At her summer house on Shelter Island, just off the east end of New York's Long Island, Martha Baker starts each morning with a dip in Peconic Bay. When she was growing up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, Lake St.Clair was just outside her door. "Water has always been a focus in my life," the avid swimmer says. And as a landscape designer, Baker has continued to be seduced by water's many moods, most recently captured in her new book, The Swimming Pool: Stylish and Inspirational Ideas for Building and Decorating Your Pool (Clarkson Potter).
For Baker, pools both stimulate the imagination and reflect one's personal style—areas she knows a thing or two about. After college she briefly attended graduate school to study architecture but left early, embarking on a 20-year career as a fashion editor for, among other publications, New York and The New York Times Magazine. Occasionally that work brought her poolside; one memorable shoot in the eighties, for a bathing suit feature, took place at the scallop-edged pool made famous by Esther Williams, at the Raleigh hotel in Miami Beach. "Between the pool's curvaceous shape and the models, it was a rococo fantasy," Baker recalls.
A few years back she decided to return to her first love—design—and establish a landscape practice, bringing along the same stylish pizzazz that she had honed as a fashionista. Her earlier books revolved around garden ornaments and outdoor living spaces. This latest is a lushly illustrated visual Rolodex of domestic aquatic playgrounds, many drawn from her days in the fashion world. The pools range from paradisiacal Moorish-inspired oases to austere modernist waterscapes worthy of an Antonioni film. Several were designed by Baker herself, whose work tends toward a sensitive, contextual approach that eschews flash. For one pool renovation in Greenwich, Connecticut, for example, she installed fieldstone walls to echo the local countryside; she simplified the existing paving pattern to create a "symmetry, order, and balance" that complements the adjoining 1820s Neoclassical house.
In the book Baker covers a variety of pool styles, including lap pools and infinity pools (the überfashionable ones are sited above a natural body of water so they appear to bleed into the horizon beyond). Indeed, she is out to prove that swimming pools aren't just oblong reservoirs that happen to be painted turquoise. Consider the oval, for one, she suggests—"a very graceful, elegant shape." And forget about the predictable blue. "People are getting more sophisticated with colors and materials," she notes. "They are lining their pools in all sorts of colorful mosaics, tiles, even marble dust."
Of course, an array of other considerations also go into making a pool, from siting, fencing, and lighting to storage, furniture, and sun shelters. But most critical, according to Baker, is the overall mood. It's telling that Baker didn't organize her book by pool type; instead, she devised four sections—Romantic, Modern, Classic, and Rustic—that each establish a tenor to match client and home. "A pool should reflect how people use it," Baker says, "whether it's something theatrical for entertaining, or minimal for a contemplative experience."
Martha Baker on the great pools that inform her work:
CUADRA SAN CRISTOBAL By Luis Barragán, 1966-68, Los Clubes, Mexico: "The colors, the simplicity, the cantilevered beam that acts as a water funnel—it was so ahead of its time."
HADRIAN'S VILLA Circa A.D. 125-134, Tivoli, Italy: "The arches and walkways create a strong architectural backdrop. It's very grand yet serene."
THE GROVE By David Hicks, ca. 1980, Oxfordshire, England: "Its black-painted lining gives this pool the elegance of a formal reflecting pool."
THE PINK HOUSE By Laurinda Spear and Bernardo Fort-Brescia, 1976-78, Miami Shores, Florida: "This is a narrow residential pool, set along a glass-block wall that expands the sense of space."
THE RALEIGH By L. Murray Dixon, 1940, Miami Beach: "This hotel pool screams Hollywood glamour."