When Mark and Rachel Jaffe first saw the work of New Orleans architect Nathan Fell, founder and principal of Nathan Fell Architecture, in a 2020 article in this magazine titled “Inside Out,” they knew he was the perfect person to help with their backyard redesign. “We were drawn to his use of color and his unique designs,” Rachel says. “We reached out to him immediately and felt that he [understood] our insane vision. It was a great gut decision.”
That vision included a complete overhaul to the couple’s back yard. The Jaffes bought their 2,900-square-foot Old Metairie home — consisting of four bedrooms and three bathrooms — in 2005 and moved in just 10 days before Hurricane Katrina. The house was designed by architect Ladd Ehlinger and built in 1972. “The overall design is a ‘70s vibe mixed with contemporary — and definitely quirky,” Rachel says. “Our home reflects our personalities because it is colorful, unusual, loud and unapologetic. We love that our house is weird, but welcoming and comfortable.”
Rachel, who grew up in New Orleans, met her husband in his hometown of Tucson, Arizona, and they eventually moved to New Orleans as a couple in 2001. They have two grown sons, Leo and Eli, and Mark works as a lawyer, while Rachel works as a personal trainer and an IFBB professional bodybuilder in the Women’s Physique Division.
When the pandemic lockdown began, Rachel and Mark realized the space in their back yard — complete with a dilapidated pool — was a missed opportunity. They wanted to spend more time outside, and, as avid fitness enthusiasts, they also wanted to add a home gym, as well as space for lounging, dining and cooking.
They enlisted the help of Fell, who designed an indoor/outdoor cabana that incorporates all of these uses in one structure (plus a bathroom and outdoor shower) by extending the roof from the enclosed gym to an open lounge space. “The gym was our top priority as our whole family is active, and it allowed me to train for my competitions at home,” Rachel says. “The surrounding spaces were all decided around the gym. It has exceeded my wildest dreams. Nathan accomplished that and more with his creative design and willingness to incorporate bold colors.”
The Jaffes embrace color, and they wanted as much of it as possible for their backyard — but in a cohesive way. “Color is super important, as it sets the tone for your day,” Rachel says. “Our vision is that when you enter our main house, you are greeted with a beachy, casual vibe with warm Caribbean colors, including ombre blue stairs in our main hall. In the back yard, we wanted a permanent soothing sunset, which is why we selected the sunset hues for the fence. Nathan took the mess of ideas in our brains and made them into a glorious reality.”
Fell began the project in August 2020, starting with the design of a low-slung tropical cabana that is meant to feel cozy rather than overly spacious. “An overly tall cabana would have been the wrong feel for the back yard, considering the size of the backyard area,” he says.
Interesting materials used for the project include tropical wood infill and a visibly defined metal structure. “The metal structure was made noticeable to allow for an infill that juxtaposes natural materials with artificial materials, bold colors, graphic wallpaper and astro-turf,” Fell says.
The colors, however, were the last step in the design process. “It’s great that color is the first thing that is noticed about the space,” Fell says. “It’s practically inevitable because the colors are so bold, but it wouldn’t work if the colors weren’t framed properly with other aesthetics and if practical considerations weren’t developed initially.”
When it came time to develop the color scheme, Fell and the Jaffe’s decided to take an evocative, nostalgic route. They drew upon late 1970s and early 1980s graphics, particular those found on T-shirts, and in public pools and parks. “Each board of the perimeter fence was painted a separate color — as a stratum — and as an abstraction of a sunset, like an Ocean Pacific T-shirt from 1982,” Fell says. “We even had stencil figures of flamingos and palm trees in one version. But the concept to use the fence in a graphic way to make the backyard feel more room-like was a concept that was developed well before the colors.”
While Fell ran into some design challenges, such as increasing material costs and delivery delays, he says it was also difficult to find the right contractor to refinish the pool. “It was a particular headache because so many people who ever thought about building a pool decided to do it in 2020,” he says. Luckily, he and the Jaffes found Doug King, owner of DPK Pools, to tackle that part of the project. Meanwhile, Franklin Santos of Team Elite Construction built the gym and cabana that Fell designed.
Overall, Fell says that the project turned out so well because his core values and those of the Jaffes aligned. “Projects are a lot more successful when both the architect and the owners listen to each other, which was the case on this project,” he says.
The lines between interior and exterior space are blurred thanks to thoughtful design by Nathan Fell of Nathan Fell Architecture. Doug King, owner of DPK Pools, refinished the pool, which was previously in a state of disrepair. The Jaffes sourced the Ballo Oval Dining Table from Article and the stacking patio dining armchairs from AllModern. The Perch outdoor sofa and ottoman from Blu Dot provide a comfortable place to sit while watching movies via the projector (mounted on the ceiling). The view from the outdoor dining includes the newly added gym, which includes equipment from Fitness Expo in Metairie. This brightly colored bathroom includes Sid sconces from Sazerac Stitches, wallpaper from Burke Decor, a bath vanity from Wayfair and a swivel mirror from West Elm. The sunset motif for the pool area is based on graphics from the late 1970s and early 1980s.