A STAR IS BORN
BETWEEN TWO ICONIC HOMES IN MALIBU, CALIFORNIA—A CLIFF MAY RANCH AND A MIDCENTURY DOUG RUCKER DWELLING— A LANDSCAPE DESIGNER CREATES A GARDEN TO UNITE THE PROPERTY, PUTTING IT ALL ON CENTER STAGE.
ADAM BERNHARD WASN’T TAKING NO FOR AN ANSWER.
After admiring landscape designer Eric Brandon Gomez’s breathtaking work at the Malibu Racquet Club, Bernhard was certain Gomez was the guy for the job. He wanted a special garden to bring together the two unique homes he’d bought on a stretch of beach in Malibu, California—one that serves as his residence, and the other a guesthouse. The only problem was that he couldn’t get Gomez to return his calls.
For his part, Gomez was physically exhausted and mentally burned out. After 10 years of intense landscape work, he was considering turning the page on this chapter of his life. But Bernhard persisted, and once Gomez set foot on the property, he signed on without hesitation. The challenges were indeed significant—a pronounced incline between the homes and a need for plants that could withstand droughts and salt from the nearby ocean—yet the opportunities felt endless. Aside from a few pine trees and a large ficus, which he kept to maintain some maturity in the garden, Gomez was given carte blanche to start fresh. “That is incredibly rare in my world,” he says.
Gomez set out to design a modern California garden that would be the keystone of the compound: “as much social as horticultural” in purpose, he explains. He devised a casual outdoor living room, full of bold plantings and roomy places to gather, and he made the land’s geography work to his advantage. “I like to create a sequence of experiences, and the more slope you have, the more opportunity there is to wander and get lost,” he says. “Slopes let you surprise someone with something unexpected.”
Bernhard joined Gomez on several trips to the San Diego area to handpick plants from individual growers, including ‘Medusa’ aloes from Kevin Coniff. (“I felt like we were buying his children,” recalls Bernhard.) When choosing specimen plants, Gomez looks for “character flaws,” like a twisted stem or crooked trunk. It’s partly aesthetic (“I like personality,” he says), and partly about endurance: “Those plants have survived some sort of imperfect growing condition. They had to twist and turn to get the sun,” he says. “They’re the strongest in the long run.”
Paramount to the project was ensuring amazing views from every angle of both homes. Before sinking a single plant into the ground, Gomez would walk through both homes and look out of every window to visualize the result. In the end, he succeeded: Now, Bernhard finds himself meandering from room to room just to enjoy the views. And while you might think Gomez’s herculean efforts would have just added to his exhaustion, they had the opposite effect. “I’ve never been more fired up to make beautiful gardens,” he says.