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Backyard drama: drawing on the elements for flair

Located within the gates of Seacliff in Huntington Beach, Zeina and Elias Assaf’s home is unassuming from the front. But step through the side gate just before sunset and it’s like stepping into the pages of a great travel novel. The story evoked here is one of mystery and adventure, told through the creative mind of Jesse Escalera, the designer behind much exterior magic.

This outdoor space is as eccentric as the man who invented it: A onetime handyman turned landscape artist, Escalera is a featured designer on HGTV’s “Flip or Flop.” Before Escalera, a putting green occupied an area of the Assaf’s backyard that is now, literally, on fire. “I’m all about using elements like fire in a way that no one has ever seen before,” Escalera says. His design motto? “Trust me.”

The Assafs did. The family entrusted Escalera with the task of turning their approximately 6,300-square-foot backyard into an oasis that combines fire and water elements in surprising, dramatic ways. Each detail works together to create a cohesive yet complex environment.

A floating fire pit, made possible by a steel skeleton anchored into the ground, hovers above the floor between two white couches formed by a “shotcrete” technique, in which concrete mixed with fibers is sprayed through a hose. It’s not only a striking conversational piece, but it radiates heat more thoroughly than a traditional fire pit. The iron frame of the pit continues through the floor like the aisle of a church leading to an altar, which, in this case, is a 10-step waterfall made of raw iron with a patinaed, steel finish. The sound of rushing water is meant to lull everyone in its midst into a deep sense of relaxation. Escalera says he added many layers and levels to this section of the yard to create a sense of opulence and luxury.

Adjacent to the fall, more fire creeps up two glass cylinders encaged by open, geometrically patterned pillars that hold up the patio cover. They give a romantic glow to the bar area as well as additional lighting. A singular cut of polished onyx, with swirls of jade, sand and chestnut throughout, is the bar top. It sits on a concrete base studded with rows of empty, emerald champagne bottles. Three LED lights illuminate each bottle, drawing even more attention to this abstract, but exquisite and unconventional detail. Behind the bar, handmade cabinets open up on either side of a flat-screen TV.

Escalera says he wanted every “around the corner” to be a new destination, with an eclectic mix of textures and colors just waiting to be experienced. Around the corner from the bar area is a swimming pool lined with volcanic rock, a barbecue and an additional fire pit. The blue and gold of the backyard flames are reflected in the palette of the cushions and throw pillows on the couches. Hues of lapis and mustard complement the white exterior walls of the house and the mahogany flooring. It’s beachy with a hint of Moroccan flair. A towering triangle palm that occupies one corner of the yard heightens this aesthetic. Several smaller fishtail palms and a trumpet vine climbing across the wooden beams above the couches also add to the exotic Mediterranean theme.

This is not the first backyard Escalera has designed for the Assaf family. They met him through a friend in the network of homeowners for whom Escalera has designed in Orange County and quickly formed a working relationship and friendship. The Assafs have been entertaining guests in this backyard for almost two and a half years, and they say they love the multitude of impressed reactions from visitors.

“It makes you happy when you’re sitting in an environment that makes you feel comfortable,” Elias Assaf says. He and his wife seize every opportunity to enjoy a glass of wine on their patio with good friends. And if they’re not entertaining, their three children are. “It’s a space we can all maximize and enjoy,” Assaf adds.

Not only is this a backyard designed for entertaining guests, it’s a backyard for entertaining the senses and the imagination. The human imagination is what Escalera’s eye has aimed to please in this design. His play on contradictions creates something refreshingly original about the space: It is hot but cold, artistic but accessible. It’s chic and confident, never gaudy or arrogant, and is still in the process of being finished. With Escalera constantly dreaming up new concepts, the Assafs can anticipate even more exterior magic to continue their backyard’s narrative.


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