Davis Dalbok is dressed in a pale lime-green suit, a lemongrass martini in one hand and gesturing with the other over a corner of this San Rafael, California, garden. “This area is all about stories in green with riots of color,” says Dalbok. He’s guiding his guests for their first look at the garden he recently completed for a dear friend. Dalbok’s description could apply to himself: He’s a passionate plantsman whose worldview embraces the colors of every continent. But here, the story he’s set out to tell is one that is pure California. The setting: a midcentury Joseph Eichler house with the Lucas Valley foothills of Marin County in the background.
The client is an easterner who moved west to pursue her ideal of California living. Her vision wasn’t about beaches or endless sunshine, but rather to own one of the 1,100-plus modernist homes built by Eichler from 1949 until his death in 1974. “I wanted to live in the garden at every moment,” she says, referring to the architect’s signature seamless indoor-outdoor designs.
Says Dalbok, “My aim was to provide her an infrastructure of hardscaping and plants that would sustain that look, but also be exciting.” With a limited budget, it took Dalbok and the client two years to go from clods of dirt to cocktails and dishing with friends. Tonight they share the garden with friends for the first time.
As guests begin arriving at the home this August evening, the first thing they notice is the harmony of the lines between the Eichler roofline and the fence around the front courtyard — all Dalbok — that retains the modern vernacular of the architecture. “I’m a firm believer in not losing the front yard — valuable real estate here in California — to the street.” To that end, he planned an enclosed courtyard that extends nearly to the street to give the client another private living space. “The milky Plexiglas used for the fence gave us that retro look. But what I really like about the material is that when the light is changing and the interesting leaf patterns are cast against it, it acts like a scrim.”
Dalbok and his client greet their guests from the front courtyard, where a ceramic mural-top table by Edith Heath — the midcentury ceramics maven whose Sausalito studio posthumously produces her legacy of tableware and tiles — takes center stage. The homeowner bought this, and one other mural that hangs on a fence in the rear garden, before she’d even found her Eichler house. “I knew they were key elements,” she says. “Plus, my mother is an avid gardener and a ceramicist, and she encouraged me to come out here.” Dalbok’s exquisite tabletop décor of Chinese bonsai planters from his San Francisco showroom Living Green with succulents mixed in with brightly colored minerals and glass are arranged in containers chosen to reflect the colors in the mural, as are the table bases he selected: Chinese-made chocolate-gold colored terra-cotta glazed pots.
With drinks in hand, the party moves to the side garden at the rear of the house — an L-shaped terrace in black-gray slate imported from Africa that wraps around Eichler’s glass walls. “The first thing I said to my client was, ‘Let’s create a really big terrace that feels like an extended room off the house,’” Dalbok explains as the waiter approaches with the first of three rounds of small plates. “I didn’t want the patio to be too multicolored. This slate comes with some variation, but ultimately it provides a really nice background to set off the furniture, the plants and whoever is on the patio.”
Well said, considering the artfully designed food coming out of the kitchen on black and orange lacquer trays from the San Francisco catering company, Taste Catering & Event Planning. The company’s credo is fresh, local and sustainable — and of course, delicious. First out is a chilled lobster with creamy mozzarella-like burrata cheese (a current darling of the Bay Area food scene) and tomatoes from Baia Nicchia Farms. Dalbok explains how his relationship with Taste goes back 30 years, when he first moved to the Bay Area and worked with Taste founder Timothy Maxson as an event designer. “I wanted to get creative with the food display, and I knew that Taste would be ready to play.”
As the party gets into its groove, guests settle into a low modular sofa where they rest glasses and plates on the ceramic-top table. Says Dalbok: “I wanted unique and edgy furniture that would reflect the look of the property and the garden — and be comfortable. The choices reinforce the color story in the garden: There’s a lot of orange. And elements like the teak in the arms of the chaise longue carry over to the teak dining table.”
Upstage from the dining table — reserved for the evening’s final act, dessert — is the other major design component. The slope directly off the back of the terrace combines herbaceous perennials and drought-tolerant plants like the agaves and aloes. “That curvilicious bed acts as a counterpoint to the straight-line design of the patio,” Dalbok says, attributing its shape to the ethos of Brazilian landscape-design legend Roberto Burle Marx.
When reviewing his plant palette, Dalbok explains that he didn’t want to stick to one look from one region. “I wanted it to be diverse and to use the kinds of plants I felt like using. It could feel Asian in some areas (pointing to the varieties of Japanese maples) and Southwestern in others (as he waves across the many succulents).” He used grasses to unify the components. “I turned to John Greenlee, the original grass man of California, as an adviser to the project. I knew he would be able to suggest varieties that would create the effect I was after.” For instance, the No Mow fescue. “I love the way it lies down and is shiny and creates a lush limey interspace, so you don’t see any dirt. It also reminds me of the seagrass you see between the corals.”
As the party progresses, the guests move from the side garden, where the appetizers were served, to the rear of the L-shaped patio as executive pastry chef Yigit Pura begins crafting his artisanal spread on the dining table. He and Dalbok created a tableau of Café Brulot dark chocolate truffles interspersed with lime-green moss and various succulents on a contemporary mango wood sculpture by Dutch artist Carola Vooges. Pointing to the round tray, Dalbok comments: “I love concentric design. That’s why I love palms and bromeliads.”
To fight the Northern California evening chill, Dalbok asks the caterers to brew some tea, and he delights in serving it himself in jewel-toned glasses from a teapot he’s just brought home from Marrakesh. (“It’s the teapot I’ve been looking for all my life.”) His image is reflected in a massive mirror he’s hung on the fence to create the playful illusion of an entry to another part of the garden.
In this moment, his friends seated cozily in the oversize orange chairs and Dalbok playing host, it’s impossible not to think just how good everyone and everything looks in this garden — just as he intended.
Click here for a lemongrass martini recipe served at the party.