spout — very ’80s. There was a spiral staircase that had nothing to do with the house. There was no shade. There was no there there.”

The owners, whose three children no longer needed a play space, had requested more grown-up places where they could spend time outdoors. In response, Marek conceived parts of the yard as extensions of the rooms inside the house, and he made every inch count.

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This backyard was redesigned to provide grown-up spaces for a family with kids entering their teens.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Marek set about conjuring more from less. In a 2,500-square-foot yard, much of it taken up by the pool, he designed an enticing menu of outdoor living options: a new kitchen, dining patio, lounge area and sun deck that not only seem to enlarge the property but also harmonize aesthetically with the home’s hybrid architectural style, which he calls “Cali-terranean.”

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Marek’s first order of business was removing the hot tub and inserting a sparkling glass-tiled spa in the existing pool. This freed up space for a deck and chaises beside the water. Where the circular stairs once led to the gym above the office in the garage, he created a traditional staircase finished with wrought-iron railings that echo ironwork on the main house.

He added a wood pergola with stucco columns off the indoor kitchen. “People make the mistake of putting the barbecue far away, and then they end up never using it,” Marek says. “Here, it’s easy to carry food in and out.” The sheltered spot for cooking and dining was outfitted with overhead heaters and lighting. Now the owners grill every Friday night.

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A lounge-like area is clustered around a fire bowl.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Outside the family room, Marek designed a place to lounge that includes a fire bowl surrounded by a conversation-conducive sofa and four armchairs. When a crowd gathers, dining chairs or chaise ottomans can be moved over for extra seating, and a console table serves as a convenient surface for drinks and snacks.

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Two tangerine trees screen a central court where a tiled fountain built into the base of the staircase is a highlight. “Mediterranean gardens always have the sound of running water,” Marek says. “That little trickle creates such calm. And keeping this area open gives the yard breathing room.” Elsewhere, an olive tree, boxwood, westringia and lavender provide refreshing greenery without requiring excessive water or upkeep.

Bands of Sweetwater sandstone lend subtle definition to the hardscape in each zone. In the central court, the running-bond pattern gives way to a stunning carpet of square pavers bordered by Mexican river pebbles. “It’s like a beautiful piece of fabric,” Marek says. “When you look at it up close, you see how it’s woven.”

Garden before
Before: Neither the spiral staircase nor the '80s hot tub (with a lion's head spout) in the old backyard related to what landscape architect Joseph Marek calls the home's "Cali-terranean" architecture. He installed a more traditional staircase with a fountain and removed the hot tub to gain space for a poolside deck.
(Joseph Marek)

Once the backyard was completed, the owners turned Marek loose on their front yard. He transformed that too, getting rid of the gate and a curved path shrouded by overgrown shrubs. Visitors now approach via a straight stone walkway leading to the front porch and its crown of wisteria. As if to signal the quiet retreat in back, a reflecting pond filled with water lilies beckons from an alcove of boxwood, pittosporum and lomandra.

Backyard redesign
A pool contributes to the sense of a calm retreat.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Today Marek’s clients and their family can be found outside almost all the time. “When I see pictures on Instagram of the kids with their friends in the backyard,” he says, “I know I’ve created a place they want to be.”


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